Although this article, Free State Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in the Free State, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Slightly larger than the Western Cape, and about the same size as Nicaragua, the Free State lies between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south, and has a surface area of 129 825 sq/ kms, taking up 10.6% of the country’s total surface area. Its population of 2.75 million, which is only 5.3% of the total population of the country, gives it a comfortable population density of 21 people per km2.
Bordering on the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, North-West, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and sharing a border with Lesotho, the largest part of the Free State consists of a vast undulating grassy plain at an elevation of between 1000m and 1500m that is broken only by occasional, isolated koppies, and that gradually transitions into typical Karroo landscapes towards the southwestern parts.
Towards the east, and northeast, the province consists of hilly terrain that rather abruptly transitions into the mountainous terrain of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountain ranges, while in the far north, several important wetlands are situated in rugged, hilly terrain.
Falling in the summer rainfall region the Free State experiences warm, to hot summers with average temperatures of 230 C in all parts except the far eastern parts, where average summer temperatures are a few degrees cooler. By Southern African standards, winters can be severe, with average temperatures of 70 C and heavy frosts, but lows of down to -90 C and even lower are common. Although the eastern mountains frequently receive heavy snowfalls, snow over the rest of the province is relatively rare. The western and southern areas, which are semi-desert, are generally drier and hotter than the rest of the province often experience summer temperatures in excess of 300 C.
Rainfall varies between 600mm and 750mm in the eastern regions, to less than 300mm in the west, and even less in the far southwestern reaches, which are subject to severe cyclical droughts.
Best times to visit the Free State have much to do with the area being visited: many visitors regard the eastern mountainous region to be best seen in autumn, but this area is spectacularly beautiful right through the year. However, the flat western plains are best seen in spring and early summer; when the entire region is carpeted by growing grain crops, while the south western region is best avoided during December, January, and February, when temperatures can rise to uncomfortable levels.
From a scenic perspective, the Free State has much to offer the off-road traveler; from the stun-ningly beautiful mountains in the east, to the carpet of grain crops spread over the landscape by more than 30 000 farms, to dramatic, close-packed hills and koppies in the southwest that are strongly reminiscent of the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal, especially after a period of good rain fall. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the billions of white and pink cos-mos flowers along the roads in the otherwise drab western region after the crops had been harvested, is a remarkable sight, and certainly a highlight of the Free State scenery.
As a study in contrasts, especially with the arid southwestern parts of the province, the far northern parts around the town of Memel, which is surrounded by lush, green wetlands (RAMSAR No. 888), is a must-see destination for all Free State off-road tourists. The wet highland grass veld and Afro-alpine vegetation of this extremely scenic area is punctuated by mountain backdrops, vast shallow pans, and more than 450 recorded bird species, of which more than a hundred are endemic to southern Africa.
The rolling hills, wide verdant plains, spectacular mountains, and 340 days of sunshine every year is the perfect destination for off-road tourism, in fact, the Free State Free off-road traveler can experience different aspects of the splendour of the Free State’s weathered, and spectacular scenery in all of its more than 80 National Parks, Reserves and privately owned conservation areas. From the richly diverse plant life that flourishes in the northeastern mountains, to the savannah of the west, to the imposing sandstone formations in the east, and the waving grasslands of the great central plain, the Free State has a park that displays it all. Below are a few examples of the most scenic of the parks that await the Free State off-road traveler.
The Golden Gate National Park
Deriving its name from the remarkable sight of sunlight transforming the spectacular sandstone formations of the area into an artist’s palette with deep tones of orange, red, and old gold, especially on the imposing Brandwag, a rock sentinel that seemingly keeps a silent vigil over the rest camp below it. Home to game species such as black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell’s zebra, as well as rare bird species like the bald eagle and the bald Ibis, this altogether remarkable park is further transformed in to a wonderland during autumn when the poplars turn golden- as if in response the display of colour of the rock. Although autumn is the best season to see this park, it is well worth a visit any time of the year.
The Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve
Almost bordering on the small town of Memel in the far north, Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is an important habitat for more than 25% of the Free States’s endangered bird species, including the Blue Crane, and the critically endangered Wattled Crane. The reserve is comprised of an extended floodplain ecosystem, which is drained by the Klip River. The reserve also has a number of smaller seasonally flooded oxbow lakes.
The Sandveld Nature Reserve
This reserve is best described as the nearest thing to the Kalahari without actually being in the Kalahari, and is a major bird watching spot, with nearly 300 species in residence. The thousands of camel thorn trees, Karoo scrub interspersed with typical acacia-punctuated savannah, and sandy soil in this 37 000 ha reserve that also contains a large dam, is one of the best-kept secrets in the Free State, and is rarely crowded by visitors.
Most travelers on the N1/N3 route cannot wait to get out of the Free State, considering the long stretches of straight road to be boring beyond endurance. However, from an off-road tourism perspective, the Free State has as much to offer in the scenic department as any other province, or area in South Africa. From dry, arid Karoo and Kalahari landscapes, to stunning mountain scenes, to forested wetlands, and picture-postcard-pretty pastoral farm scenes; the Free State has it all.
The Sandstone Route
No other sandstone in the world compares to colour of Clarens sandstone, and it is on this route that comprises almost the entire eastern part of the province, that you will find the most spectacular sandstone formations to be seen anywhere, such as the iconic Sentinel, a rock outcrop that glows deep orange/red at sunset. Amongst other, equally scenic places, the Sandstone Route winds through the Golden Gate National Park, possibly most scenic of all the parks in South Africa. This route is stunning all the year through, although it is during autumn as the Lombardy poplars turn deep golden, that the entire region, which borders on the Lesotho border, is most magnificent.
