The Free State is the agricultural center of South Africa
The Free State is South Africa’s Cinderella province.
However, the Free State is landlocked, so it doesn’t have the beaches of Cape Town, and its economy is based on large-scale maize farming and mining, neither of which is particularly decorative. But it is seriously underrated.
There are wonderful mountain areas to the east, where dramatic, jagged sandstone cliffs and bright green grasslands form the foothills of the Maluti and Drakensburg mountains. The main agricultural activity here is the cultivation of cherries, which are a much more beautiful crop than corn.
There is great hiking and mountain biking in the hills and the scenery is great.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park, with its multi-day walks and hiking trails, pony trails, beautiful rock paintings 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 contemporary aspects of Sotho culture.
Small towns such as Clarence are idyllic little hideaways with a significant population of artists, craftsmen and other rat refugees, and many lovely old houses are built from the glowing golden sandstone.
The Ash River, which descends into the eastern Free State from the mountains of Lesotho, offers some of the most reliable whitewater rafting in South Africa. There is excellent fly fishing in the Eastern Highlands – both for trout and the much more interesting native yellowfish, which are found in abundance in the huge Sterkfontein Reservoir.
The small farming town of Marquard is the center of the cherry growing area and is a notable mountain biking destination. Every November, Ficksburg—another small farming town with pretensions to becoming a fashion destination—hosts a cherry festival. It’s an excuse for locals to see a few outsiders, as the huge band of gypsy traders who travel from festival to festival show up in force. You might – if you’re lucky – even find a few cherries.
The province’s northern border is the Vaal River, which supports some fun rafting trips, especially near the town of Paris. Paris, which is the Afrikaans version of Paris, is a great little city, with excellent cafes, loads of artsy crafty shops and – must have something to do with the name – a large number of fashion designers. Near Paris is the Vredefort Dome, which is South Africa’s newest World Heritage Site.
This is the site of an ancient meteorite impact, the scars of which are still visible. Apart from the spectacular, rather rugged terrain that results from the impact, the 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 little town with lots of open space and some interesting museums. So there’s plenty to do in the Free State, but keep in mind that it’s all pretty low-key and laid-back.
It is still the agricultural heart of South Africa – a place where things should not be rushed.
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