Golden Gate National Park

Golden Gate's Brandwag Buttress covered in summer greenery.

Golden Gate National Park rises up just beyond the open grasslands of the eastern Free State.

Province:
Free State 
Established:
1963
Mountain range:
Maluti
Highest peak:
Ribbokkop (2,829 m) 
Size:
340 km2

Introduction

Golden Gate National Park is situated close to the Maluti Mountains in the eastern Free State. The park encompasses 48 sq km of grassland and spectacular sandstone formations. The park was proclaimed to protect the sandstone cliffs above the Little Caledon Valley. It derives its name from the towering 100-meter-high golden-yellow sandstone cliffs - the 'Golden Gates' - that flank the valley of the Little Caledon River at the western entrance of the park. The natural colors of the sandstone are themselves brilliant, but the cliff's position is perfect to catch the rays of the setting sun, and the massive rock face glows as though with an inner radiance.

Black wildebeest, grey rhebok, oribi, blesbok and mountain reedbuck can be seen in the Golden Gate National Park, as well as the endangered bearded vulture (lammergeyer), black eagle and steppe buzzard. The natural attributes of the Golden Gate National Park make it an outstanding outdoor classroom for studying the earth sciences of geography and geology, but also provide opportunities for practical interaction with the environment.

Visitors are in for a surprise when visiting the Golden Gate National Park, for the park at first sight appears to be nothing more than a beautifully situated holiday resort. The main ‘camp', Brandwag, is a hotel complete with conference facilities and ladies' bar. Other facilities include boules, tennis, table tennis, snooker and horse-riding, while during the holiday seasons the staff organize daily activity programs for visitors which include canoeing, abseiling and guided hikes.

Reasons to Visit

1

Basotho Cultural Village

In addition to the various traditional safari activities, the park offers a unique cultural experience in the form of a tour to the Basotho Cultural Village. It is truly an honor to experience the traditional hospitality of the Sotho people who have called this piece of land home for hundreds of years. Their culture and spirit will leave you amazed.  

2

The Golden Gates

As the sun sets over the mountains and valleys, the reserve is transformed into a place of pure magic. The rock faces glow with color, and like the kingdoms of days gone past, the famous gates are draped in gold. You are automatically transported into a film-like setting; you can almost see Simba climbing to the top of the Pride Rock.

3

Birding Beauty

Set against the backdrop of towering mountains and seemingly endless grasslands, birding in the Golden Gate National Park is an absolute treat. Raptors such as eagles and falcons can be seen circling high in the skies and even the threatened bearded vulture calls these outcrops home. A closer look around will illuminate a diverse range of striking grassland species.

Useful Info

Getting There
Plane

By Air

Visitors can fly to any of the three international airports: OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, King Shaka International Airport in Durban and Bloemfontein International Airport in Bloemfontein. Alternatively, guests will be transferred from a previous destination on the safari itinerary by means of a private, air-conditioned vehicle.

Car

By Road

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is situated in the Free State close to the border of Lesotho, and is located almost centrally between the major cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein. The journey is approximately 350km from either location, and can therefore easily be reached from various destinations in South Africa on well-maintained tar roads.

Weather & Best Time To Visit

The Golden Gate Highlands are situated at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains on the border of Lesotho. The area is primarily a summer rainfall area, with rainfall mainly occurring from October to April. The rainy season also brings with it notable thunderstorms, and endeavors into the mountains should be avoided during this time.

The winter season, from May to September, can be extremely cold as snow and frost is found quite frequently on the mountain range. The park can be visited throughout the year depending on your activity preferences, and its beauty is enthralling no matter the weather. It is important to remember that due to its mountainous setting, weather changes can occur suddenly. 

History

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park has a diverse history. Numerous peoples have populated this area long before it was bought by the government and declared a National Park in 1963. Originally, the Bushmen or San hunter-gatherers occupied this land, which teemed with wildlife. They left signs of their existence via a vast array of rock paintings and stone tools found in the national park. Earlier high detail paintings, mostly of eland, and much younger low detail painting of farmers on horseback, may be observed on the smooth rock faces. After occupying this area for thousands of years, the Bushman moved away in the early 1800’s.

Voortrekkers under the leadership of Piet Retief resided in the area for six days from the 23rd of September 1837. After Retief gave his men permission to hunt game, his men returned with nine wagons full of African wild meat. This is testament of the great natural abundance that once was. Multiple skirmishes occurred in the area which is now Golden Gate, mostly between the Basotho under leadership of Moshesh and the Boers of the Orange Free State, which became and independent republic in 1853. Eventually, what is now the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, was won in the second Basotho wars, when the Orange Free State and the Transvaal joined forces.

