By Rita van den Heever
Golden Gate Highlands National Park takes your breath away. There is simply no other way of describing it. In winter it can easily become a white wonderland after heavy snow. In spring and summer it offers more shades of green than you can think of, which in turn become the rich hues of autumn. And always, like a primeval presence, there are the towering sandstone cliffs in their gloriously rich golden tones.
An easy three-and-a-half hours' drive from Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, this true highland habitat is home to a variety of game, including black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell’s zebra. For bird lovers it is a paradise with 177 species listed, while photographers are in for a special treat since the opening last year of the vulture hide. It provides the chance to get up close with the endangered bearded vulture (lammergeyer) and Cape vulture. Not to forget the rare bald ibis breeding on the sandstone cliffs for which Golden Gate is so famous.
If you simply want to enjoy the beauty of the magnificent scenery you do not need to leave your accommodation. Just sit and look, let the tranquillity overwhelm you. For a leisurely sightseeing drive, there are two tarred roads leading through the park, including the vulture hide.
But for the actively minded Golden Gate is heaven. The hiking trails are well marked and maintained. In sensitive areas the trails are paved with a concrete strip or blocks. Take time to look at the fairy gardens that have sprung up in the cavities of the blocks. Trails range from the easy, which can be tackled with small children, to the industrial strength where you need to be hiking fit. A good trails guide is available in the park.
Don’t leave camp without sunscreen, a hat, water and, for the challenging hikes, sturdy walking boots. A hiking pole comes in very handy on the steep and uneven terrain. If you have bad knees some of the trails are best left alone. Remember the weather can change very quickly in these mountains. Be prepared, especially on the longer hikes.
The park also offers horseback riding, canoeing and abseiling. Pre-booking these is essential and can be done at the hotel or on 058 255 1000. On hot days, I recommend a swim in the natural rock pool in the hills behind the hotel.
Visitors are spoilt for choice, from beautiful camping grounds and rondawels at Glen Reenen Rest Camp (from R160 a night for a campsite) to the pampered luxury of the Golden Gate Hotel (from R910 a night for two). Nestled at the foot of the imposing Brandwag Buttress, the hotel has wonderful views of the cliffs and mountains from every window. For visitors who crave solitude in this wonderland, there is the option to stay high up in the clouds at the Highlands Mountain Retreat (from R1 110 a night for two). For the culturally minded the Basotho Cultural village with its self-catering traditional huts is a welcoming spot (from R650 a night for two).
Contact: Central Reservations 012 428 9111, [email protected]
Source: Wild Magazine