Stresses of the city are left behind when one passes through the gates into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Situated in the north-eastern Free State near the Lesotho border, the park is about 350km from Joburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, making it an ideal destination for a weekend away.
The pristine natural beauty and golden shimmer of the endless grasslands calm the spirit and recharge the soul.
Drinks at the Golden Gate Hotel, a late-afternoon game drive or a stroll through the grasslands help to let go of the stresses of daily life.
Nestled in the Maluti Mountains, the park derived its name from the golden glow of the sandstone cliffs when the sun shines on them.
Of the country’s 22 national parks, Golden Gate is the only one best known for its diverse grass species.
Home to more than 60 species of grass, it was proclaimed a national park in 1963 to preserve this grassland biome.
The park boasts antelope such as the majestic eland, black wildebeest, springbok, Blesbok and the Oribi.
Bird watchers also have a lot to look at.
The endangered Cape vulture is any bird lover’s dream and the “vulture restaurant” brings visitors up close and personal with these scavengers when they are fed carcasses from local farms and butcheries.
Because there are no life-threatening predators in the park, it is a hiker’s paradise. There are eight hiking trails, ranging from easy walks of an hour, to more difficult routes of up to five hours.
The Holkrans hiking trail takes visitors into the sandstone cliffs with its caves and crevices and offers hikers a view of the Brandwag Buttress, the iconic sandstone rock overlooking the hotel.
For a more challenging hike, one can ascend to the peak of the Buttress and see as far as Harrismith, approximately 50km away.
For the more adventurous, horseback riding, abseiling and canoeing get the adrenalin pumping.
All this can be done in the park and certified guides assist beginners.
Abseiling is done from a height of nine to 28m.
Apart from the natural wonders, the park is also of historical significance. It is the site where the first fossilised Triassic dinosaur eggs were found in 1973.
For a cultural experience, the Basotho Cultural Village takes visitors on a 45-minute journey through the lives of the Basotho people from the early 1600s.
The village is an interactive and re-enacts life in a Basotho village.
One is immersed in the culture of the Basotho people by tasting traditional sorghum beer, eating powdered maize and maize porridge and listening to music.
A traditional healer throws bones and takes visitors on a herbal trail, explaining the medicinal plants of the area.
As the tour moves through the village, the architecture of the buildings and lifestyles of the people change to a more Westernised style.
Small one-room huts with fireplaces and grass mats for beds turn into brightly painted rectangular homes with coal stoves, gas refrigerators and separate bedrooms.
The park provides for all income groups in terms of accommodation.
Options range from camp sites to romantic mountain retreats and the recently revamped full-service, three-star Golden Gate Hotel.
The park is beautiful year-round with 11 600 hectares of vibrant green mountains in summer, glowing golden grasslands in spring and snow-covered hills during the winter months.
One leaves after a weekend of enjoying the beauty of the Free State feeling rejuvenated and recharged with golden memories of the visit.
New rules for bookings in 2013
Revised terms and conditions for SANParks bookings and deposit payments come into effect in the new year.
These encourage full payment in advance to eliminate no-shows.
The new rules state that the first deposit payable 30 days after a booking is made will now be 50 percent (up from 33 percent). The balance must be paid 60 days before arrival. Web and online bookings will not be affected as they require full payment upfront. This will minimise last-minute cancellations, especially by the public and travel trade, that leave SANParks with less time and opportunity to sell unused accommodation, it said.
The new rules do not affect old bookings already in the system unless a new arrival date is requested by the client.
Ten things to do in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park:
l The Brandwag Buttress hike takes you to the top of the rock where you can see as far as Harrismith on a clear day.
l The Basotho Cultural Village immerses you in the lifestyles of the Basotho people through the ages.
l Horseback riding through the park offers an alternative to driving through the park.
l Abseiling satisfies the more adventurous visitors. There are two options, a 9m climb and, for the more advanced abseilers, a 28m climb.
l Swimming in the natural rock pool in the hills behind the Van Reenen camp.
l Visiting the Van Reenen graveyard, for owners of the farm in the 19th century, who named it Golden Gate.
l Canoeing in the Gladstone dam.
l Reebok hiking trail that takes hikers on a two-day, 28m hike with overnight accommodation in a hut with a donkey shower and a coal stove.
l Game drives in the park without the need for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
l Vulture restaurant where vultures are fed while visitors look on from a safe distance.
l For more information or reservations visit www.sanparks.org. - Pretoria News