Tag Archives: Basotho Cultural Village

The Victor and the Vanquished (Duel at first light – the series)

Early into our December holidays, we came upon two black wildebeest bulls squaring off in a territorial tussle near the Basotho Cultural Village in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. At the onset they appeared evenly matched, sometimes wrestling each other right to the ground with their horns interlocked, entirely oblivious to the human spectators. Reasonably quickly one triumphed and sent his rival running, the entire fight lasting all of one exhilarating four minute long round.

Golden Gate has a substantial population of black wildebeest, and is one of the best places to go searching for these endemic South African creatures.

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Celebrating Fifty Years of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park!

Golden Gate Highlands National Park turns 50 today!

Golden Gate Highlands National Park turns 50 today!

We’re back in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Park’s founding. On this special occasion, it is good to look back on the history of this magnificent piece of South Africa.

The iconic Brandwag buttress

The iconic Brandwag buttress

In December 1880 Jan van Reenen bought a farm here in the scenic Eastern Free State and, on arrival, the family found the setting sun casting a soft golden glow on the sandstone cliffs, inspiring the name “Golden Gate”.

Mushroom Rocks

Mushroom Rocks

It was in March 1962 that the then National Parks Board (today called South African National Parks) decided to set aside a piece of the Orange Free State as a national park, and the beautiful and mountainous Golden Gate was identified as the best location. By September 1962 the Government announced that portions of a number of farms have been purchased for this purpose, leading up to the official proclamation of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the 13th of September 1963.

Grand Golden Gate scenery

Grand Golden Gate scenery

At its inception the park covered a mere 4,792 hectares. Additional land purchases saw the Park’s size increase to 6,241 hectares in 1981 and to 11,630 hectares in 1989. The biggest expansion occurred in November of 2008, when the neighbouring Qwa Qwa Nature Reserve (originally proclaimed in 1990 by the authorities in the former homeland of the same name) was incorporated into the National Park, increasing its size to the current 32,690 hectares. Today, Golden Gate also forms an integral part of the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area – a worthy initiative linking all the conservation areas of this mountainous region that also includes the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in Kwazulu-Natal Province and Sehlabathebe National Park in Lesotho, amongst others.

Golden Gate Dam

Golden Gate Dam

Golden Gate features some of South Africa’s most beautiful mountain scenery, with a considerable range in altitude (between 1800 and 2850 meters above sea level) and associated climatic conditions, located as it is in the foothills of the Maloti and Drakensberg mountain ranges. Temperatures range from an extreme -12 degrees Celsius on winter nights to 33 degrees or more on summer days, with most rainfall occurring in summer (though snow falls quite frequently in winter). The Little Caledon River and Klerk Spruit are the most important watercourses in the Park, with the layered sandstone cliffs being its most recognisable feature. The plant life is mostly grassy and herbaceous (with spectacular floral displays in spring and summer), and few large woody species – the latter being mainly confined to the narrow valleys, or “kloofs” as they are known locally, and includes some exotic specimens that are being allowed to live out their lives due to their aesthetic and historic value.

Golden Gate covered in snow

Golden Gate covered in snow

Blooming grasses

Blooming grasses

Little Caledon

Little Caledon

Brandwag Buttress

Brandwag Buttress

Mountain stream

Mountain stream

The National Parks Board quickly began reintroducing various game species that occurred here historically but had been wiped out by man prior to the park’s proclamation (although some species, like grey rhebuck, mountain reedbuck, black-backed jackal and baboon, had managed to hang on). The first animals, five red hartebeest from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, already arrived on the 5th of May 1963. Two other notable introductions are those of the endangered oribi, a small antelope, in 1972 and 1974, and of the sungazer, an endangered girdled lizard with a characteristic spiky appearance, during 1990. Today the park protects a huge number of plant species (there’s more than 60 species of grasses alone), a remarkable variety of insects (including 78 kinds of butterfly), two indigenous species of fish, eight kinds of amphibians, 28 species of reptile, 180 kinds of birds (including endangered species like the bearded and cape vultures, and the bald ibis) and nearly 60 species of indigenous mammals, some in considerable numbers. The game count in 2011 showed the park is home to around 2,400 blesbok, 1,400 black wildebeest, 1,000 plains zebra, 1,000 red hartebeest, 700 eland and 450 springbok, to name a few.

