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The Free State is rich agricultural country and South Africa’s bread basket, with more than 30 000 farms producing the bulk of the country’s grain. It’s also studded with small, quaint towns that might make you want to linger awhile. So take the time to explore, rather than blasting through this vast expanse of land like impatient Joburgers do on the drive to Cape Town. Its biggest city is Bloemfontein, but it’s the smaller gems where its real treasures lie.
Parys is a pretty little town 90 minutes from Johannesburg and about 200 years backwards in time. The main street has a lovely arty vibe, with fascinating antique shops, bohemian art galleries, quirky boutiques, pavement cafes and friendly locals with the time to chat. There’s a pleasant museum and a river, which is a great place to amble along. Parys sits in the Vredefort Dome, a wide crater formed when a massive meteorite 10km wide smashed into Earth two billion years ago. It’s the biggest, oldest bang to ever rock the planet. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site although it’s best to hire a local guide because time has eroded most of its traces.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is known for its giant sandstone cliffs and weirdly shaped formations that turn golden in the sun. It’s in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains and is a great family destination for lovers of hiking, camping, mountain biking and horse riding. There’s plenty of antelope to spot and no risk of predators. You can explore its cave on a guided walk.
Gariep Dam Nature Reserve offers fantastic fishing and watersports, as well as game viewing, horse rides and hiking. The reserve has the largest herd of springbok in the country. You can also take a tour of the dam wall, which is an astonishing feat of engineering. The Gariep 500 Rubber Duck Race and Watersport Festival are held each February.
The best time to visit Ficksburg is in the spring, for the annual Cherry Festival each November. You can visit cherry and asparagus farms all year round, visit an artisanal chocolate factory, go hiking and horse riding in the sandstone mountains, or cruise on a nearby dam.
Clarens is the most famous of the Free State towns, another arty place where many tired-of-the-treadmill types set up their studios in the 1990s. They’re still there – and have been joined by many more. It’s a beautiful spot sitting on the Caledon River against a backdrop of the Rooiberge and Maluti Mountains. There’s plenty of accommodation, a microbrewery and lots of outdoor activities, including rock climbing, abseiling and white-water rafting.