The Motheo region of the Free State occupies a nook in the south-east of the province, a piece of flat land that comes up against the magnificence of the Malotis, the mountain range that forms the border between South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Consisting of farm land in the main, Motheo holds the province’s capital and the judicial capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein. Motheo translates from the Sotho to “foundation” or “strong base of a building”, an appropriate term, as it is from here that the building and progress of the province is governed and monitored.
The region is striking for its very diverse cultural flavours – Bloemfontein has long been an Afrikaner stronghold and reflects this in its history, architecture, language and lifestyle. It falls into the same municipality (Mangaung) as Botshabelo, an urban township formed far more recently, and Thaba ‘Nchu, a predominantly Basotho frontier town set among sandstone cliffs.
Compact towns such as Dewetsdorp, Excelsior, Hobhouse, Ladybrand, Tweespruit, Van Stadensrus and Wepener are small centres of sandstone buildings, breaking long stretches of maize and wheat fields. They have their origins in chapters of South African history such as the Basotho Wars or the Anglo-Boer Wars.
Xhariep, the region south of Motheo, stretches to the Eastern and Northern Cape borders, separated from both these provinces by the 2 000-kilometre Orange River. A terrain mainly of grassland but changing to semi-desert as it edges into the Karoo, it is irrigated by the Orange, now increasingly referred to by its original Khoisan name, !Gariep.
Xhariep is sparsely populated with large expanses of farmland cultivating grain and rearing sheep, cattle and ostriches.
Its main attraction is the vast !Gariep Dam, the largest dam in the country and a tourist attraction growing in popularity as an increasing number of recreational activities set up on its banks.
On its northern shore is an 11 000-hectare game sanctuary. Tourism is helped by the fact that three national roads traverse Xhariep - the N1, N6 and N8 - ensuring it is “on the way” for many travellers.
Sprinkled throughout are 17 small towns named for landowners, men of the church and historical characters. Among them are Bethulie, Edenburg, Fauresmith, Jacobsdal, Luckhoff, Petrusburg, Phillipolis, Reddersburg, Rouxville, Smithfield, Springfontein, Trompsburg and Zastron.
Trompsburg, a centre of merino sheep-farming, is the seat of administration. Two other towns, Koffiefontein and Jagersfontein, are diamond-mining centres.
Xhariep revels in big blue, unpolluted skies, religious and historical sites and some fascinating geographical features.
Look out for
Capital city architecture – Bloemfontein has historical buildings by the dozen, many of them reflecting the sandstone architecture of the late 19th century. The institutions that line President Brand Street are good examples. See the City Hall, the Ou Raadsaal, the Literature Museum and the Supreme Court of Appeal.
Naval Hill – This hill is a source of pride to residents of Bloemfontein. It offers great views of the town and its slopes are the location of the Franklin Game Reserve. An observatory at the top has been converted into a theatre.
Ladybrand – This town, from where the sandstone to construct the Union Buildings in Pretoria was mined, packs a lot into limited space. In its vicinity are rock art sites, two locations where important dinosaur fossils were found, and Modderpoort, an Anglican Mission Station that also contains the grave of the legendary Basotho prophet, Mantsopa.
Maria Moroka Game Reserve – This national park, which includes the Groothoek Dam, is found at the foot of the Thaba Nchu Mountain and contains zebras, eland, red hartebees, black wildebeest, springbok, blesbok and white rhino. An eight-kilometre hike through the park is popular with tourists and yields good birding. Alternately, game drives under the guidance of a ranger can be taken.
Zastron – Situated between the Caledon and Orange Rivers, Zastron boasts a number of natural features. The Eye of Zastron is a hole in a large sandstone ridge on Aasvoëlberg or Vulture Hill, looming over the town. The Hippopotamus Cave takes its name from numerous hippo paintings on its rocks created by the San, while on the Glen Rosa Farm there’s a cave with a San frieze five meters high. Two dams in the town’s environs offer recreation – Eeufeeskloof and Montagu. The Manyaputi Nature Reserve in also located here.
Tiger Canyons Breeding Project – On the farm, Tiger Canyons, wildlife specialist John Varty is undertaking an experiment to breed free-ranging, self-sustaining tiger populations in the wild, outside Asia. Visitors can take a game drive in a 4x4 vehicle, adapted for their safety, in order to see the tigers at close range.
Letsatsi Game Lodge – This reserve is located near Smithfield on the road to Bethulie and offers game drives, horse rides and hiking. Both chalet and tented accommodation is available. There are also conference facilities. Buffalo, eland and black wildebeest are some of the game stocked.
Jagersfontein’s diamond heyday - In the 1890s, diamond mining in Jagersfontein yielded two notable gems, the 972-carat Excelsior diamond and the 637-carat Reitz diamond. Digging came to an end in the late 1960s, but one can still visit the old mine where the diamond rush started. The Open Mine Museum makes an interesting tour, or one can hike the Diggers Groot Gat Trail, a 35-kilometre walk over three days.
Oude Kraal Country Estate and Spa is a great place for good food and wine. The Colonial Restaurant offers six-course dinners and the food is legendary.