Black wildebeest at dawn

Black wildebeest at dawn

The threatened Southern Bald Ibis

The threatened Southern Bald Ibis

Blesbok dwarfed by Golden Gate's mountains

Blesbok dwarfed by Golden Gate’s mountains

Plains zebra silhouette

Plains zebra silhouette

Cape griffons in flight

Cape griffons in flight

Plains zebra

Plains zebra

Red-winged starling

Red-winged starling

Small fry in Golden Gate

Small fry in Golden Gate

Wild flower in Golden Gate

Wild flower in Golden Gate

Plains zebra

Plains zebra

Black wildebeest

Black wildebeest

Egrets over Glen Reenen

Egrets over Glen Reenen

Secretary Bird

Secretary Bird

Serval

Serval

Golden Gate doesn’t only protect a grand and valuable variety of natural beauty though. The Park is world-renowned for the discovery of the oldest fossilised eggs, embryos and nesting sites of dinosaurs dating back 190 million years. Closer to the present, there’s a number of rock painting sites reminding us that this beautiful landscape was once the home of the Khoisan. The small van Reenen family graveyard is also worth a solemn visit. Golden Gate has seen its fair share of human conflict, and among the relics hikers may come across are the discarded remains of ammunition and weaponry destroyed during the Second Anglo-Boer War in the early 1900’s (during which some Boer women and their children opted to rather hide out in the caves of Golden Gate than face the perils of the British concentration camp at Harrismith after their farms and homesteads had been burned to the ground). Insight into the culture, traditions, history and lifestyle of the Basotho people can be gained by visiting the fascinating “living” museum at the Basotho Cultural Village. Differing from most other national parks in South Africa, a few local people, and their livestock, still inhabit portions of the Qwa Qwa section of the Park.

Herds of cattle roam to the Qwa Qwa section

Herds of cattle roam the Qwa Qwa section

van Reenen family graveyard

van Reenen family graveyard

Glen Reenen Rest Camp provided the first tourist accommodation in the fledgling park, with the first overnight guests being housed there in converted farm buildings on the 29th of September 1963. Additional accommodation was soon constructed at Glen Reenen, and camping facilities provided. Glen Reenen was extensively upgraded, expanded and renovated during 2003 and 2004 but retains its rustic charm and farm-like character. Facilities here include a fuel station and a small shop that stocks a variety of groceries and curios.

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen

By 1968, thirty-four new self-catering chalets had been completed in the Brandwag Rest Camp below the Park’s most recognisable feature, the iconic Brandwag buttress. Work then commenced on the building of an alpine-style mountain inn to provide full service accommodation and so the Brandwag Hotel was officially opened on the 24th of March 1972. Following extensive renovations and upgrading to both the main hotel building, with its fifty-plus hotel rooms, and the chalets, this resort (complete with tennis courts and bowling greens) was renamed the Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets in 2010. Facilities now include various conference rooms, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a sports bar and a curio shop.

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

Golden Gate Hotel

In the early 1980’s the Wilgenhof Environmental Education Centre came into existence, its main focus being to provide visiting school groups with a well-developed curriculum, to learn more about the value of our natural resources and the reasons for protecting the remaining few natural areas in our country and the world. Scholars are housed in dormitory-style rooms, and the facility also provides a lecture hall and kitchen.

The eight self-catering log units at the Highlands Mountain Retreat is a unique accommodation option, located at an altitude of 2200m with a magnificent view over the eastern sections of the Park, and accessible only along a narrow road leading deep into the mountains. The Highlands Mountain Retreat opened to visitors in 2005.

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Highlands Mountain Retreat

Following the inclusion of the Qwa Qwa nature reserve in 2008, accommodation is now also available at the Basotho Cultural Village in spacious self-catering units that resemble traditional Basotho rondawels (round thatched huts).

Basotho Cultural Village

Basotho Cultural Village

Basotho Cultural Village

Basotho Cultural Village

The restored old farmstead at Noord-Brabant offers six guests secluded, private accommodation some distance from the main road leading through the Park. All the mentioned accommodation options inside the Park are managed by SANParks and is where we prefer to stay when visiting Golden Gate, but there is a wide variety of privately owned and operated accommodation options in the towns and on the farms around the Park.