Free State birding route
Perhaps not a scenic route/drive per se, the Birding Route takes in all of the major bird watching spots in the province, which just happen to be in the some of the most beautiful and scenic parts of the province. From the stunning eastern mountains, to the wetlands of the north, right down to the dry Karroo areas. Another great feature of this route is that it can be tailored to suit available time and budgets, but the Free State has 450 bird species, so what you do not see this time, you can see next time in another, equally scenic area.
Formed around 2000 million years ago when a 10 kilometre-wide asteroid hit the earth near where Vredefort is today, this is the site of the oldest and largest meteorite impact site in the world, and the mechanism by which gold was brought close enough to the surface to be mined. Guided tours are available, and fragments of the original meteorite are displayed in a museum.
Free State National Botanical Garden
The Free State National Botanical Garden houses 400 species of plants, an orange blossom ar-bour, and the 150 million-year-old petrified remains of a tree that lived on the site, and on which some of the fossilized dinosaurs in the area may have browsed. The garden also hosts 124 bird and 54 reptile species.
For the morbidly minded, the small town of Fauresmith boasts the graves of three murderers that were publicly executed between 1868, and 1870, less than a kilometre from the present day town centre, and to which the public was cordially invited, as if to a popular social event.
Jagersfontein Big Hole Open Mine
With a top surface of 19.65 ha, Jagersfontein hosts the biggest man-dug hole in the world, from which eight of the world’s top 24 most valuable diamonds were mined, but the town is better known for the fact that it has five Sir Herbert Baker (architect of the Union Buildings) designed commercial buildings, more than any other town in South Africa.
River Rafting in Clarens
Clarence is one of few places where white water rafting is not dependent on rainfall, and where exhilarating grade 3 and 4 rafting is available all year round on the Ash River, which is fed by water from the Katse Dam in Lesotho.
Some of the richest fossil beds in the world fall in the Free State, and in the Clarens area you can go on guided fossil hunting expeditions, during which you may achieve international recognition for finding a previously unknown dinosaur species. Failing that, there are thousands of dinosaur teeth, eggs, and bones just waiting to be found.
Philippolis Old Jail
Escape the rat race by spending a few restful nights in an authentic jail. In this jail, you can lock yourself into a cell that has thick, soundproof stone-built walls, and a wood-and-steel door that is held together by more than a hundred bolts. In the mornings you can let yourself out, go on a long hike through Karroo veld, before preparing your own breakfast in a fully equipped kitchen.
Game viewing in Franklin Game Reserve
While there are plenty of game viewing opportunities in the Free State, only Bloemfontein offers you the chance to do it in a 250 ha reserve virtually in the city centre and at no charge too! Game species include zebra, blesbok, springbok, giraffe, and eland.
Despite the fact that the north-eastern parts of the Free State are rugged and mountainous, the Free State has only 5 mountain passes, of which only one can be regarded as challenging. However, from the perspective of the average Free State off-road tourist, the small number of passes is amply compensated for by the scenic beauty of all the passes in this province. One pass is even closely linked to a conventional 4×4 trail that can be accessed from one end of the pass.
Old Mill Drift
This 28.6km long, gravel pass links Fouriesburg and Clarens and is only suitable for experienced off-road drivers with proper 4WD vehicles fitted with low range, and having good ground clear-ance. Some sections in this pass have gradients as steep as 1:4, however, this pass may be closed from time to time, and so, making advance enquiries is advised.
This rather obscure tarred pass links Excelsior and Clocolan through striking mountain scenery at an average gradient of 1:28, although some sections get as steep as 1:8. The total vertical altitude gain is 160 metres over a distance of 8.3 kms. The northern end of the pass offers access to a regular 4×4 trail by means of a rough gravel road.
While this 3.4 km long tarred pass on the eastern border of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, can in no way be described as being challenging, its ethereal scenic beauty derives from the prolific lichen growths on the steep rock faces of the St. Pierre Mountain through which it winds.
Linking the Free State town of Memel with Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, this tarred pass has only a moderate gradient 1:21, with an altitude gain of 245 meters over 5.1kms. The mountain scenery is dramatic, rather than stunning, but the overall effect is spoilt by frequent potholes that require more attention than the scenery.
Due to the prominent role the Free State played in the Anglo-Boer Wars, there is hardly a town in this province that does not lay claim to be at, or near, the site of historically significant events. Many of the small towns in this province have a Boer War Museum, or failing that, a war cemetery, but what they have they most of, is picture-postcard-pretty scenic surrounds. Sandstone churches, town halls, private houses, and public buildings abound in the Free State, but the feature that perhaps best defines the typical Free State country town is the church steeple that is visible for miles around, and usually long before the town itself comes into view.
Located halfway between Harrismith and Bethlehem, Kestell boasts a rich cultural history, and stunningly beautiful landscapes, with the Maluti and Rooiberge Mountain ranges for a backdrop. Most, if not all, of the sandstone buildings in the surrounding area were constructed with sandstone mined from quarries at Kestell.
Located in the north east of the Free State, almost in the lap of the Drakensberg, Memel lies in a spectacularly beautiful and unspoilt area characterised by mountain scenery and water. Memel is also a bird watching paradise, given the extensive wetlands in the area.
Perched precariously on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment near Harrismith and Van Reenen, Swinburne is likely the only town in the whole of South Africa that officially regards its obscurity as a valuable asset. Here, the Free State off-road tourist will find huge Yellowwood forests, verdant grassy plains, and a variable mountain climate with weather that can go through all four seasons in a single day, but which is largely offset by the sight of millions of blooming wild flowers in the meadows during early spring.
Taking up less than 10 sq/ km, Marquard is best known for the excellent condition in which it is maintained: its streets, sidewalks, houses, and public buildings are always clean and in top condition. It is also one of very few towns in South Africa that still has a working mill, and which is housed in a beautiful sandstone building.
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