Titanic beauty of the Golden Gate

The fortress-like rock that heralds the approach to the Golden Gate national park in the Eastern Free State of South Africa has always been known as the Titanic. The reason is simple. Its dramatic edifice is the image of the ship sunk by an iceberg in the north Atlantic. However, there is no air of doom over this region of beautiful vistas which, if you continue through the rocky defile, will take you on to the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu Natal. Its great granite and sandstone citadel, golden in the late afternoon sun, opens a window into a fascinating world of tourism within a vast agricultural terrain. This is a vibrant, action-filled place, supported by an excellent range of accommodation in the park itself. The sheer rugged beauty of the Golden Gate offers a powerful reason for travellers from Johannesburg to break their journey to the Cape precisely at this spot. Many will stay in Clarens, a town coincidentally born in 1912, the year the Titanic sank, and one may be forgiven for thinking that its growth must have resembled those places in the American West, attracting the homesteaders and prospectors pioneering a new way of life. There is a focal point here and that is the green-roofed town’s development as an artist colony. Those with the brush and their rainbow colours probably owe a lot to the proximity of the Golden Gate but history will tell of Clarens’ own momentum since being named after the town in Switzerland where President Paul Kruger settled in exile. Clarens lies in the shadow of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, indelibly linked with the Eastern Cape and the Free State in a very special tourist route. There is a diversity of culture here: Basotho, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. And in Clarens there are the godfathers. These are the community’s leaders ‘ farmers and artists and entrepreneurs ‘ and every morning some of them will gather at The Post House to talk over a thousand things but essentially to guide the town through to a dynamic future. There is no Titanic here. A quiet enchantment embraces Clarens, a place of guest houses and tea houses and artists’ studios, which draw the public from many different places in South Africa. Fed up with life in the metropolis, where they often battle crime, many business-minded people are reversing the Great Trek and settling in the more rural Free State, an agricultural community it that is rapidly diversifying. Clarens is surrounded by mountainous splendour. The Rooiberge is the range encompassing the town while towards the south-east the Malutis bask in the shades of purple and blue. All around are the great sandstone cliffs with their multi-coloured layers but it is the light green willows and the magnificent autumn colours of the Lombard poplars that make Clarens such an attractive resort. The town hosts such settlers as Bruce Wayer, a farmer who runs a very successful weaving centre among other enterprises. “We are riding the African dream,” says Bruce. “This is a town without a rush hour and a place where everyone greets each other. People are leaving the big cities to buy properties here and despite all this, the town has not lost any of its charm.” “We are getting known as an arts centre,” says Ralph Dykman, who has been painting in this town for many years. There are numerous art galleries and many more artists are coming in with their different styles. In a sense, from its humble beginnings, Clarens represents the new South Africa on the move, embracing with tremendous zeal and awareness the potential of tourism within the nation. Apart from its artistic reputation, the Golden gate national park also has a lot going for it as an adventure centre. The mountains not only offer wonderful views but also attract the hikers and bikers, the fishermen and horse riders. It’s a great action landscape for the super-charged bikes. “The cruiser people live for the panorama, the fast bikers for the bends,” says Mike Venter from Johannesburg. The Free State, with its open roads, is one of the most popular places in the country for major bike rallies and always there is a doctor riding along to help those who “kiss the tar”. Some will stay at the Maluti Mountain Lodge, which has a breathtaking game-oriented dinner menu supported by fresh farm produce and a herb garden on the premises ‘ obviously recognised by the locals who flock there on a Saturday night. Manager Paul Ellis even has a “snow list” which he uses when the landscape is white, inviting past guests who love to stay at the lodge when this part of the Free State experiences a snow siege ‘ probably once every three years. It can be well below zero in the winters but heaters and electric blankets are harnessed to keep out the chill. This does not deter a whole new breed of travellers who will come whatever the weather conditions ‘ many for its excellent conference facilities ‘ to experience the country atmosphere of the lodge close to the Golden Gate. “Fly fishing is also a very important aspect to this area,” says Paul. “It is abounding in trout rivers and dams. In fact, the all-Africa record for trout was set nearby at Qua Qua. While trout is the major fish, there are also a lot of yellow fish in the rivers.” The Eastern Free State, through its mountain grandeur and variety of outdoors activities, is rapidly becoming one of South Africa’s more important scenic destinations, an alternative to the seascape of the Cape and wild life in the Kruger. The Golden Gate national park is a true highland habitat, not without its own wild life species ‘ black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell’s zebra ‘ and birds, including the rare beaded vulture and the equally rare bald ibis, which breed on the ledges of the sandstone cliffs. It is also home to the peaceful and music-loving Basotho people, who have lived close to nature for generations. They have a deep appreciation of the environment and take the distinctive shape of their traditional headgear from the nearby hills. But if you come for nothing more than the beautiful sandstone churches which are frequently encountered in the area, your journey will be worthwhile. Many couples start their married lives in such titanic surroundings.

June 2006
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