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South Africa’s hidden gem

It’s amazing what a dose of clean, mountain air will do for body, mind and soul. Not to mention breathtaking scenery, wildlife and a sky so large it seems to reach to infinity. Welcome to Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa’s Free State province. Home of the majestic Maluti mountains, with views of the northern Drakensberg and the adjacent land-locked kingdom of Lesotho and one of the last places on earth you’ll find the rare bearded vulture.

As National Parks go in South Africa, Golden Gate is most definitely a “poor relation” but, thanks to some clever forward thinking by South African National Parks (SANParks) and no small amount of money, a complete overhaul of its somewhat outdated “Brandwag” hotel, now renamed the Golden Gate hotel, has managed to stimulate interest in this quiet corner of the Rainbow Nation. Quiet, but absolutely outstanding I might add.

In spite of having a main trunk road (from the town of Pudhaditjaba to Clarens) running through it, and notwithstanding the tendency of vehicles taking the route speeding and being generally intolerant of tourists and sightseers, Golden Gate is perhaps one of South Africa’s best kept and most awe-inspiring secrets. And the new-look hotel is modern, welcoming and a very welcome jewel in SANParks crown.

Its olde-worlde styling (taken from the era when Swiss-style mountain lodges were all the rage) on the outside has been given a new lease of life with a completely contemporary refurbishment of the inside. The result is a charming, modern and wonderfully up-market vibe, which combined with friendly smiles and “we’ll go the extra mile” service, creates a great first impression.

The newly revamped Golden Gate hotel.

The hotel’s rooms have been carefully thought out, with stylish soft furnishings, quality fixtures and fittings and an eye for detail when it comes to the overall look and feel of each room.

The coffee lounge overlooking the stunning rock formations which have made this part of the world so famous, and rich in archaeological wonders (this is where South Africa’s dinosaur, Massospondylus, was discovered, complete with clutches of fossilised eggs containing embryos) is a marvelous place to curl up and enjoy afternoon tea, while watching the sinking sun turn the layers of sandstone outside into a dazzling palette of earthy colours.

The hotel’s restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but self-catering options are available at the hotel’s chalets, which sit to one side of this grand old lady of Free State tourism.

With a variety of sleeping permutations available, the standard chalet has a main room with two single beds, a separate (but small) double bedroom, a sitting area with table and chairs, flat-screen television with selected satellite channels, wall heaters, a full bathroom with a shower, and a fully contained kitchen with stove, oven, fridge-freezer and microwave to boot. All equipment and utensils are provided and outside there is a braai (barbecue) area with a table and chairs for al-fresco lunches.

Food can be bought at nearby Clarens (a 20 minute drive away) or brought from home. Either of these options is advisable as the shop at the park’s Van Reenen rest camp is extremely basic. This rest camp, as well as the Mountain Sanctuary retreat camp and Basotho Cultural Village camp, offer self catering accommodation. Van Reenen also offers camping and caravanning facilities.

The vulture restaurant is a great way to spot these amazing birds of prey.

So. What’s there to do once you have made the three and a half hour drive from Johannesburg? Driving around the incredible scenery on well marked and laid out sightseeing routes is the best way to explore the park and spot the varied wildlife which lives in it.

Eland, black wildebeest, zebra, blesbok and springbok are all easily seen from the road, and the array of bird life is outstanding. A vulture restaurant, where fresh carcasses are laid out to help supplement the diet of the local vulture populations, including the rare bearded vulture, offers the best chance to spot these amazing birds of prey.

Another great way to explore the park is on foot, and there are some well laid out hiking trails and mountain biking routes. Horse riding is also available.

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