The Free State is situated in the heart of South Africa surrounded by neighboring provinces and the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. This region has been a bastion for Afrikaner nationalism and conservative culture since the establishment of the independent Republic of the Orange Free State back in the mid 1800s and the progress of race relations tends to move at a slower pace than in the rest of the county. The landscape throughout much of the province is flat cultivated fields, which gives way to the highveld of the Maluti Mountains in the northeastern part of the province. It is this expanse of rolling grassy hills and sandstone cliffs where the province’s main attraction lies. The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is full of fantastic hiking trails, caves filled with San rock art, roaming wildlife, and fresh mountain air, making it an ideal spot for those who enjoy the outdoors.
Two billion years after a meteor struck the earth and forever shaped the land where the present day town of Parys now sits, indigenous nomadic Khoisan were joined by Sotho migrants from the north. Farmers and pastoralists, the Southern Sotho peoples spread across the region in numerous small chiefdoms until their lives were violently interrupted in the early 1800s.
Warfare between the Nguni kingdoms to the east, led by the famed Zulu king Shaka, spilled onto the highveld. At the same time, bands of Griqua and Kora raiders from the Cape Colony descended on the Orange River, seeking captives to sell as slaves to white settlers. As hostilities spread throughout the region, many Sotho fled into the hills for refuge. Under the able leadership of the great Moshoeshoe, they established a stronghold in the mountains and successfully fended off attacks from invaders and provided protection to weaker Sotho chiefdoms living in the lush Caledon River valley.
In the wake of warfare, bands of Boer Voortrekkers expanded into the interior from the eastern Cape Colony as they fled from the colonial British administration in the Great Trek of the 1830s and 40s. But as the Voortrekkers attempted to stake their claims to farmland in the highveld, they too came into conflict with raiding warriors as well as with Moshoeshoe’s kingdom in the mountains. In 1854, the Boer frontiersmen declared an independent republic of the Orange Free State, named after the Orange River that forms its southern border. Yet bloody battles continued as they fought for territorial control. The Boer army waged two expansionist wars against the independent Sotho in 1858 and 1865, expanding the republic’s boundaries into the Caledon River valley. Sotho not driven into the mountains became subjugated as laborers for the Boer colonists.
Rising tension between the British and the Boer colonists came to a head in the South African War of 1899-1902. From their republics the Boers launched a preemptive strike, but soon felt the full force of thebut soon felt the full force of the British Empire as almost half a million British troops were brought in from abroad. British scorched-earth warfare proved devastating and ravaged Boer farms throughout the province.
With their homes burnt to the ground, Boer women and children were imprisoned in infamous British concentration camps such as the one outside of Harrismith, where thousands died of disease due to unsanitary conditions. The harsh treatment of Boer women and children during the war had a lasting effect on the Boer psyche and provided a strong stimulus for the development of Afrikaner nationalism during the early part of the 20th century. But British victory meant the end of independent Boer republic in 1902 and the Orange Free State became part of the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Throughout the 20th century, the Orange Free State remained a bastion for Afrikaner nationalism and conservative culture. Bloemfontein became the judicial capital of South Africa and a symbol of Afrikaner pride, but it was in the nearby township of Manguang where prominent black leaders met in 1912 and forged the foundations of the African National Congress (ANC) to challenge rising racial discrimination. Yet the province remained the domain of white politicians and farmers who instituted some of the strictest apartheid laws in the country. The black population was forcibly removed from white-designated areas and into the newly fabricated “homelands” of QwaQwa, a tiny pocket of land between Harrismith and Clarens along the Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal borders, and Bophutatswana, just outside of Bloemfontein. QwaQwa became home to nearly half a million Sotho who were deemed foreigners in their own country. With the end of apartheid, the "homelands" were incorporated back into South Africa and became part of the modern day Free State, which dropped the nominal “Orange” in the transition.
GPS: S 29 06.965 E 026 13.021 | pop. 370,000 | elevation 1,385 m/4,544 ft
Bloemfontein is the Free State’s largest city and capital as well as the judicial capital of the country. It is traditionally - and continues to be - a conservative city and stronghold of Afrikaner nationalism. Many people traveling through the country spend time in Bloemfontein only because of its central location on the N1 and substantial distance from other sizeable cities. Few consider Bloemfeontein a tourist destination in its own right.
GPS: S 26 54.104 E 027 27.479 pop. 370,000 | elevation 1,398 m/4,587 ft
This lovely town’s location along the Vaal River inspired its founders to name it Parys, after the French city on the Seine. While Parys never quite reached the fame or reputation of its sister city, there is much to appreciate about this refuge from the miles of farmland and bush of the northern Free State. Downtown Parys is a burgeoning destination for craft and antique hunters, and the surrounding area is rife with natural wonders. Most remarkable of this is the nearby Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the largest meteorite point of impact in the world.
GPS: S 28 16.186 E 029 07.513 | pop. 70,000 | elevation 1,641 m/5,384 ft
Harrismith gets a decent amount of visitor traffic, as it is the fork in the road where the N5 to Bloemfontein
branches off from the Johannesburg-Durban N3 artery. Unfortunately for Harrismith, the vast majority of the travelers who do stop never come into the city but instead gather at the Bergview 1 Stop center just off the N3 outside of town where there is fuel, restaurants, shops, ATMs, a playground, tourist information office and hotel. If you do come into town there is a pleseant central square with most of what you'll need within easy walking distance.
GPS: S 28 30.080 E 028 34.747 elevation 1,823 m/5,981 ft
Golden Gate Highlands National Parkis just 20 kilometers east of Clarens and one of the Free State’s most fantastic sights. Its moniker comes from the two cliffs within the park that face each other and glow a rich gold at sunset. While hikers and nature lovers can spend days among the complex rock formations and expansive grasslands of Golden Gate without tiring of its beauty, the short drive on the N712 that cuts through the heart of the park is just enough to get a taste of the park's rich historical and
geological significance. The 200-million-year-old rocky overhangs still bear the primitive rock paintings from Khoisan bushmen who took shelter in the area, and during the Anglo-Boer wars, this land was witness to fierce battles and scorched earth tactics that have left sections of the park barren even today.
Warmer months paint the park rainbow with flowers, while winter blankets the landscape with snow, but most anytime of the year a thin veil of mist provides some camouflage for the wildebeest, eland, oribi and zebra that roam here.
GPS: S 28 30.845 E 028 25.257 | pop. 4,000 | elevation 1,813 m/5,948 ft
Nestled in the breathtaking Maluti Mountains, the little country village of Clarens is a delightful surprise for
adventurers and art lovers alike. Pastoral cottages and the charming art galleries that splinter off from the
village square are dusted with snow in winter and are often blanketed with mist even in mid-summer. The
nearby Golden Gate National Park and surrounding landscape offer limitless pursuits for extreme sport junkies, but it’s the cosmopolitan array of accommodations and restaurants in Clarens that have attracted celebrities
such as Prince Harry and Brad Pitt while en route to Lesotho on goodwill missions.
GPS: S 28 52.218 E 027 52.578 pop. 30,000 | elevation 1,601 m/5,253 ft
The small border town of Ficksburg calls itself the “Gateway to the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho,” and true enough, many travelers pass through en route to Lesotho. But every November, Ficksburg leads a regional transformation into a cherry lover’s dream as tens of thousands of visitors pick, eat and buy fruit-inspired goods at the Cherry Festival. In addition to cherries, Ficksburg is known for its asparagus and its historically notable sandstone buildings. The town and surrounding area are particularly beautiful in April, when the pink Cosmos flowers bloom.