To me, Golden Gate has always sounded like the name of a Chinese Restaurant, the kind with shiny gold tablecloths and clusters of red lanterns hanging everywhere. In China several years ago I actually came across just such a place. The neon sign across from my hotel flashed Golden Gate to Happiness all night and threw rainbows across my walls, making sleep a disturbed and colourful experience.
So, when my partner SB (alias Stink Bug) suggested we go to Golden Gate, I immediately started salivating at the thought of a delicious Chinese meal. Turns out he was referring to the SANparks reserve in the Free State. Actually, I had no objections to spending a long weekend there so we booked for August last year.
The week before we left, SABC news showed stunning photographs of the area covered in a deep blanket of snow. That could be fun, I thought, and filled my suitcase with warm, snuggly woolen garments. However, by the time we got there all that remained were sporadic white patches on the uppermost ridges of the Maluti Mountains. Gone was the winter wonderland scene of postcards and calendars.
Unfortunately, the road surface on Lichen’s pass was iced over and shortly before we arrived a taxi went over the edge. A monstrous red truck was sent to haul up the wreckage from the bottom of the gorge and the road was temporarily blocked off.
After checking in at the Glen Reenen offices, we managed to squeeze past the rescue truck and a gathering of spectators and make our way to the Basotho village where we’d chosen to stay.
Since we’d be living in a Basotho hut for the weekend, I expected the accommodation to be rustic but I was pleasantly surprised on opening the door to see it was luxuriously kitted-out with everything we could possibly need, including an oil heater. Turns out we hardly needed that as the sun came blazing out and melted away the last vestiges of snow and ice. Only the early mornings were a little frosty.
Our hut overlooked a vista of golden grasslands which came alive with herds of antelope each morning. As the sun rose in the clear grey sky, columns of blesbok would mysteriously emerge from the other side of the mountain, coming over from all different directions. They moved slowly at first but as their limbs warmed up they would begin to trot, converging en masse to cross a dry river bed before dispersing on the other side. It was like watching our own mini-migration. Herds of red hartebeest would sometimes join them and eland could be seen dotted in the distance.
Drives through the reserve brought us to small clusters of Burchell’s zebra and the more appealing of the wildebeest species, the long-tailed black variety. We also came across a trio of glossy green birds, with long red beaks, I hadn’t seen before. Consulting the bird book, we discovered they were Bald Ibises. I thought the Afrikaans name of Kalkoen (turkey) Ibis was rather apt.
On the Blesbok Loop, we found several dams tucked away between the mountains, their turquoise water a pretty contrast to the surrounding yellow grass. Selecting a spot overlooking a dam we picnicked on left-over braai food before taking a brisk walk up a long, steep hill to get an even better view.
On the way back to our village we stopped at the Van Reenen family cemetery just off the main road. I am always fascinated by the untold stories that lay beyond the names carved on tombstones. In this graveyard were the tombstones of two young people, a man and a woman barely in their twenties, who had both been struck by lightning at Mount-aux-Sources in 1932. What’s worse is it happened on December 18, a week before Christmas. What heartbreak this must have brought for the families involved.
To be continued . . .