Wildlife

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is not your typical safari area. Instead of introducing any member of the Big Five, the park board opted to reintroduce vulnerable species like the sungazer lizard and water mongoose. Among the many species of antelope in the park, you will find the threatened oribi. One might easily spot this rare creature on the ‘Oribi Loop’. Other plains game species include black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, red hartebeest, mountain reedbuck and springbok. The dazzling Burchell's zebra might give you a perfect photo opportunity with against the epic backdrops.  There are no large predators that occur naturally, making this an ideal environment for hiking.

There is quite a good chance of spotting the very cunning black-backed jackal and, if you are very lucky, you might sneak a glance of the elusive caracal. This reserve also provides excellent birding. One of the key features is the 'vulture restaurant' where carcasses are dumped to feed Cape and bearded vultures. More than 210 bird species have been documented. The park hosts a large number of raptors, ranging from eagles to buzzards and kestrels. The bald ibis is a sought after species, and there are also a wide variety of small birds like cisticolas and sunbirds. Seven snake species occur, including the highly venomous puff adder, mountain adder, and rinkhals.

Vegetation & Terrain

Golden Gate is known for two main features of its terrain; the geological variances that have created the famous cliff formations over millions of years, and the distending grasslands that seem to climb the mountains. The famous cliffs are distinguished by their red, yellow and dark basalt layers, and are especially brilliant as the sun sets. The variety of colors are accentuated by the strange contours of the rock formations caused by centuries of erosion in the form of rivers and streams. The layers were formed millions of years ago, and much of the area’s history and previous terrain types can be interpreted by examining them.

The park is also known as South Africa’s only grassland national park, with over 60 species of grasses to be found. The veld is dominated by the Highland-Sourveld and the Themeda-Festuca veld, whilst woodland areas are predominantly Ouhout (Oldwood) and scattered protea. The Ouhout tree, which is part of the rose family, is another one of the park's characteristic features; their warped, flaking barks and smooth leaves are seen everywhere. The Ouhout trees also bring with them an immense variety of beetles; 117 species have been documented amongst the Ouhout family in the park.

Activities

Golden Gate is not your average safari park, covering a wide range of activities that satisfy different desires. For the more adventurous, there are opportunities to abseil off the multi-colored cliffs or to canoe along the winding rivers. For the purists, game drives and a multitude of hiking trails take you deep into the wilderness. Horse, quad and motorbike rides are also available and offer a unique way to take in the landscape and its various inhabitants. You can also take a dive into a natural rock pool close to the Glen Reenen Rest Camp. Tennis courts, volleyball and mini soccer can be enjoyed at the Golden Gate Highlands Hotel.

The area also offers golfing opportunities, zip lining, archery, paint ball shooting and much more. A must do, however, is a visit to the Basotho Cultural Village – a unique program that highlights the cultural heritage of the area, and transports visitors back in time to when the Qwa Qwa inhabited the area. The experience is guided by local experts and includes a medicinal trail and San rock art. Another popular attraction is the Vulture Feeding Project. A short 300m hike takes you to the viewing area from the car park. Visitors can also make their way to the Welbedacht Dam in the southern part of the park.

Experiences to be Savored

The sun sets over the Golden Gate National Park.

Otherworldly setting

The rustic red, gold and black formations of the mountains set against the blue, sometimes angry sky, is utterly mesmerizing. This effect is only heightened by the swathes of green and yellow grasses during or right after the rainy season, and it is a must see.

Peace and Quiet

Unlike many of the more popular and populous safari destinations in South Africa, at Golden Gate you can have the rare experience of hearing your own breathing - at night, as you look towards the stars, or when you hike up the escarpments.

Brandwag Buttress

A visit to the park is not complete if you did not make a trip to the so-called sentinel of the park, which is also the motivation for the park's name. The Brandwag Buttress or ‘Sentinel’ Buttress is a view that can be admired from afar, and the view from the top of this famous cliff hang is equally spectacular.

FAQ

Is Golden Gate Highlands Park in South Africa or Lesotho?
The park is located in South Africa, but the mountains are form a natural border between the two countries.
Which rare birds can be seen in the park?
The bearded vulture and bald ibis are two prominently rare birds to look out for.
How many grass species exist in the park?
The park harbors more than 50 grass species.
What are the blotches on the sandstone?
They are called lichens, and consist of a colony of algae which attaches itself to the rock.
Is it true that dinosaur fossils were found in the park?
Yes, the first ever fossilized Triassic dinosaur eggs were found in the park.
Can you see dinosaur fossils at the park?
Yes, different kinds of fossils including bones, footprints etc. can be viewed.
Does the park offer child-friendly activities?
The park is perfect for children of all ages and sizes, and specifically cater for them at, for example, the Education Center.

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