Game viewing

The Free State is definitely the home of unusual wildlife experiences. Bloemfontein boasts one of the most unique reserves in the world – a wildlife reserve surrounded by a city. The 250ha Franklin Game Reserve offers wildlife, including giraffe and wildebeest, and great city views.

For another unique experience, visit the Moolmanshoek Game Reserve in the Moolmanshoek Valley. Here visitors can spend a few hours in the company of a colony of meerkats. The reserve is also rich in plains game, including springbok, zebra, the rare black wildebeest, blesbok and ostrich, and is home to 230 bird species.

The spectacular Golden Gate Highlands National Park is great for game viewing and birding. Here visitors will find black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok, Burchell’s zebra and baboons. There are also over 170 bird species.

Visitors may also be interested in the Cheetah Experience in Bloemfontein, a 10ha sanctuary started in an effort to help save these animals from extinction. The sanctuary is also home to leopard and lions.

Top attractions

Vredefort  Dome

The Vredefort Dome is the impact site of a meteor that struck the Earth about two billion years ago, leaving a crater 300km in diameter. The area has been declared a World Heritage Site. The Vredefort hills and crater are ideal for adventure seekers: visitors can climb and abseil its rock faces, while the rapids of the Vaal River, which flows through it, make for great rafting.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The golden sandstone cliffs of this popular park are a geological attraction. Its Brandwag buttress is an iconic symbol of the park, and its hiking trail takes visitors kilometers above the Drakensberg Amphitheatre for breathtaking views. The park, the only grasslands park in South Africa, is great for exploring on foot, bike or on horseback. It’s great for birding – rare bearded vultures nest there – and game viewing.

Clarens

Recognised as the jewel of the Free State, this little artists’ town is a popular weekend getaway for South Africans. Not far from the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Clarens has great views. There’s plenty to do, like strolling through the art stores and galleries, restaurant-hopping, birding, game drives, and trout fishing. History buffs will find plenty to do: they can go fossil-hunting, or visit the Clarens Museum and South African War sites nearby.

Fossil hunting

The Free State is rich in fossil sites, especially from early Jurassic-era dinosaurs. One of the most exciting South African dinosaur fossil discoveries in recent years was that of a 210-million-year-old sauropod that was found in the Ladybrand district. Fossil-hunting safaris are offered in several parts of the Free State, including in Clarens and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Near the town of Bethulie are the vast waters of the Gariep Dam – the largest dam in South Africa – whose waters are said to cover thousands of fossils embedded in rock.

Cosmos season

The autumn months of April and May are cosmos season in South Africa. The eastern Free State, particularly, is the perfect place to experience the riot of pink and white blooms. A great place to see these flowers is the 35km route between Clarens and Fouriesburg; or a visit to the Sandstone Estates farm outside Ficksburg, where on certain days of the year, visitors are allowed on to the grounds of the heritage farm and can ride a locomotive through the cosmos.

Historical sites

The Free State is an ideal destination for history buffs – there are a number of great historical routes, memorial sites, museums and indigenous villages that tell the story of the people of the region. Bloemfontein is a great place for your clients to start their tour; its National Museum is home to one of the most extensive fossil collections in South Africa.

Other noteworthy historical attractions include the National Women’s Memorial and South African War Memorial, and New Clare Township. A visit to the Basotho Cultural Village in QwaQwa, close to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, is a must.

In the little town of Koffiefontein (Coffee Fountain), the most significant historical features are the remnants of wall art left behind by World War II prisoners of war who were interned there.

Other towns that have interesting historical sites include Fauresmith, Bethulie  and Harrismith. The South African War concentration camp memorial garden outside Bethulie is interesting and evocative of the war, also known as the Anglo-Boer War, and fought between Boers and the British between 1899 and 1902. The town is also located in a part of South Africa that is rich in fossil beds and early San artefacts.

The little town of Fauresmith is one of the few towns in the world where a railway track runs through the centre of its main street. It once competed with Bloemfontein to become the capital of the Free State.

Main centers

Bloemfontein

The name means ‘fountain of flowers ’, and it is popularly known as the City of Roses because of the abundance of these flowers. Bloemfontein, the capital of Free State province, was officially founded as a fort in 1846 by the British army. It is the birthplace of Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien.

Clarens

Clarens is known as the jewel of the Eastern Free State. The picturesque little town is an artists’ haven and its spectacular scenery is a drawcard for visitors. It is surrounded by mountains and is situated only a few kilometres from the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Parys

This picturesque little town is about one-and-a-half hours’ drive from Johannesburg. Parys is the Afrikaans word for Paris – the town got its name from a German surveyor who said the area reminded him of Paris on the River Seine. There is plenty to do here, including river rafting, waterskiing and angling.

Harrismith

Founded in 1849, Harrismith is well known as a convenient refuelling stop between Johannesburg and Durban. Nearby there’s wildlife, birding, windsurfing, fly-fishing and views of the Drakensberg.

Bethlehem

The land around the town, which was founded in the mid-1800s, proved ideal for growing wheat. Hence it was named Bethlehem, meaning ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew. Today the town is the largest commercial centre in the eastern Free State.

Sasolburg

This large industrial town was established in 1954 to provide housing facilities for the employees of Sasol – a large petrochemical company. It is situated close to the Vaal Dam, which provides excellent opportunities for water sports.

Welkom

On 16 April 1946, a rich gold find was made on the farm Welkom. The town officially came into being on 15 April 1947 and received city status in 1955. It is one of very few cities in the world that has been wholly pre-planned. Its economy centres on mining. Welkom is a Dutch and Afrikaans word for ‘Welcome’.