As the Free State is in the middle of the country, many people whiz through it looking neither left nor right while dashing along the N1. But it’s worth taking a few days longer over the journey and exploring this most decidedly underrated destination. The Free State is divided into five regions.
If you believe the Free State is one big flat mielie field frivolously enlivened by the headgear of a few gold mines you obviously haven’t been to the east. It’s the highland side of the province, which is ironic as it was the fertile lowlands of Lesotho, then Basutoland, when the Orange Free State Republic forcibly occupied it in 1865. Well, history aside, it’s a beautiful area with lots of pretty little towns, great mountain scenery, rock art, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking and horse trails. The numerous urban escapees who’ve settled here in towns like Clarens and Marquard have added a bit of contemporary style and greatly increased the number of cappuccino machines. This is cherry farming country, and there are a number of farms offering tastings and sales of cherry wine. There is a cherry festival in the small town of Ficksburg every November. Another delicious product of this area is asparagus but, unfortunately there is no asparagus festival.
Xhariep, in the south-west, is named after the Orange, or Gariep, River which forms its border with the Northern Cape. Attractions here include the enormous Gariep Dam, a tiger sanctuary and the Free State’s only wine farm.
The northern part of the province, known as Fizile Dabi, extends to the Vaal River, across which lies the North West Province in the west, Mpumalanga in the east, and Gauteng in the middle. There is gentle white water rafting on the river near Parys, and loads of other water sports upstream on the Vaal Dam. Extending across the river to the North West Province is the phenomenal Vredefort Dome, which is a world heritage site, offering lots of interesting outdoor activities.
The main town in the Goldfields, or Lejweleputswa, is Welkom, the site of the first gold mine in the Free State. The huge Bloemhof Dam, on the Vaal, is close to Gauteng, and offers a cool respite to weary urban wage slaves who like to escape here on weekends. The most central part of the province, Motheo, includes the provincial capital, Bloemfontein, and is more of a cultural destination with loads of museums, monuments, art outlets and interesting buildings.