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Free State

The capital of Free State is Bloemfontein, which also hosts the Supreme Court of Appeal, the highest court in non-constitutional matters. The Constitutional Court has been in Johannesburg since 1994. The UNESCO world heritage site of Vredefort Dome features remnants of the largest and oldest meteorite impact crater.

POINTS OF INTEREST

BLOEMFONTEIN

Situated in the heartland of South Africa, Bloemfontein, capital of the Free State and seat of the province’s parliament, is also the country’s judicial capital. Part of the municipality of Mangaung, it lies at the hub of five major national road routes. An altitude of 4,593 ft means that summers are moderate and winters mild to cool. The city was named after a fountain where early travelers used to stop on their treks through the interior. The city’s history – and that of many of its stately old sandstone buildings – is firmly connected with the Afrikaners’ struggle for independence. In 1854, when Major Henry Warden, the region’s official British representative, was recalled to the Cape, the Afrikaners established a republic, with Bloemfontein as its capital.

GARIEP DAM

In 1779, when Colonel Robert Gordon reached the banks of a watercourse that was known to the Khoina as Gariep, he renamed it the Orange River, in honor of the Dutch Prince of Orange. Little did he know that a dam would be constructed at this point nearly 200 years later. In 1928, Dr. A D Lewis advanced the idea of building a tunnel linking the Orange River to the Eastern Cape. Although a report was presented to the government in 1948, it was only in 1962 that the prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd gave the ambitious project the go-ahead. Work began in 1966, and in Septem ber 1970 the last gap in the wall was closed. The Orange River is South Africa’s largest and longest river, and the Gariep forms the country’s largest body of water. The dam wall rises 297 ft above its foundations and has a crest length of 3,110 ft. At full supply level, it covers an area of 144 sq miles. A corridor of bushveld surrounds the Gariep Dam and is home to a few springbok, blesbok, and black wildebeest. The Forever Resorts Gariep, at the dam wall, offers comfortable chalets, a campsite, and a range of activities such as fishing and boating. There are also tours of the dam wall.

PARYS

Parys is a growing, vibrant town that sits beside the Vaal River just 75 miles south of Johannesburg. It is home to a few impressive buildings, including the 1915 Anglican Church, built from blue-granite blocks. The immediate area is quite beautiful, with its valleys, ravines and cliffs, a covering of lush flora, and many resident plants, animals, and birds. But it’s the adventure-sport options and the art-and-craft outlets lining the main street that draw most of the town’s visitors – particularly Jo’burgers on the weekend. Parys is also handy for visiting Vredefort Dome, an enigmatic area of hills created by the impact of a gigantic meteorite two billion years ago.

VREDEFORT DOME

Vredefort is the oldest and largest meteorite impact site on earth, measuring about 125 miles in diameter. In 2005, the dome, which actually refers to the bowl (or upside-down dome) shape that characterizes the central part of the crater, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, South Africa’s sixth. It’s well worth taking a drive across the site – or better yet, a hike – to experience this unique landscape.

HARRISMITH

Harrismith is a ramshackle, typical country town, with wide streets, picturesque old buildings around a grassy square, and distant Drakensberg views. South Africans refer to it affectionately as ‘the half-way house’ due to its central location between Durban and Bloemfontein, as well as Jo’burg and Durban, right where the N3 and the N5 intersect. Harrismith is also a place to get supplies before exploring the Drakensberg range just inside the border of KwaZulu-Natal.

STERKFONTEIN DAM NATURE RESERVE

Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve is in a beautiful area of the Drakensberg foothills, 14 miles south of Harrismith on the Oliviershoek Pass road into KwaZulu-Natal. Looking out over this expansive dam with its backdrop of rugged peaks feels like gazing across an inland sea. There are many viewpoints, and windsurfing and fishing are popular.

GOLDEN GATE HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK

The jagged sandstone outcrops fronting the foothills of the wild, maroon-hued Maluti Mountains glow golden in the dying light; lemon-yellow rays silhouette a lone kudu standing still in a sea of mint-green grasses before the sky explodes in a fiery collision of purple and red. The park might not boast any of the Big Five, but it does feature fantastic nightly sunsets. There are quite a few animals in the park, though, including grey rheboks, blesboks, elands, oribi antelope, Burchell’s zebras, jackals, baboons, and numerous bird species, including the rare bearded and Cape vultures as well as the endangered bald ibis. The park is popular with hikers on long treks, but there are also shorter walking trails. There are two easy drives close to park headquarters.

CLARENS

The jewel of the Free State, and at over 6,000 feet, its highest town, Clarens is one of those places you stumble upon and find yourself talking about long after you depart. With a backdrop of craggy limestone rocks, verdant green hills, fields of spun gold, and the magnificent Maluti Mountains, Clarens is a picture-perfect village of whitewashed buildings and quiet, shady streets. Its mild climate coupled with excellent opportunities for horse riding and trout fishing make it a bucolic country retreat. It’s also an art destination, with many galleries focusing on quality works by well-known South African artists. Charming guesthouses (ranging from very simple to extraordinarily posh), gourmet restaurants, eclectic cafes, and myriad adventure activities round out the appeal.

BETHLEHEM

The main commercial center of the eastern Free State, Bethlehem perches among rippling fields of grain and is famous for wheat and wool production. The town has a nice, wide-open feel, and its historic sandstone buildings date back to the 1840s when the town was founded by Voortrekkers. Although it remains of little interest to travelers, the buzzing township makes a good spot to lay your head.

FICKSBURG

Ficksburg is a lovely little mountain village on the banks of the Mohokare (Caledon) River that’s home to some fine sandstone buildings; keep an eye out for the town hall and the post office. Nestled into the purple-hued Maluti range, Ficksburg is particularly fetching in winter, when dollops of snow cover the craggy peaks. Mild summers and cold winters make this area perfect for growing asparagus, apples, and stone fruits, and Ficksburg is the center of the Free State’s cherry industry. There’s a Cherry Festival in November, but September and October are the best times to see the trees in full bloom.

LADYBRAND

In a valley surrounded by jagged peaks, 16km from Lesotho’s capital, Ladybrand is an attractive small town loaded with sandstone buildings, dramatic scenery, and ancient history – it is home to more than 300 Bushman rock art sites, along with fossilized dinosaur footprints, though these have not yet become tourist sites. Ladybrand is mainly a handy place to overnight on your way to and from Southern Africa’s mountain kingdom.

PHILIPPOLIS

Founded in 1823 as a mission station, Philippolis, on Rte 717, is a town frozen in time, and the oldest settlement in the Free State. Seventy-five of its buildings have been declared national monuments, including the library, and many places are built in Karoo style, with thick walls to keep the semi-desert heat at bay. Writers, artists, and other luminaries have long congregated in this dusty outpost, which offers a wonderful bookstore, a history museum, several art galleries, and proximity to the world’s best opportunity to view and photograph wild tigers. Weekends are lively, with seemingly the entire town crammed into the historic Hotel Oranjehof bar.