Golden Gate Highlands National Park

About 200 miles (320 km) south of Johannesburg, with scenery that will take your breath away, is the Golden Gate Highland National Park.

Near the border with Lesotho, in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, this Park is well known for its extraordinary landscape of golden, ochre and orange sandstone cliffs and towers. The sandstone turns magnificent shades of gold when the sun bathes them in early morning or later afternoon light. The area also has numerous caves once used by the San people and some still have the rock paintings made by these people over 3000 years ago.

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park was established in 1963 with just 11,480 acres (47.92 km²) of land. Through several enlargements and finally an amalgamation in 2007 with the QwaQwa National Park, it now encompasses 130 sq. miles, 84,000 acres or 340 km² of land.  It is the only grassland national park in South Africa.

Although the land was a swampy delta millions of years ago, wind, rain and sand scoured the cliffs. Volcanic activity covered the land with Drakensberg basalt, giving us the cape vulturegrasslands with the multitude of species ecosystem we see today.

With some 60 different types of grasses, the highveld supports many mammals, such as zebras, mongoose and eland as well as other herd animals – the Reedbuck, the Grey Rhebok, the Oribi and the Red Haartebeest the Kudu.

It also is home to an incredible array of bird life, including the Cape Vulture, the rare Bearded Vulture, the Jackal Buzzard, the Black Stork, Bald Ibis, the Peregrine Falcon, the Verreaux’s (Black) Eagle, the Martial Eagle and the Rock Kestrel. Visitors to the Park can often see buffalo and white rhino roaming the grasslands.

Not only will you see the birds and animals of this incredible land, but you can also go into the caves that have served as homes for the long-gone San people, (these are the people who made the wonderful rock paintings).  Cathedral Cave, the largest of the caves can be explored on guided tours. This particular cavern was used by the Basotho people during their religious ceremonies and for shelter by the refugees of the Anglo-Boer War, between 1898-1902.

Interesting fact: The oldest fossilized dinosaur eggs (Triassic period) were found in this area in 1973.

Relaxing breaks are available at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp in their rondawels or farmhouse. Or, if rustic living is more your style, why not stay at one of the Highlands Mountain Retreat’s log cottages? And, then there is the Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp where you can get acquainted with the culture of the Basotho people and enjoy splendid views in comfortable self-catering accommodation.

For a more indulgent place to stay, the legendary Brandwag Hotel offers newly renovated rooms, as well as self-catering units. A range of facilities are on offer – hiking, lookout points, game trails, tennis, bowls, table tennis, environmental courses, conference facilities plus a coffee shop, restaurant and bar, and curio shop.

Visitors can engage in some excellent fishing, take drives through the countryside along the Highlands Route, enjoying the brandwag buttressspectacular scenery, the beautifully painted Sotho houses and the windmills.

For those who want more energetic activities, why not hike up to the park’s highest point, the Ribokkop or climb the Brandwag Buttress, probably the most recognised feature in the Golden Gate National Park? You could also go for nature trail hikes that range from 1-5 hours or hike along the Rhebok Hiking Trail and spend the night in the wilderness on the 2-day/1-night trek. Or, go mountain biking, horseback riding, swimming or take a game viewing drive in your own car.

A must-see is the “Vulture Restaurant”.  South Africa now has over 250 vulture restaurants, places where local farmers can take the bodies of dead animals with a view to helping the vultures survive.

In short, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a fantastic place to get away from your normal life, breathe fresh mountain air and see breathtaking, majestic scenery. The roads are good and the parking spots offer great places from which to take photos and/or have a picnic.

As one person who visited recently said, “This is the gem of the Eastern Free State and must not be missed!