Two years ago, almost to the date, I arrived in Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
But there was nothing golden about the gate or the highlands or the national park; everything was pitch black…
After a week in Kruger National Park, Golden Gate Highlands National Park was the next overnight stop, en route back to the Eastern Cape via Mountain Zebra and Addo National Park. The road chosen from Mpumalanga to Golden Gate in the Free State was a long and winding road and, to be totally honest, there was a farm stall somewhere on the way (it was pretty, they had cherries, coffee was needed and the rest is history).
We arrived in Golden Gate Highlands National Park extremely late at night and had to call and pray to the gods of the Maluti mountains to find a human being and cellphone signal to receive the key to our hut for the night. Leftover Provita crumbs, biscuits and questionable preserves were constructed into something resembling dinner, midnight came and we crawled into bed, wrapped tightly in traditional Basotho blankets geared with two pairs of socks to fight the cold, and drifted into the darkness of the Free State night.
Everything was pitch black; there was nothing golden about the gate or the highlands or the national park until the morning sun showed his face, lit up a mountain and then it all made sense.
“So that’s why they call it Golden Gate Highlands National Park…”
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The name “Golden Gate Highlands” come from the captivating shades of gold cast by the sun on the sandstone cliffs, and (in my opinion), if you go during autumn the gold tends to spread down below onto the grasslands as well.
Ochre, brown, golden straw, morning sunshine, yellow mellow and pale moon and sunbeam glow, whatever you want to call it – PANTONE Something Incredible – it is truly spectacular.
Throw some indigenous flowers, fossils, Burchell’s zebra, black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, springbok, vultures, bushmen paintings and an opportunity to learn more about the Basotho culture into the golden mix of more than 11 000 hectares and it becomes a landscape polished with natural beauty.
(I apologise in advance for adding a lot of similar-looking photos – mountains, clouds, rocks and green-yellow-gold landscapes – but choosing and making decisions have never been one of my strong personality traits).
Highlights of Golden Gate Highlands National Park (and Clarens)
There are plenty of things to do in Golden Gate Highlands National Park as well as in the nearby town, Clarens; from visiting a brewery to strolling around for antiques and art in town, to braving the rapids going white-water rafting to hiking and getting up close and personal with the sandstone cliffs and all their golden glory.
During my visit in April 2015 and again September 2015 (on a Meet South Africa road trip) the following experiences were the most memorable in the area:
Driving around and taking (too many) photos. The road up to Langtoon Dam was my favourite, as well as going to the Vulture Restaurant and spotting game throughout the park.
Visiting the two sisters of the Blanket Shop in Clarens. I’ve written about my visit to the shop in Afrikaans, but if you want to read it in English, head over to the blog of Heather (2 Summers). These two ladies are the best; just visit them. You won’t be sorry.
Hiking. Don’t play with the weather, it can change very quickly.
Autumn in Town. Just before reaching the Blanket Shop there is a lane of Poplar trees with gold-yellow leaves in autumn, a dam with swans and, while I visited, a donkey and a horse.
Coffee and pancakes at Di Bus Stop. Di Bus Stop is a unique farm stall and coffee shop you’ll find on your left just before you enter Golden Gate Highlands National Park (if you are coming from Clarens’ side).
Strolling around town. Arts, crafts, antiques and freshly baked goodness are widely available throughout town. Park your car somewhere and explore the town on foot.
There is much more than mentioned to do in and around Clarens and Golden Gate Highlands National Park, why not visit www.goclarens.co.za to get an idea of everything you can get up to in the area.
Accommodation in Golden Gate Highlands National Park
If you crave a bit of peace and quiet (and possibly zero to nothing cellphone signal) and don’t want to stay in the arty town of Clarens, you can stay in Golden Gate National Park. There are a few options to suit every budget; you can stay in the Glen Reenen Rest Camp (camping and chalets), the fancier Golden Gate Hotel, the more secluded Highlands Mountain Retreat and the cultural Basotho huts (next to the Basotho Cultural Village).
If you want to stay in town, try Mont Rouge Guest House in Clarens and book a night in the beautiful Hakuna unit. The fireplace is a real treat during the colder months.
Know before you go
- It can get seriously cold in autumn and winter, pack accordingly.
- If you’re staying in Golden Gate Highlands National Park stock up on food and the necessary items while in Clarens (luckily the park is only +35km from town).
- If you want to visit the Basotho Cultural Village make sure of tour and operation hours before you go to avoid disappointment.
- Apparently, it is best to visit in spring (September/October) and summer (December to February) but I had a golden blast in Autumn (April/May).
- There are no gates to enter the park as a public road runs through the park, but, don’t do what I did and arrive too late if you still need to figure out where to go and where to get a key. The signage indicating the way to the huts at the Basotho Cultural Village was missing in action and nearly invisible in 2015.
- Enjoy and go slow, it is a golden wonder.
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