A golden thread runs through the Free State, the kidney-shaped province that lies deep in the heart of South Africa. The rich seams of gold ore that run for many kilometres underground are echoed in the golden fields of wheat, maize and sunflowers that stretch above ground as far as the eye can see. The skies of the Free State are also edged with gold as the rays of the afternoon sun bathe the sandstone rock formations of the Golden Gate National Park in the Eastern Free State in coppery gold.
Some 2000 million years ago, a meteorite crashed into the earth near the present-day town of Vredefort. This phenomenon not only created the Vredefort Dome, a fertile basin with beautiful natural vegetation, but also changed the composition of the earth’s crust and determined the position of the gold-bearing reefs of South Africa.
The impact caused the gold-bearing reefs to circle out into a much larger “dome” underground and pushed the reefs as far as the Witwatersrand. But it did not leave the Free State wanting. The Free State produces nearly 21 per cent of the world’s gold and accounts for half of South Africa’s total gold output.
Just as the province nestles safe in the heart of the country, the people of the province are willing to take visitors to their hearts, to welcome them into their homes and show them their way of life. Most of the visitors to the province comment on the genuine warmth and hospitality with which Free State people treat visitors and state this as one of the reasons why they often return. Tired city dwellers often come here to show their children how their grandparents once made a living on farms or to relax in one of the many game reserves. Whether they are English-, Afrikaans- or Sotho-speaking, visitors to the Free State can all find a spiritual home in the province with the heart of gold.
The Free State is completely landlocked, bordered by six of the nine provinces of South Africa and folded protectively around the Kingdom of Lesotho. The rich soils and strong rivers of the province create rich and glorious life and the Free State is not called the “food basket” of the country without reason. Fields of maize, wheat and sunflowers cover vast acres of farmland, and dairy, sheep and cattle farming also contribute strongly to the economy of the province.
Many holidaymakers drive through the Free State annually on their way to and from the Western Cape. Over the last few years in particular, many people have realised that the Free State is not just a throughway, but has unique features of its own to recommend it to the discerning traveller. Like the discoverers of old, people need to explore the Free State to truly appreciate its attraction as a place where people can escape the hustle and bustle of city life, take leisurely walks amid historical or natural surroundings and reconnect with nature and other people.
Although the Free State does not have many cities and is not densely populated, it has an extremely well-developed infrastructure. All its destinations are thus eminently accessible, while still giving visitors the feeling of being in another world, well removed from city life. Ride the main routes lined with the pink, purple and white cosmos wild flowers and gaze beyond them at the fields of sunflowers facing the sun, the maize fields with their cobs hanging heavy and the waving corn stalks and simply drink in the goodness of Mother Nature.
The Lejweleputswa Region owes its main claim to fame to the mine surveyor who, in 1948, sunk a borehole on the farm St Helena in search of water, but instead found a deep source of gold-bearing ore linked to the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand. This discovery marked the beginning of the Free State gold rush. “Lejweleputswa” means “grey stone” and refers to the unprocessed gold-bearing rock that is found here. Lejweleputswa lies at the heart of the “Maize Triangle”, where golden maize fields stretch from horizon to horizon and is also the fourth most important manufacturing district in the country.
The Motheo Region is the home of Bloemfontein, the provincial capital and the business and cultural hub of the Free State. This is the place of golden opportunities, where several political parties saw the light of day and where the population of the province comes together to merge into a cosmopolitan community. At night, the city lights form a golden glow on the horizon, as locals and visitors revel in the cultural and entertainment opportunities associated with city life. But Motheo is also a region of golden fields of wheat and maize, where sheep and cattle graze. Game reserves and private farms, where game-watching and hunting are allowed, make up the rest of the region.
Kilometres and kilometres of maize fields, the yellowed cobs winking from afar, interspersed with fields of sunflowers – this is the gold grown on the land in the Northern Free State. This region produces the major portion of the country’s maize crop. With an abundance of water and the presence of such diverse features as hilly grasslands, rugged mountains, fertile highveld plains, the region can truly be said to have it all. In the extreme north lies the mighty Vaal River, a prime holiday destination that is ideal for adventure activities such as white-water rafting, canoeing, boating and angling. The presence of the Vredefort Dome is another bonus for adventurers and anyone who enjoys a taste of the unique and unusual. Inside the Dome area there are several adventure opportunities and several species of plants and insects can be seen that are found nowhere else on earth.
The golden sandstone hills and mountains of the Thabo Mofutsanyana Region in the Eastern Free State dominate the fields of sunflowers, wheat and maize and the orchards of peach trees and cherries that stretch across its plains. The hills and mountains, magical, mystical places, were home to early San and Sotho tribes and prehistoric creatures and are rich in San rock art and fossils. The skies of the Eastern Free State are imbued with coppery golden hues as the late afternoon rays of the sun reflect off the fabulous sandstone highlands of the Golden Gate National Park and its twin, Qwa-Qwa National Park.
The Xhariep region encompasses the tranquil, semi-arid hills, valleys and open grassland planes and prairies of the Southern Free State. The mighty Orange River forms the region’s southern border and feeds much of thefarmlands in the Free State and Northern Cape and most of the industrial developments in the province. The golden theme is repeated in the wheat and maize fields and vineyards of the region and in the warm, yellow hues of the white wines produced at the Wilreza and Landzicht Wine Cellars.
The province has its own distinctive vegetation, which consists of almost 3 000 different species of plants. There are six basic veld types and the vegetation can be divided into three biomes, namely Grassland, Nama Karoo and Savannah. Savannah-type vegetation has developed in the extreme western and north-western parts of the province. Acacia, camel thorn and sweet thorn all thrive in this grassy area. The southern part of the province consists of veld that has been invaded by Karoo vegetation (scrub). The south-western part of the province is dry with Karoo vegetation. Dwarf trees, shrubs and succulents dot the landscape. Since there is more moisture on the hills, grasses and trees are more common here than on the dry plains.
The weather conditions that characterise the Free State are typical of those of an interior plateau: summer rains, cold winters and plenty of sunshine – between 60 and 85 per cent of the days of the year are without significant cloud cover. Other factors that determine the climate are altitude above sea level and distance from the ocean, which result in semiarid to warm conditions in the west, semi-arid and cool conditions in the central parts and moist and cool conditions in the eastern parts of the province, where the mountains are often covered in snow. The southern part of the province is dry and hot in summer and cold in winter. Frost occurs throughout the region usually from May to early September in the west and up to early October in the east.