The road between Glen Reenen and Harrismith, our favourite route to Golden Gate, was paved only in the mid-1990’s and allows quick three to four hour access to the Park via the N3 motorway from Durban and the major urban centres in Gauteng. The original route to the Park leads through the towns of Bethlehem and Clarens, and is certainly the most scenic option.

Grand Golden Gate scenery

Grand Golden Gate scenery

 At the foot of Brandwag

At the foot of Brandwag

The road to Kestell

The road to Kestell

Lichens Pass

Lichens Pass

There’s a variety of outdoor activities to enjoy during a visit to Golden Gate. Horse riding has been extremely popular since the Park’s early years, as is the natural swimming pool at Glen Reenen, in a rock pool in a mountain stream (understandably the latter only during the summer months!). There’s a selection of day walks, varying in duration from one to six hours and suited to a variety of age groups and fitness levels, to enjoy, the most popular leading to the top of Brandwag Buttress. Opened in 1978, there’s also the Ribbok Hiking Trail, a 30km trail that takes two days to complete and over the length of which hikers covers a range in altitude of over 1000 meters. Up to 18 hikers can be accommodated on any given day on the Ribbok trail, where basic overnight facilities are provided in a hiking cottage deep in the mountains. Cyclists too enjoy the meandering routes through the mountains. The newly opened (2012) photographic hide at the vulture restaurant, where carcasses are provided to supplement the diets of the endangered vultures that occur here, is a highlight of any visit. Searching for the numerous game and bird species from the comfort of your own vehicle is an option definitely worth exercising, with two tarred loop roads near Glen Reenen and a gravel road to the small town of Kestell offering good sightings and magnificent views. Meriting picnic site near the park’s administrative headquarters at Gladstone is just the place to enjoy a relaxing afternoon.

Golden Gate Hotel from the top of Brandwag

Golden Gate Hotel from the top of Brandwag

Glen Reenen from the top of Brandwag

Glen Reenen from the top of Brandwag

Pony surveying the Golden Gate landscape

Pony surveying the Golden Gate landscape

Horses at the Gladstone stable

Horses at the Gladstone stables

Gladstone stables

Gladstone stables

Hiking trail

Hiking trail

Hiking trail

Hiking trail

Glen Reenen's swimming pool

Glen Reenen’s swimming pool

Vulture hide

Vulture hide

There probably aren’t very many people more in love with Golden Gate than us de Wets, but can you blame us? The Golden Gate Highlands is a spectacularly beautiful national park, one of the jewels in South Africa’s conservation crown, and may it remain so for many, many generations to come!

Golden Gate Highlands National Park, July 2013

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is one of our favourite destinations, as many of you will already know (because we tell you that so regularly ;-)). Our last visit there was in December and we were starting to really miss the spectacular mountain scenery, so we decided on the spur of the moment to pay Golden Gate a quick weekend visit last week.

Mountain stream

Mountain stream

Lichens Pass snaking its way up into the mountains

Lichens Pass snaking its way up into the mountains

Golden Gate Dam

Golden Gate Dam

Resting in peace at the foot of the Golden Gate

Resting in peace at the foot of the Golden Gate

Mushroom Rocks

Mushroom Rocks

One of the self-catering chalets at the Golden Gate Hotel, operated by SANParks, would be our accommodations for the night. Our well-appointed unit had a unobstructed view of the iconic Brandwag buttress, which is illuminated at night.

Golden Gate Chalet

Golden Gate Chalet

A room with a view

A room with a view

Brandwag illuminated at night

Brandwag illuminated at night

Another view of Brandwag

Another view of Brandwag

The Golden Gate Hotel

The Golden Gate Hotel

Birdlife abounds around the chalets at the Golden Gate Hotel

Birdlife abounds around the chalets at the Golden Gate Hotel

Birdlife abounds around the chalets at the Golden Gate Hotel

Birdlife abounds around the chalets at the Golden Gate Hotel

The vulture hide is a very welcome recent addition to the Park’s facilities and we had a fantastic sighting of jackal / vulture interaction there on the Saturday afternoon – have a look at our “Bowling for Buzzards” post for pictures from that episode.

The Cape Griffon is an endangered species

The Cape Griffon is an endangered species

The Cape Griffon is an endangered species

The Cape Griffon is an endangered species

The vulture "restaurant" has a stunning view!

