Nelson Mandela once described South Africa’s Free State as a land that gladdened his heart no matter his mood. It was the kind of place where nothing could shut him in, and his thoughts could roam as far as the horizons. Free State (formerly known as Orange Free State) also happens to be the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.”
Here are 11 reasons to visit South Africa’s Free State, one of the country’s least-explored provinces.
This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.
1. Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Blazing orange sunsets, sandstone monoliths and an undulating sea of spearmint-colored grass are all reasons this national park is the Free State’s natural highlight. Don’t skip a sunset champagne picnic. Pick up supplies from Claren’s Mezzaluna Deli and head towards the park just as the sun starts sinking.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien
Fans of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy won’t want to skip the Free State’s only city, Bloemfontein, which is where J.R.R. Tolkien was born. Spend the night at the Hobbit Boutique Hotel in the heart of Bloemfontein’s downtown for a true tribute to Tolkien.
3. Exploring the township where the ANC was born
Bloemfontein’s townships played an integral role in the fight to end apartheid, and none is more legendary than Manguang, where the African National Congress party was born in 1912. Today visitors can take guided tours of the shantytown located five kilometers outside of the city. The best tours depart after dark and include visits to the local “shebeens,” where home brews are on tap and dancing is compulsory.
4. World’s largest meteor impact site
Just outside the town of Parys is Vredefort Dome, the oldest and largest meteorite impact site on earth. It stretches 200km wide and has some great hiking trails across its smooth but eerie rock surface.
5. Scenic drives to old hippie haunts
Take a drive along Route 26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg, detouring onto no-name dusty byways, and dipping into the remote Rustler’s Valley, a longtime hippie outpost, along the way.
6. Rubber duck races
The largest nature reserve in the Free State, Gariep Dam is best visited in February when it hosts the world’s longest inland rubber-duck race. The Gariep 500 Rubber Duck Race and Watersport Festival is held on the 36,487-hectare reservoir.
7. Adrenaline adventures
Head to the Parys area around the secluded Vaal River to play in the great outdoors. The area has a cool backpackers getaway and “Lonely Planet” pick — Otter’s Haunt — and activities from kayaking to mountain biking.
Surrounded by limestone rocks, hunter green hills, golden fields and backed by the Maluti Mountains, bucolic Clarens is my favorite town in the Free State. It is a picture-perfect village filled with whitewashed buildings, quiet shady streets and around 20 galleries selling well-respected South African art. Spend the night here. The guesthouses are fantastic. And did we mention that Brad Pitt slept in Clarens?
9. Hiking the Rhebok Trail
In Golden Gate Highlands National Park this circular, 33-kilometer trek takes two days to complete. You spend the night in a hut along the way.
10. Off-the-beaten-path lodging
Get off the beaten path and head to Camelroc Guest Farm, which is located just 800 meters from the mountainous Lesotho border and nestled up against a spectacular sandstone outcropping.
11. Oliewenhuis Art Museum
Located in a 1935-era mansion in Bloemfontein, and surrounded by beautiful gardens with wild olive trees, the Oliewenhuis Art Museum is one of South Africa’s most impressive galleries. The permanent collection features works by South African artists including Thomas Baines.
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