The plains of South Africa’s interior plateau between the Vaal and Orange Rivers form the Free State Province.This tranquil land of the ever-present windmill is the geographic and agricultural centre of South Africa. Of all the provinces, this one presents the classic scene of the sunny veld, the high-lying, spacious grass-covered prairie land with deep-blue African skies, majestic cloud formations in summer and a skyline broken by the occasional flat-topped koppie (hill-like mountain).The Free State is fast becoming a tourist destination in its own right. Famous for its warm South African hospitality, `boerekos’ (traditional Afrikaner farm-style cuisine) and decidedly slower-paced lifestyle, this province has become a mecca for holiday-makers intent on exploring small-town South Africa.Known, locally, as South Africa’s ‘bread basket’, the Free State is cultivated by more than 30 000 farms to produce over 70% of South Africa’s grain consumption. It is also home to the most productive gold and diamond mines in the world.The Free State lies in the heart of South Africa, with the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho nestling in the hollow of its bean-like shape. Between the Vaal River, in the north, and the Orange River, in the south, this immense rolling prairie stretches as far as the eye can see.
Formerly known as the Orange Free State, this province has had its share of battles – most importantly, perhaps, the Anglo Boer War. This was the last full-scale war to be fought on South African soil and was not only a turning point in the history of the modern wars of our time, but also the last of the gentlemen’s wars. The Free State is the third-largest province in South Africa. However, it has the second-smallest population and the second-lowest population density, housing some 2,8 million people on about 129 480 km2 of land. Many of the towns display a mix of culture clearly evident in street names, public buildings, monuments and museums. Dressed sandstone buildings abound on the Eastern Highlands, while beautifully decorated Sotho houses dot the grasslands. Some of South Africa’s most valued San (Bushman) rock art is found in the Free State.This summer-rainfall region is warm and temperate in the summer but can be relatively cold during the winter months, especially towards the eastern mountainous regions where temperatures can drop as low as 9ºC.
The western and southern areas are semi-desert.Farm near BethlehemThe southern Free State shares the true Karoo semi-desert and its barren landscapes, while the north is blessed by the liquid gold of the Vaal River. The western Free State traverses savannah and substantial mineral wealth, whilst the Eastern highlands offer a wealth of scenic splendour. The province’s capital, Bloemfontein, has a well-established institutional, educational and administrative infrastructure, and houses the Supreme Court of Appeal. The province has a well-known university and many other training institutions. The Free State Province boasts an extensive system of parks and reserves, including one national park (Golden Gate) and more than 80 provincial, municipal, and privately owned nature parks, nature reserves, game reserves, and game farms. Activities include bird and game viewing, trophy and biltong hunting, hiking, horse-riding, biking, 4×4 off-road driving, camping and climbing. The Free State has much to offer the tourist in search of insight and adventure. As a result, various tourist routes have been suitably packaged to meet the needs of the on-the-road traveller.
The Maluti Route follows the scenic Highlands of the Free State and over the border (passport essential) into the magnificent Maluti Mountains of Lesotho and ends at the Seekoelvlei Nature Reserve. The Goldfields Route follows the fascinating history of the many gold mines of the Lejweleputswa area. Bloemfontein, Botshabelo and Thaba Nchu are in close geographical relationship to each other and, yet, have an extreme diverse cultural and political heritage. This route offers the true indigenous heartland of the province.The Diamond & Wine Route follow the route of the diamond prospectors of the past and present. A man-made diamond hole at Jagersfonteing of 760m beats the better known Big Hole of Kimberley for size. Also visit the wine cellars of Landzicht and Wilreza in the scenic Jacobsdal area. Take the N6 highway to either exit or enter the Free State from the south.
This route goes through quaint Xhariep and Eastern Cape towns and on to East London, the Wild Coast and Garden Route. Steam train enthusiasts can take a trip down memory lane, along the historic Bethlehem-Bloemfontein Railroad to destinations such as Maseru and Ladybrand. Excursions are relatively short, allowing passengers to enjoy the scenery and facilities along the route. The Battlefield Route contains many historic sites related to the Anglo-Boer War, including 13 battlefield sites, 8 military monuments, 2 war museums and 3 war and concentration camp cemeteries. The Golden Gate Highlands National Park An area of highveld and montane grassland, covering 12 000 hectares is well-stocked with eland, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, blesbok and zebra. This is one of the few places in the country where one stands a good chance of seeing the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture.
The beautiful town of Clarens lies just west of the Maluti mountain range and is the perfect country retreat. Known as the `jewel of the Free State’, Clarens is very popular with the artistic community. Clarens can be found on the way to Golden Gate – where the famous ochre and gold sandstone outcrops offer up some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The Free State has rich deposits of fossils, and visitors to Clarens area can go on fossil-hunting expeditions. You may be lucky to find dinosaur bones, dinosaur eggs or dinosaur teeth; you’ll almost certainly find the fossils of smaller creatures dating back to well over 200 millions years.Throughout the Maluti mountains, one can find caves and cracks where the San people took shelter in a not-quite-so-distant past. Countless examples of historic rock-art are to be seen at Spitskop (Brandfort district), Sterkstroom (between Rouxville and Aliwal North), Stowlands (near Christiana), Tandjesberg (close to Clarens and Golden Gate), Sterkstroom (between Rouxville and Aliwal North) and at Stowlands (near Christiana).The Free State has three major watersports venues: the Vaal River (northern Free State); Gariep Dam (the largest dam in the country) and Sterkfontein Dam (near Harrismith). Activities such as fishing, camping, and watersports can be arranged on request.