There's only one national park in the country that exists purely to protect grass.
Defending grass might seem an odd intention, but these tiny treasures are vital to South Africa’s survival.
Golden Gate is South Africa's underrated playground
The Free State's only national park, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is currently also the only national park proclaimed to protect the grassland biome.
Situated in the Rooiberg of the eastern Free State, Golden Gate lies in a critical watershed. Any rain falling here either runs down via the Caledon River into the mighty Orange, or via the Wilge River into the Vaal River. This means that more than 30-percent of the entire water supply of South Africa comes from this area.
Essential to water retention, grass is the reason Golden Gate exists and also the reason you should visit. Most people know the saying, to stop and smell the roses, but have you ever taken time to stoop down and look at how intricately delightful grasses are up close? Like other plants, grasses flower and put on a summer display too, only in miniature. This park is best explored from your feet where you can see this.
In summer, green carpets swaddle the softly sweeping hills and up closer, there’s an unmistakable shimmer of red in the fields too from the Red grass (Themeda triandra) that grows here. Red grass is an indicator of excellent grazing and this type of grass is rare outside the park’s fences, where overgrazing is a problem. Up close, the seeds and flowers of this grass are extraordinary; long maroon tendrils sneak out of purple shells that look like wheat husks, while the long stem retains a fresh lime-green colour.
Better known for it’s natural beauty and impressive sandstone cliffs that become briefly golden at sunset, rather than epic wildlife, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is perfect for travellers heading from Joburg, Durban or Bloem, sitting just a three hour drive from either of these city centres. Whether you visit to witness summer’s shades of gorgeous green, the rich auburn autumn hues come April and May or catch sight of snow on the park’s highest peaks in winter, Golden Gate is great in any season.
I found four ways to spend a weekend in this precious park for Getaway magazine.
1. A best-of-both weekend escape
If you like to have the best of both worlds – access to city comforts and exceptional natural beauty in peaceful mountain surroundings – then the Golden Gate Hotel is the perfect springboard for exploring nearby Clarens, with a walk or horse ride and easy hike thrown in.
2. A True Magic Mountain Cabin
Sensational views over the grasslands on the slopes of the Maloti Mountains come standard, and you might even spot some zebra chewing their way through the landscape. Comprising just eight log cabins, it is thoughtfully tucked into the hills and grass even grows on the roofs, concealing them. Here, you’re high enough to see birds of prey swooping by and really feel a part of the landscape.
3. Beautiful backpacking on a budget
Walking is the best way to appreciate Golden Gate Highlands National Park because you really get to feel the scale of this mountainous paradise.
The Ribbok Hiking Trail (so called because it has you skipping up hillsides like the better-equipped mountain rhebok would) is a two-day overnight hike easily done in a weekend, and is excellent value for money as a budget escape.
4. Sleep in the Dragon's clouds
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is just 35km from the eastern border of Golden Gate Highlands National Park and forms part of an ambitious protected area called the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project.
This peace park, composed of uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho, is an effort to create a consolidated conservation corridor of some 32690 hectares down the eastern curve of the Lesotho border.