The Free State is South Africa’s Cinderella province.
However, the Free State is landlocked so it doesn’t have Cape Town’s beaches, and its economy is based on large scale maize agriculture and mining, neither of which are particular decorative. But, it is seriously underrated.
There are lovely mountainous areas in the east, where the dramatic, concave sandstone cliffs and bright green rolling grasslands form the foothills of the Maluti Mountains and the Drakensburg. The main farming activity here is the growing of cherries, which tends to be a much prettier crop than maize.
There is great hiking and mountain biking in the hills, and the scenery is awesome.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park, with its many day walks and hiking trails, pony trails, lovely rock art and small game, gets its name from the magnificent golden-hued sandstone cliffs.
Adjacent to the park is the Basotho Cultural Village, which showcases both historical and contemporatry aspects of the Sotho culture, which straddels both the Free State and the adjacent kingdom of Lesotho.
Small towns, such as Clarens, are idyllic little hideaways with a significant population of artists, crafters and other rat-race refugees, and many lovely old houses are built from the glowing golden sandstone.
The Ash River, which tumbles into the eastern Free State from the mountains of Lesotho, has some of the most dependabel white water rafting in South Africa. There is excellent fly fising in the Eastern Highlands – both for trout and the far more interesting indigenous yellow fish, which is found in abundance in the huge Sterkfontein Dam.
The small farming town of Marquard is the centre of the cherry growing area, and is a mountain biking destination of note. Every November in Ficksburg – another small farming town with pretensions to becoming a hip spot – throws a cherry festival. It’s an excuse for the local people to see a few outsiders as the huge band of gypsy traders that travel from festival to festival turn up in force. You may – if you’re lucky – even find a few cherries.
The northern boundary of the province is the Vaal River, which supports some fun rafting trips, particularly near the town of Parys. Parys, which is the Afrikaans, version of Paris, is a great little town, with excellent coffee shops, loads of arty crafty outlets and – it must have something to do with the name – a good number of fashion designers. Close to Parys is the Vredefort Dome, which is South Africa’s newest world heritage site.
It’s the site of an ancent meteorite impact, the scars of which are still discernable. As well as the spectacular, rather rugged terrain, which is as a result of the impact, attractions here include some small game farms, hiking trails and some pretty mean mountain biking trails. Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State, is a pleasant small city with lots of open space and some interesting museums. So there is loads to do in the Free State, but bear in mind that it’s all pretty low key and laid back.
This is still the agricultural heartland of South Africa – a place where things should not be rushed.