Bloemfontein - When heading from the Cape via the Free State to Gauteng, or taking the long route to KwaZulu-Natal, you are probably one of those who belts it along the N1, eager to get that part of the world behind you as quickly as possible.
You may be at the end of your holiday, or maybe the start, but either way, why not spend a few days meandering the southern Free State? Though you may not come away absolutely enchanted, you could feel the stirrings of an unexpected romance.
For starters, it’s the only province in South Africa where you can see tigers in the wild - and that’s an indescribable thrill.
So, let us start our journey in Philippolis, the oldest town in the Free State, tucked away into the very southwest corner of the province and reached by diverting away from the N1 at Colesberg.
Philippolis is where most visitors to Tiger Canyons (home to the striped cats, who are bred here in an attempt to boost the world population of these critically endangered animals) overnight.
Even if you don’t visit the tiger reserve, Philippolis is steeped in history and quite charming. Many of the houses are typical flat-roofed Karoo style. Others have been embellished. Adam Kok, leader of the Griquas, was born here. So was writer Laurens van der Post, and the memorial garden named after him is tranquil and attractive.
Bookworms might want to pop into Oom Japie se Huis, which houses a gallery and a multitude of books. Emily Hobhouse - who took up the cudgels for women during the Anglo-Boer War - started a weaving school here. Fancy a night in jail, but in some comfort? The former jail has been turned into self-catering accommodation. Or you could opt to stay in one of Starry Nights’ historical cottages.
On leaving the town, take the dirt road heading east to Springfontein. When I last travelled, it was in superb condition, and is a drive which can be mesmerising. Koppies dot the landscape, and it’s not difficult to imagine a time when ox-wagons trundled their way across the land.
Springfontein, too, has connections with Emily Hobhouse, who visited the concentration camp here, to report on the appalling conditions for women and children during the Anglo-Boer War. The war cemetery is unusual in that both Boer kommandos and British soldiers are buried here.
Rather unusually, Springfontein served as a disinfectant spot, around 1900. At that time, male passengers travelling from the Cape into the Orange Free State had to get off the train here for their clothes to be disinfected against plague. If you enjoy history, a good spot to stop over is Prior Grange, where the owner can keep visitors entertained for hours with tales from the past.
Bethulie is another town redolent of a time when life was less hectic. On the less pleasant front, it was also home to one of the largest concentration camps in the country. Here you can drive across the DH Steyn Bridge. With beautiful arches, this combined road/rail bridge, which spans the Orange River just outside the town, is 1 152m long, and 51.5m high, making it the longest bridge in South Africa and, it is claimed, also the longest in the southern hemisphere.
The town’s most famous son was Patrick Mynhardt. Many will fondly remember his one-man shows featuring Herman Charles Bosman’s character Oom Schalk Lourens. The town’s Royal Hotel is famous for its thousands of books, with shelves lining the passages, lounges, and every corner imaginable.
Smithfield also has a charm of its own. Many arty folk have set up residence here, so it’s a good place to browse and chat with the locals. Try a visit to the town’s museum, or the Carmel and Beersheba missionary posts. Fancy a round of golf? The course dates back more than 100 years. If being in the saddle is your idea of bliss, you might enjoy a ride into the surrounding hills; take a hike, or indulge in some bird-watching. Perhaps the thrill of mountain biking on local mountain trails revs your engine.
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