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Built in 1893 at the confluence of the Wilge and the Vaal rivers near Vereeniging, the Vaal Dam is a favourite inland leisure destination.
The dam’s shoreline is 880-kilometres long, spans three provinces and covers an area of over 300 squared kilometres, making it the country’s largest dam by area and the third largest by volume.
Fed by water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the Vaal Dam is one of three water supply dams in the Upper Vaal catchment area and it provides water to Gauteng for municipal use, agriculture and industry.
Millionaire real estate and up-market guesthouses line the Vaal Dam’s banks. At weekends the population swells as water babies from the Free State, Gauteng, and the North West provinces bring their sailing boats, jet-ski’s, wind surfers and canoes out to play.
The Vaal Dam is also a hub for anglers with competitions held throughout the year. Downstream from the dam there’s excellent year-round fly fishing. Golfers, birders and nature lovers will also find plenty to keep them busy, and no visit would be complete without a sundowner cruise or a long, lazy lunch overlooking the water.
Across the Vaal River is the northern Free State or Fazile Dabi, a region of the Free State that borders the southern boundaries of Gauteng and North West province.
Fezile Dabi, who hailed from Tumahole in Parys, was a leader of the African National Congress, a poet, author and philosopher, who rated freedom so highly that he wrote: “ I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in riches with the lack of self respect.”
The Vaal River and the vast Vaal Dam are extremely significant to the region’s tourism economy. Over weekends, the shores of both facilities fill up with recreation-seekers, who take to boats, yachts, skis and all sorts of water-bound equipment to get pleasure from this “inland sea”.
The huge Vredefort Dome, the third-largest meteorite impact crater on earth, stretches into this region too. Caused by the slamming of a meteorite about 10 kilometres in diameter into the earth’s surface, it is speculated that the collision, more than 2 000-million years ago, affected the earth’s levels of oxygen to the point that multi-cellular life became possible.
The geographical features that resulted from this event have made the terrain ideal for a whole range of adventure pursuits, the abseiling and rock climbing being particularly good.
The Vredefort Dome’s importance to the planet at large has caused Unesco to declare it a world heritage site.
The northern Free State is essentially agricultural terrain. Maize and wheat, sorghum and sunflowers are the major crops, but cattle and dairy farming, as well as sheep farming, are actively pursued.
A network of small towns dot the Northern Free State, noted for their sandstone buildings, sites and memorials that relate to their Voortrekker or Anglo-Boer War histories.
Modest Cornelia has yielded interesting fossils of beasts no longer found; peaceful Heilbron belies a torrid history in which Chief Mzilikazi and the Voortrekkers came to blows; Koppies is where activist Emily Hobhouse started a lace school to empower women through cottage industry, and Kroonstad is the third-largest town in the province.
Parys, also on the Vaal, was so named by its German land surveyor because the setting reminded him of Paris on the River Seine. This vibrant town today is a wonderful mix of coffee bars, antique shops, decor shops and art galleries.
Other towns in this region are Deneysville on the Vaal, Edenville, Frankfort and Oranjeville on the Wilge River, Sasol with its oil-from-coal refinery, Steynsrus, Tweeling and Viljoenskroon, famed for its stud farms. Villiers is said to be the most aesthetically pleasing town in the region, while Vredefort sits in the heart of the impact crater site.
Look out for
The Vredefort Dome – With a radius of 190km, the dome is regarded as the most clearly visible and oldest impact crater on earth. Of course you cannot see a space that large from the ground. At the town of Vredefort, however, there is a visitors’ centre where tourists can learn about the formation of the dome. Adventure and tour operators in the Parys area offer all types of unusual ways to experience the dome – climbing and abseiling its cliffs, rafting and canoeing in its waters, or floating above it in a hot-air balloon.
Parys is a fun little town, ideal for weekends away from Johannesburg. There are lots of art galleries, restaurants and antique shops, as well as good quality bed-and-breakfasts and guest houses. Water sports are a favourite past-time in Parys and there are quite a few adventure tour operators in the area.
Kroonpark, Kroonstad - A recreation area on the Vals River, Kroonpark has a caravan park and self-catering chalets, indoor heated and outdoor swimming pools, a restaurant and landing stages for boats. It lies in an area of lush greenery. There are also conference facilities here, a large amphitheatre, tennis courts, trampolines and putt-putt. Fishing is another outdoor option.
Deneysville – This small town is situated on the Vaal Dam, often the turnaround point for weekend bikers on “breakfast runs”. Four yacht clubs in the vicinity stage weekend races, two well-known ones being Keel Boat Week (Deneysville Aquatic Club) and the Round the Island Yacht Race (Lake Deneys Yacht Club).
Koppies Dam Nature Reserve - East of Koppies, this nature reserve on 4 300 hectares on the Renoster River offers a satisfying game experience. White rhino and large buffalo herds are some of the highlights of a visit, along with multiple bird species, including waterfowl. A dam in the reserve is said to be a fisherman’s paradise, abundant with yellowfish, barbel, carp and mudfish. Sailing, windsurfing, and other water sports are permitted on the dam.
The Riemland Museum, Heilbron – Telling the story of the town’s heritage, agricultural activities, and the 1836 Battle of Vegkop - a landmark chapter in Heilbron’s history, is the Riemland Museum. Occupying an old Jewish synagogue, it also delves into the history of the Jewish community once resident there.
Gallery 88, Sasolburg - Contemporary art, sculpture and ceramic creations are on show at this Sasolburg art gallery, which also features works by well-known South African artists, such as Phillip Badenhorst, George Boys and Michael Heyns. Stop for tea in the summer or a fireside meal in the winter months.