The vulture “restaurant” has a stunning view!

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed jackal

Setting out at first light on Sunday morning it was clear that winter had a firm hold on this mountainous landscape. At the top of Lichens Pass our temperature gauge was showing 5 degrees below freezing at 07:00am! Despite the bitter cold we were able to enjoy a couple of good game sightings and beautiful scenery.

Zebra sunrise

Zebra sunrise

Plains zebra

Plains zebra

A herd of blesbok making their way through the frosty landscape

A herd of blesbok making their way through the frosty landscape

Sunrise over the Eastern Free State

Sunrise over the Eastern Free State

Black wildebeest

Black wildebeest

After a leisurely picnic lunch beneath a protea-bush in the Basotho Village, we had to head for home. One night simply wasn’t enough, and we will be returning soon!

Beautiful mountain vistas at the eastern entrance to Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Beautiful mountain vistas at the eastern entrance to Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in September this year, and to mark the event SANParks is offering a half-price promotion – have a look if you also need to escape to the mountains in a hurry!

Golden Gate Highlands National Park – December 2012

Sandstone cliffs and rolling grasslands, painted in the warm golden glow of a Free State sunrise.

Golden Gate sunrise

Golden Gate sunrise

The Free State Province of South Africa has a reputation for being flat and featureless, and for the most part that is true. But in the east of the province the Maluti and Drakensberg mountain ranges rise to dizzying altitudes, and it is in the foothills of these majestic peaks that the Golden Gate Highlands National Park was proclaimed in September 1963.

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Golden Gate scenery

Golden Gate is another of our favourite South African nature destinations and after a relaxed four hour drive from Pretoria we were overjoyed to be back at the quaint Glen Reenen Rest Camp, our home-away-from-home for three nights at the end of December 2012.

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Glen Reenen

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Glen Reenen

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Glen Reenen

Glen Reenen, Golden Gate, December 2012

Rondawel in Glen Reenen

(Inside the Park accommodation is also available at the Golden Gate Hotel, the Highlands Mountain Retreat, and Basotho Cultural Village)

The mountainous landscape and grand sandstone rock formations, hundreds of millions of years old, is what Golden Gate is most famous for – with the iconic Brandwag Buttress standing guard over the Park being the star attraction.

Brandwag Buttress

Brandwag Buttress

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Golden Gate scenery

GoldenGate_MushroomRocks

Mushroom Rocks

This is a summer rainfall area and there was water in abundance throughout the Park during our visit – water as fresh, cool and crystal clear as only a mountain spring can produce.

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The Little Caledon River

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Mountain stream

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Stream flowing past Glen Reenen

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Pure mountain water

As with all mountain areas one needs to be mindful that the weather can change very quickly and misty mornings are a regular occurrence, making for hazardous driving along the Lichens Pass that snakes through the reserve.

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Clouds rolling in over Golden Gate Highlands National Park

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Misty valleys along Lichens Pass

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The sun trying to break through heavy cloud

There are numerous scenic hiking trails of varying length and difficulty along which the park can be explored, and horse-trails are on offer for both novice and experienced riders. Two short, tarred game-viewing drives loop across the plateaus near Glen Reenen, while a recent addition that should prove very popular in years to come is a photographic hide built at the Park’s vulture restaurant where carcasses are laid out to supplement the diets of two endangered vulture species that occur in the Park: the Cape Griffon and the Bearded Vulture.

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Scenic hiking trail

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Vulture hide

Of course, the Park also harbours a variety of other birds and animals, all adapted to the highlands environment.

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Black wildebeest, with Brandwag in the background

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Black wildebeest

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Blesbok

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Baboons regularly forage through the camp

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Secretary bird

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Red hartebeest

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This serval was a pleasant surprise

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Plains Zebra

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Black-backed Jackal, the most often encountered of Golden Gate’s carnivores

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Grey rhebuck, a mountain-loving antelope endemic to South Africa

While at Golden Gate we posted some pictures on a daily basis – have a look if you’d like to see more:

26 December

27 December

28 December

Unusual rock formations

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park will remain close to our hearts for as long as those mighty golden cliffs and grassy peaks tower over the wooded valleys, rolling fields and crystal streams in their shadow below!