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Unearthing A Hidden Treasure
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Unearthing A Hidden Treasure

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WELCOME TO THE FREE STATE!

When describing the picturesque Free State, one can easily mistake the province as an artist’s retreat destination. The Free State is essentially an agricultural province that lies in the heart of South Africa bordering six of the country’s nine provinces, as well as the kingdom of Lesotho.. Its appeal lies in its scenic beauty, rural tranquility and natural attractions. The eastern part of the Free State is the most beautiful, with its sandstone rock formations and rolling grassland.

The sandstone of this region has been used for the lovely dressed-stone buildings found on the Eastern Highlands, while decoratively painted Sotho houses dot the grasslands. Some of South Africa’s most valued San (Bushman) rock art is found in the Free State, particularly in the regions  around Clarens, Bethlehem, Ficksburg, Ladybrand and Wepener.

The province disposes of inter alia 14 nature reserves with varying facilities; four large holiday resorts; 12 state dams with banks totaling some 760 km; numerous sports and outdoor opportunities; nine restored battlefields; some 12 000 tourist beds and a booming guesthouse industry. Each of the Free Sates five regions offers its own unique tourism attractions, from Museums to quaint guesthouses filled with historic odds and ends, dams, art galleries and restaurants to name a few.

The Free State’s hidden treasure is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park . Located in the foothills of Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains, the park is renowned for its extraordinary landscape and abundance of caves and shelters. The park’s most notable features are its golden, ochre, and orange-hued deeply eroded sandstone cliffs and outcrops, especially the Brandwag rock. Wildlife featured at the park includes mongooses, eland, zebras, and over 100 bird species. It is the Free State’s only national park, and is more famous for the beauty of its landscape than for its wildlife. Numerous paleontology finds have been made in the park including dinosaur eggs and skeletons.

Millions of years ago, the area was a swampy delta ruled by dinosaurs. Later, wind and sand scoured the landscape to desert, and sculpted the park’s renowned golden-coloured cliffs. Finally, volcanic activity capped the landscape with dark peaks, known as Drakensberg basalt, and mineral-rich soils gave rise to the vast multi-species grassland biome for which the park was proclaimed – there are more than 50 species of grass in the park. Today black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell’s zebra graze its wild, dappled pastures, and rare bearded vultures circle the skies above the lost pathways of the San hunter-gathers, who once dwelt in the park’s caves.

Explore the largest of these caves, the Cathedral Cave, on a guided walk, to gain the full experience. In this cavern, where Basotho worshipers and Anglo-Boer war refugees once sought shelter in their own times, a colony of rare sacred ibis breeds. Hike up the Brandwag buttress, or Ribokkop, the highest point in the park; and make time to stop so you can absorb the park’s panoramic views and magnificent stillness.

Another hidden gem in the Free State is the small town of Clarens. No sooner have visitors arrived in Clarens than they find themselves in a frenzy of art-buying, restaurant-hopping, cycling, game driving, trout fishing, birding and late-night partying. The town of Clarens in the Eastern Free State, is an artist’s hideout. One can easily see why creative people gain inspiration from its beautiful surrounds. For nature, art and fun, Clarens is an ideal getaway.

A visit to Clarens is so rich with experiences, you need to make sure you set aside enough time in the area because it passes all too quickly. Situated along the Highlands Route, a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Clarens is blessed with soul-stirring views.

Many of the homes, restaurants and shops in Clarens were crafted from sandstone, contributing to the town’s appeal. Make a point of popping into the local arts and crafts stores. Ask about the Artists Amble, a fun route that incorporates a number of galleries run by local artists. If you’re in the mood for shopping, make a point of addling the colourful traditional Basotho blankets, arts and crafts to your list.

Clarens offers a fleet of attractions and is an adventure tourism hotspot, with quad biking, paintball, abseiling and white water rafting all available nearby. So plan a trip to Clarens now and find out for yourself why is called The Jewel of the Free State…

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