The plateau-topping Golden Gate National Park in the eastern Free State of South Africa is one of the smaller protected areas in the country – about 35 000 hectares, but it’s one of the most scenically beautiful, and one of the highest too.
The park is located on the northern border of Lesotho, which is the only country in the world whose altitude never falls below 1 000 metres. The nearby Drakensberg mountains are just to the south, and can be seen from the park’s spectacular Mountain Retreat log cabins, which have one of the best views I’ve seen on my journey.
Although the park has a distinct mountainous aura – thin air, big sky, cold winter weather including lots of snow – the landscape is more like a very high plateau, which in fact the park is, because it forms the western side of South Africa’s high escarpment, before it tumbles precipitously over the nearby Drakensberg. Nevertheless, there are some impressive mountain peaks, including Ribbokkop, which is the highest in the park at 2 828 metres.
Golden Gate NP takes its name from the high sandstone cliffs which glow in the late afternoon sun. These cliffs have been eroded away over millennia by the high summer rainfall, and they make for a dramatic view. A public road runs through the park from the town of Clarens, and it must rank as one of the most spectacular drives in the country. Twisting and turning, and climbing and falling, driving this road makes one feel “high”!
The park conserves some of the last untransformed grasslands in the country, and although the cliffs give the park its name, the winter grasses shine equally brightly in the early morning and late afternoon light. As a photographer, it’s a wonderful place to lose yourself.
Although visitors will see wildlife, like the blundering black wildebeest, eland, hartebeest – and if you’re lucky the tiny Oribi antelope – the park is really all about the scenery. A small network of tarred roads (the Oribi Loop and Blesbok Loop) makes it easy for visitors to get the best of the views.
But a more authentic way of seeing the park is on horseback. The park has about 60 horses. Park Manager Johan Taljaard told me that the only effective way for rangers to patrol the inaccessible hills and valleys is on horseback, and the park is perfect for horse-riding generally. Visitors are taken on guided rides, and Johan emphasizes that it’s possible to go almost anywhere – and even full-moon night rides are possible.
Jim Mkhondo, Eric Makubo and Lawrence Mononela took me to Cathedral Cave, about an hour’s horse ride from the main offices. “Boesman” was my horse, and it was great to get out the car for a while and canter through the never-ending grasslands.
Cathedral Cave is impressive, and must-do activity – a river has carved out a massive amphitheatre in the sandstone rock, and although the water was barely flowing because of the dry winter season, there was still a trickle of water, whose tinkles echoed around the place like a little xylophone.
Of course, walking and hiking is also a great way to see the area…the two-day Ribbok Trail is the longest route, but there are several short trails, including the spectacular Brandwag Buttress, the most distinctive sandstone cliff which looms over the hotel and chalets.
It’s not just about the scenery though…Golden Gate National Park has an important social-economic role to play in the area. It lies between the upmarket town of Clarens, where wealthy Joburgers come to spend their weekends, and Qwa-Qwa, a so-called Presidential Nodal Point, one of the poorest areas in the country. So the park is very important as a catalyst for creating jobs – through its tourism, activities and development projects like Working for Fire and Working for Water. All in all, more than 400 people are working directly or indirectly in the park at any one time.
In fact, Golden Gate NP is very much a microcosm of South Africa. Wealthy people living close to poor people, and in between is an environment which we all depend on for survival. Golden Gate forms part of the Maluti-Drakensberg water catchment area, which supplies 50% of the country’s fresh water. Without the proper conservation of this area, our generally semi-arid nation would be in big trouble.
That’s why some of the biggest challenges facing Johan and his team involve keeping domestic cattle and livestock out of the area, as they tend to overgraze and cause soil erosion. But of course the locals need cattle in order to survive, so it’s always a delicate balance…it’s not easy being a conservationist in this country.
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