Golden Gate Highlands National Park is located close to Lesotho’s northern border in the South African province of the Free State. It is one of the country’s lesser-known national parks, and yet its setting in the foothills of the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains means that it is also one of its most spectacular. In addition to jaw-dropping mountain scenery (including some of the most impressive sandstone formations in Southern Africa), the park is steeped in history and is full of rare and unexpected wildlife.
History of the Park
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is defined by its complex topography of sheer cliffs, plunging valleys, and hidden caves. The latter, in addition to a historic abundance of game animals, made it an obvious place of shelter for the Khoisan people; one of South Africa’s oldest indigenous groups. The Khoisan left their mark on the park quite literally, in the form of paintings daubed upon its rock faces and overhangs.
In time, the Khoisan were pushed out of their ancestral lands, first by the Basotho people and later by Europeans. In particular, the Free State was settled by members of the Cape Dutch colony known as the Voortrekkers, who pushed northwards from 1834 onwards to escape British rule in the Cape. The first Voortrekker settlement in the Golden Gate Highlands region was established in the 1830s, at the same time as Mfecane was taking place throughout South Africa.
Mfecane was a period of great upheaval and warfare amongst the country’s indigenous tribes that lasted from around 1815 to 1840. At this time, the Basotho in the Golden Gate Highlands area were largely massacred or displaced by Zulu and Matabele warriors from Natal and the Transvaal; leaving a vacuum quickly filled by Boer and British farmers. In 1853, the farms that would eventually become the national park were incorporated into the independent Boer republic known as the Orange Free State.
The region saw considerable unrest in the following years, first during the Free State-Basotho Wars and later during the Second Anglo-Boer War. In the latter conflict, Boer women and children escaped the British concentration camps by seeking refuge in the park’s caves; while evidence of the fires lit when the Boers burned their own ammunition wagons to prevent them from falling into the hands of the British can still be seen in the park today.
In 1962, the South African government purchased the Free State farm known as Golden Gate, a name inspired by the color of the setting sun on its sandstone cliffs. A year later the farm was declared as a national park—the first and only national park in South Africa to protect the vulnerable grassland biome. in 1983 it reached its current size of 45 square miles. The park was found to be of significant paleontological importance in 1973 when the world’s first fossilized dinosaur eggs from the Triassic period were discovered here.
The Animals of Golden Gate
Unlike South Africa’s more famous big five parks, the main attraction of Golden Gate Highlands National Park is its awe-inspiring scenery. Nevertheless, while the park lacks iconic safari animals like elephants, rhino, and lions, it does provide a home for some unique highland wildlife. This includes 10 types of antelope including specialist species like the mountain reedbuck, the grey rhebok, and the threatened oribi. Zebras and baboons are also commonly spotted, while otters inhabit the park’s dams. Possible predator sightings range from black-backed jackals and silver foxes to caracals, African wild cats, and aardwolves.
A Haven for Rare Birds
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is also a great destination for birders. Designated as an Important Bird Area with 220 recorded species, it is most famous as one of the last refuges of the rare bearded vulture (a fascinating bird of prey that subsists almost exclusively on bone marrow). These vultures are also known as lammergeiers and can easily be seen and photographed at the park’s Vulture Restaurant, an area of open ground where livestock carcasses are left for the birds to feed on. Other key raptor species include the endangered Cape vulture, the Verreaux’s eagle, the booted eagle, and the martial eagle.
The vulnerable southern bald ibis breeds in two separate locations within the park, including Cathedral Cave; while the grassland areas are home to four species of lark, seven kinds of pipit, and nine types of cisticola. Other specials to look out for include the black-rumped buttonquail, the sentinel rock thrush, and the Gurney’s sugarbird. The Drakensberg rock jumper and the Drakensberg siskin are both local endemics.
