Driving into the gates of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, visitors are greeted by towering sandstone sentinels, standing guard over the waving golden grasses of the plains below. The park, situated in the Free State and butting up against the border with Lesotho, runs through a valley surrounded on both sides by giant, waving cliff faces, painted in hues of yellow, purple, gold and gray by years of erosion and exposure. The landscape is unexpected and breathtaking, and easily one of the most beautiful places I have seen on this earth.
This land has been transformed from a swampy dinosaur home to a desert, where wind and sand sculpted the rock into uniquely shaped cliffs. In the background, volcanic activity forced the ground up forming the Drakensberg range, and created the rich soils which make the park into the verdant grasslands it is today, home to many species of grasses and herds of buck. They were also home to the San people, who left their beautiful artwork painted onto the walls of the hundreds of caves carved into the rock walls.
Our first taste of this dramatic landscape came as we approached the edge of Royal Natal National Park. After driving for 3 straight hours through nothing but farmland, mountains suddenly rose into view on either side of us. We started ascending a winding mountain road, and then parked the car to make the rest of the way on foot. Of course, as soon as we got out of the car, thunderstorms rolled across the whole sky. We shortened our hike to the top of the nearest small peak, but from there were able to see the craggy peaks of the Drakensberg, and a beautiful rainbow hovering over the valley below.
Royal Natal is at the edge of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though the visit was short, I am happy I got to see a glimpse of the glory of the Drakensberg range, and will almost certainly have to make another trip to experience them to the fullest.
We spent the next 2 and half days exploring and enjoying Golden Gate Highlands. The landscape there is incredible. It reminds me of what I imagine the Wild West looked like, and I half expected some cowboys and indians to come riding out from behind the rock formations. We hauled ourselves up the steep sides of a few ridges and buttresses to take in the incredible views of park, and crept as close to the edge of the cliff as our bravery would allow.
The real highlight of the trip came when we decided to forgo trails and set out on our own. We had spotted a big cave around a hidden bend of cliff, and set out an adventure to discover what lay inside it. With our toddler nephew strapped securely in a backpack, we confidently strolled into the waist-high grasses, attempting to follow faint animal trails toward the cave. Along the way, we spotted a herd of zebra, and later passed a magnificent group of Eland, and watched as they ran off through the grasses.
After about two hours of slowly trudging and scrambling, we reached the base of the cave, where a small waterfall trickled off the rock. Pushing through the dense undergrowth, I stumbled upon the skull and spine of a large animal. Later, we found a small cat-like footprint in the mud. We also came across a snake during our hikes. No one can accuse us of not being adventurous.
Finally climbing up into the cool shadow of the cave (really more of a shelter under a cliff face than a cavern), we discovered a cool, shaded area that local animals clearly love. There were footprints and animal deposits everywhere. We had our lunch under the shade of the cliff, and made our way back to the car.
While we did not discover any traces of humans in that cave, there were some on a small rock outcropping right by our hotel. Thousands of years ago a San painter used natural paints to bring to life images of rock dassies, antelopes, hunters, and the sacred Eland. The detail and artistry was amazing, as was the fact that the work had lasted for so long on a bare rock face. It is an incredible feeling to find a human connection with someone who lived so long ago, and whose life was so drastically different to our today.
Two other highlights of our trip were the resort we stayed in, and the nearby town of Clarens. Kiara Resort was nestled right up under the spectacular cliffs, minutes from the park gate. We had our own cottage set in an old farm house, nicely renovated and equipped with everything we needed. Best of all were the activities. There were two playgrounds, trampolines and a bouncing pillow, a pond with paddle boats, mini golf, a restaurant, and an indoor playroom with all kinds of games and toys. It was the perfect place to be with a little guy, and us adults had a great time too. I’d highly recommend this spot for a family hoping to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains.
Nearby Clarens was also a pleasant surprise. It is an adorable little town, with art and craft shops surrounding a tranquil town square. We found a local butchery and bakery to supply our food, and enjoyed a delicious meal and great beers at the Clarens Brewery. If Spencer were ever to retire to South Africa, I am 100% sure he would chose to settle in this place.
I have barely seen a small part of all that South Africa has to offer, but I am equally sure that the beautiful Golden Gate Highlands will end up near the top of my list of favorite places in this country.