The Free State is the pulsing heart of South Africa and embodies the bread basket of a hungry nation where fields of wheat, maize and sunflowers stretch as far as the eye can see. Although largely ignored in the past by travellers and trekkers, the Free State has a number of hidden gems unique to the African continent.
Lurking at the base of the magnificent Maluti Mountains on the border with the Kingdom of Lesotho is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, an attraction that should form the focal point of any Free State tour. It is a park dedicated to the protection of the majesty of the massive sandstone edifices that have been carved by the searing winds and extreme temperatures of the sizzling summers and icy winters.
In the fast-fading light of the evening, the grandiose cliffs emit a golden glow that offers unique and impressive photo opportunities as well as the ability to still the soul of the beholder. The park is a remaining microcosm of the original indigenous grasslands and is home to a variety of game including the Burchell's zebra, oribi, blesbok and the black gnu.
It is also a 'twitcher's' paradise, where the rare bearded vulture and the bald ibis breed in the crevasses and on the ledges of the sandstone monolith whilst the numerous caves are adorned with the dreamland art of the San and Khoi Bushmen, who were the original inhabitants of this small, yet enticing corner of Africa.
The Vredefort Dome is the impact zone of the largest and oldest meteorite ever to collide with our planet. Scientists believe that the ensuing explosion and energy release could have led to major evolutionary changes the world over and today its importance has been recognised by the world body, UNESCO, which has included it as a World Heritage site.
Said to have occurred over 200 million years ago, a rock estimated to be the size of Table Mountain struck the earth, leaving an impact area 90 km wide.
Tourists who enjoy more activity during their time away from the humdrum of everyday life will find the Gariep Dam and surrounding area the ideal breakaway. South African tour operators can organise a range of adventure activities for the entire family, including an array of water sports.
Interestingly enough, the Gariep Dam Nature Reserve that encompasses the 36 487 ha Dam, the largest in South Africa, boasts the biggest herds of Springbok the nation over.
The Free State may have been the neglected region of South Africa in the past but more and more leading safari specialists have recognised the value of the 'platteland' - literally 'flat land' - and are now including it as an important element of the complete South African safari experience.
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