The Top Things to Do
Hiking: Getting out and exploring the park’s fantastic scenery on foot is the main attraction here. There are eight hiking trails to choose from, ranging in length from approximately one hour to two days. Highlights include the Brandwag Rock trail, the Cathedral Cave trail, and the Ribbok trail. Brandwag is a one-hour, unguided loop that affords incredible views of one of the park’s most recognizable sandstone formations, the Brandwag Buttress. It’s suitable for children, though some sections involve a steep ascent.
The Cathedral Cave trail is a four-hour guided hike available from December to October only. It takes you to an astonishing sandstone cavern eroded over millions of years to approximately 165 feet in depth and 820 feet in width. For those that like a challenge, the Ribbok Trail is an overnight hike to the summit of the Ribbokop (the tallest free-standing peak in the park and in the wider Free State). Measuring roughly 17 miles, the trail offers great chances for spotting wildlife including the bearded vulture.
Game Drives: The park also has two routes for self-drive safaris. The first is the Oribi Loop, which measures 2.6 miles and takes you past the Vulture Restaurant for close-up encounters with the park’s most famous feathered residents. The second is the 4.1-mile Blesbok Loop, which includes mesmerizing views from General's Kop viewpoint. All roads are tarred so there's no need for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Adventure Sports: There are several adventure activities available within the park, including abseiling, guided horseback rides, and canoeing on Gladstone Dam. All of these are led by certified guides and should be booked via SANParks at least 24 hours in advance. The area around the park has opportunities for many more adventure sports, from mountain biking and whitewater rafting to fly fishing.
Basotho Cultural Village: Those that want to experience what life might have been like for the Basotho of the 18th century can experience it for themselves at the park’s Basotho Cultural Village. Here you can wander amongst traditional houses, sample home-brewed beer, listen to traditional songs and instruments, and purchase authentic crafts. Experiences include a two-hour journey into the wilderness with a tribal healer to learn about medicinal plants and view examples of San rock art and a seven-hour tour of the historical sites of QwaQwa, the former homeland of the Basotho people.
Weather and Climate
Golden Gate Highlands National Park has a typical highveld climate, with mild summers marked by frequent afternoon thunderstorms and cold winters with temperatures that can fall as low as 5 degrees F (-15 degrees C). The rainy season lasts from September to April, while winters often see snowfall. The park is beautiful during every season and can be visited all year round, although visitors should be sure to pack for every eventuality since the weather can change with very little notice.
Where to Stay
There are several accommodation options within the park. The first is the three-star Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets, with 54 recently renovated rooms, two bars, and a restaurant with inspiring mountain views. The hotel also offers 34 self-catering chalets. Nearby, the Glen Reenen Rest Camp is a laid-back option with traditional African-style rondavels, self-catering cottages, and caravan and camping sites. The latter have access to barbecue and ablution facilities, as well as a natural rock pool for swimming in summer.
If you want a more secluded option, consider the rustic Noordt Brabant Guest House (housed in an old farmhouse), or the luxurious Highlands Mountain Retreat. The retreat includes eight log cabins situated 7,200 feet above sea level with panoramic views of valleys and mountains.
The national park is roughly equidistant from three of South Africa’s biggest cities: Johannesburg and Bloemfontein (both 3 hours and 15 minutes away), and Durban (3 hours and 45 minutes away). Well-maintained tarred roads make it equally accessible from all three. Golden Gate Highlands National Park is intersected by the public R712 road, which runs from Phuthaditjhaba in the east to Clarens in the west. All visitors must pay a daily conservation fee, which costs 236 rand per adult and 118 rand per child, with discounts available for South African and SADC nationals.
The closest town is Clarens, located 12 miles away. The town is a tourist attraction in its own right and is known as the Jewel of the Eastern Free State for its early 20th-century history, picturesque mountain setting, and excellent art galleries. In particular, the surrounding area is renowned amongst fly fishermen for having one of the best trout fishing waters in South Africa. Clarens offers alternative accommodation options and necessities including ATMs, grocery stores, and fuel stations.