Exploring the red mountains of the Golden Gate National Park

Posted on Posted in Free State, South Africa, Ultimate South African Road Trip

The Golden Gate National Park is home to some of the most incredible mountain and rock formations in the famous Drakensberg Mountain Range. This escarpment forms the dramatic border between the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho and the KwaZulu-Natal and Free State provinces of South Africa.

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Lesotho is a country built in the clouds. The entire country lies above an altitude of 1000m, and it reaches 3482m at Thabana Ntlenyana, its highest point and indeed the highest point in southern Africa! In the days of the Zulu King Shaka, Lesotho was a refuge – a strongly defensible mountain island where weaker tribes could live in relative peace and safety. Today it is easy to see why. The country is ringed by mountains.

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal I am far more familiar with the southern and central areas of the Maloti-Drakensberg range; places like Underberg and Himeville, or Giants Castle. These scenes are easily recognisable to me – grassy slopes, clear mountain streams and jagged basalt and quartzite peaks with steep sharp valleys between.

To me, the mountains to the north of Lesotho are very different. The red mountains of the Golden Gate National Park have the same grassy slopes but their peaks are somehow less imposing – softly rounded tops instead of jagged peaks, and the characteristic weathered and smoothly eroded sedimentary faces that glow red, orange and yellow at sunset. This is where we were headed – to explore the red mountains of the Golden Gate National Park.

The red mountains of Golden Gate National Park
The red mountains of Golden Gate National Park

The Maloti-Drakensberg on foot

What is there to do when you are in the mountains except to hike? We had found out about an 11km, four hour circular trail that would start and end at the Golden Gate National Park campsite where we were staying, and that would ascend the highest peak in the area. We were in, and set out fairly early one morning for the Wodehouse Trail.

They couldn’t have picked a better spot for the start of the trail. Beginning along the banks of a small stream that winds its way along the bottom of the valley you find yourself immediately at the base of an amphitheatre ringed by beautiful mountains. It feels a little extravagant to want to stop and take in the view before you’ve even begun to hike, but that is the reaction it evokes.

Bevan-Walking-to-the-Overhang
Breathtaking scenery along the Wodehouse Trail

The problem with this hike is that it is slow going because stopping to take in the view is not only limited to the start of the trail! There are plenty of amazing sights all along the way. The trail winds its way over the top of Brandwag Buttress, an iconic sight of the Golden Gate National Park, and then around the side of the Wodehouse Peak itself. The views are ever changing and ever photogenic.

Bevan-descending-the-drakensberg
A view out over endless mountains

One place we didn’t get to linger for too long to take it all in unfortunately was on the peak itself. A thunder storm, typical of summer afternoons, had arrived far earlier than expected and we were chased off the top by thunder and lightning flashes that were far too close for comfort. We were briefly caught in a hailstorm, which luckily for us moved off to the side quite quickly and we found ourselves back in full sunshine for the final slippery descent to the trail’s end.

Bevan running from the storm
Bevan beating a hasty descent with the storm closing in fast
Storm in the Golden Gate National Park
The storm rumbles over the Golden Gate National Park
It’s hard not to stop and get a quick pic, even when you’re running from the storm

Exploring Golden Gate National Park

Having ticked the hiking box, we decided a far safer way to be caught in the next Drakensberg summer storm was inside a car! The 340km² Golden Gate National Park has a network of tarred roads that wind their way through the park. We spent many an hour inside Thomas and quickly learnt where the best sunset views were and where to head when the light was just right!

The scenery in this park is truly amazing. As well as the mountains themselves there is plenty of game that can be viewed. Of interest is the presence of black wildebeest – very different and much prettier than the blue wildebeest common to KZN.

Black Wildebees in the Golden Gate National Park
Black Wildebeest in the grasslands of the Golden Gate National Park
Burchells Zebra in the Golden Gate National Park
A Burchell’s Zebra in the afternoon light of the Golden Gate National Park
Thomas at Mushroom Rocks in Golden Gate National Park
The red faces of Golden Gate’s mountains

Golden Gate National Park also has a vulture hide that is worth a visit. Most of our vulture species are highly endangered due to a loss of habitat, secondary poisoning (eating poisoned meat that was not targeted at them) or being poached for the muthi trade. Farmers in the area will occasionally donate carcasses to the park who leave them at the “vulture restaurant” outside the hide. When this happens, visitors are treated to close-up sightings of species like the Cape and Bearded vultures as well as the rarely sighted Bald Ibis.

Bald Ibis at the Vulture Restaurant
Bald Ibis at the Vulture Restaurant

Picture-perfect Clarens

No stay in Golden Gate National Park is complete without a visit to nearby Clarens. Even if you have not visited the area, you would probably recognise this town for all the press it receives. It is the Free State’s poster child and for good reason – quaint restaurants and arts and crafts shops that line a green grassed square, mountains gently cradling the town and every garden a riot of colourful flowers and weeping willows.

We took a Sunday afternoon to wander around the town. Even Bevan with his shopping aversion managed to spend an hour or two looking around. We ended the visit in true Free State style – sitting under a tree on the grassy square enjoying a big packet of sticky koeksisters!

Dark Clouds in the Golden Gate National Park
The unmistakable outline of Golden Gate’s sandstone mountains

Mountain-hopping on our way south

Although there are plenty more hiking opportunities to be had in the Drakensberg’s nearby Royal Natal Park (think Amphitheatre and the Sentinel chain ladders hike to the top of Tugela Falls), our relatively short visit left little time for much else and so we had to save some exploring for future visits. The Free State has a lot of interesting towns close to Clarens, as well as an annual cherry festival in November, but all of these things we would have to remember for the next time. For us, it was on towards another small town high up in the middle of the mountains along our reverse great trek towards Cape Town – this time Hogsback in the Amathole Mountains of the Eastern Cape.

 

We’d like to thank the management of SAN Park’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park for hosting us during our stay. The camp has plenty of accommodation ranging from a well-appointed campsite to comfortable chalets, and all with the best views in the area!

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