As a kid on our annual family pilgrimage from Johannesburg to the coast, I recall the Free State merely as an impediment between me and the sea. A great swathe of dusty, undulating mielie fields, wheezing windmills, rickety farm gates and interminable kilometres blurring by – not nearly fast enough! It’s a shame really that we completely dismissed one of South Africa’s most historically significant regions. And while there may not have been much to see and do back then, today the Free State is ripe with tourist pickings. The trick is to veer down those dusty roads, because it’s there that you’ll find the real gems: the ‘beervana’ that is Clarens; the quirky pioneer village of Verkykerskop and the sweet, pitted offerings of cherries in Ficksburg, among others. So diverse is the province that it’s recently been partitioned into bite-sized portions, easily digested for the weekender tourist. We give you the Free State’s Big 5!
Today the Free State is ripe with tourist pickings - the trick is to veer down those dusty roads, because it’s there that you’ll find the real gems...
This route spans the eastern Free State from Harrismith to Clocolan. Must visits include the bohemian village of Clarens, with its clutch of artists and fabulous microbrewery. But no trip to the eastern Free State is complete without a tasting of the Eagle Route’s ‘red gold’. Come November, the trees in the cherry orchards on Ficksburgs’ farms will be almost groaning under the burden of these glistening little stone fruits. But it’s not just fresh produce that keeps Ficksburg on the map. The whole of the Eastern Free State is renowned for its breathtaking sandstone mountain formations. Sunrises and sunsets against these prehistoric backdrops make for truly spectacular bronze, russet, and gold painted scenes. Many of the older buildings in and around Ficksburg are fashioned from the surrounding mountains’ sandstone. In fact, Ficksburg boasts a number of picturesque sandstone buildings on or near the town square, a few of which enjoy national monument status. The NG Kerk is a beautiful example, not to mention quite an ancient one, at over a century old. In neighbouring Clocolan, you can visit a farm where essential oils – used in the manufacture of expensive French perfumes – are produced.
|inline|https://cms.contactmedia.co.za/image/595d65977d33e229751e3448c6e93b96|landscape|c|jpeg|Vredefort Dome1.jpg||left|Plaas Life: Stay on a Working Rosehip Farm
Check out the ancient Maluti Mountains along the Caledon River. The Old Mill Drift offers rustic, but comfortable self-catering accommodation. It’s definitely where to go for a good dose of authentic farm life. The big cottage boasts a cosy farm kitchen – complete with an old Dover stove – giving it a “Little House on the Prairie” ambience. Its primary business is as an organic rosehip farm. The Old Mill Drift offers a delicious respite from civilisation, a mere 7 kilometres off the beaten track, and only 57 kilometres from Ficksburg.
The Lion Route runs along the northern part of the Free State, here you will find the delights of Parys along the Vaal River. This little dorp is located within the oldest and largest meteorite impact site in the world, the Vredefort Dome, formed some 2 023 million years ago. An asteroid, roughly the size of Table Mountain, collided with earth, so you can only imagine the impact of that. Visit one of the mountains in the area and get a 360 degree view of the humbling Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site. Once you’re done, you can paddle the Vaal or if you’re more inclined towards consumer ‘sports’, then you must check out the glut of antique shops on Breë Street - Parys’s ‘high street’. Serenely infused with country charm, it’s perfect for a stroll. Don’t forget your wallet as it’s littered with antique shops, art galleries and bistros - the contents of which all scream ‘Buy me!’ Also look out for the Bon-Af Berry Farm & Tea Garden signboard, located just off the R59. Here you can pick and take home over 80 different varieties of berries – Gooseberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Elderberries, Black nightshade and many more – all for just R30 a punnet.
The cultural heart of the Free State, running from Bloemfontein to the agricultural town of Ladybrand, and is your gateway to the ‘City of Roses’, Bloemfontein. It's also the birthplace of both the National Party and the African National Congress (how’s that for a dichotomy?!) as well as the world-famous fantasy writer JRR Tolkien. If you're a flora fanatic, be sure to visit Bloemfontein’s Botanical Gardens, home to some 400 plant species; the Orchid House, which houses the largest collection of orchids in the country and the historic King's Park which features more than 4 000 rose bushes.
Thia route borders the Karoo and connects the Free State with the Northern Cape, winding through farmlands and places of historical significance until it reaches the tiny border town of Gariep Dam. If you're an Anglo-Boer War nut, Bethulie, the site of the largest concentration camp erected by the British during the Anglo-Boer War, will be of historical interest to you. The Pellissier House Museum, built in the 1830s, depicts the history of the area, and is a must stop for a poignant moment. It also contains some of the thousands of fossils and San utensils which were found in the valleys that are now covered by the Gariep Dam. Bethulie also has a Burgher Monument and graveyard, a Horse Memorial and a monument to Louw Wepener who died in 1865 whilst storming Moshoeshoe's mountain stronghold at Thaba Bosiu.
Commonly known as the ‘bread basket’ of the province, a journey along the Flamingo Route will take you through the Free State’s agricultural belt. But far from just churning out mielies, the Lejweleputswa district is also a well-known gold producing area. The combination of golden fields and mining headgear creates some breathtaking sights. To experience the best of the ‘Bread Basket’, you have to visit Bothaville in October, for its annual Witblits Fees. Afrikaans for ‘white lightning’, to drink witblits is a baptism of fire into South African moonshine. Expect plenty to eat and drink, and boeresports for the kids. The town also has numerous historical places of interest, including its original police station, a three-room sandstone building erected in 1894, which now serves as the town’s museum. There are several hiking trails in the vicinity, as well as superb bird watching opportunities.