Expert Reviews – Golden Gate Highlands NP

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The foothills of the mighty Drakensberg
Overall rating
3/5

Golden Gate National Park is more about the scenery and getting “out and about” than the wildlife. Set in the northern foothills of the dramatic and dreamy Drakensberg mountain range, this park is a paradise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, and the lack of Big 5 game means you won’t bump into any unwanted visitors whilst exploring on foot.

Having said that, there’s still plenty of plains game around, including zebra, wildebeest and eland, which is Africa’s biggest antelope. The Drakensberg is also popular with birders. The critically endangered bearded vulture is surely the most spectacular bird sighting to be had here and its massive wingspan makes for great images against the backdrop of the rugged mountains or as it soars over the green valleys below.

With each hour that passes during the day here, the mountains take on different hues and dimensions depending on the shadows cast by the trajectory of the sun. Sunsets are always memorable and so are the storms. The Drakensberg is probably my favourite place in South Africa to get away from the pace of urban life and clear my head.

Mountain trails
Overall rating
3/5

The western Drakensburg is not really a place for big game viewing – there is no Big Five here – but this park offers a scenic location in which to enjoy the mountain air and get to know the unusual fauna and flora of South Africa’s high-altitude grasslands. The park gets its name from the sandstone buttress of Brandwag Rock, which rears like a galleon over the reserve. Along the Blesbok Loop road, you should find some of the highveld antelope species, such as grey rhebok, black wildebeest and oribi, while birders should keep eyes peeled for such specials as cape vulture, bald ibis and black stork.

The park’s family-orientated accommodation complex, with its sports facilities and outdoor activities, rather detracts from the wilderness vibe. But hikers can get a better feel for the rugged terrain by following any of the numerous day trails – or, for the more serious, the 31km overnight Rhebok Trail. On one hike, I watched lammergeyers driving baboons away from their nesting ledge and sent a herd of shy mountain reedbuck galloping away across the hillside. The park’s cultural attractions are also worth a look, including its numerous cave paintings and the Basotho Cultural Village.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa
Overall rating
3/5

Covering 340 sq km (131 sq miles), the park is in the north of the Drakensberg mountains, on South Africa’s border with Lesotho about 360 kms (223 miles) south of Johannesburg), the only national park in the sight-starved Free State. Relatively few foreign tourists ever get there. It’s out of the way and in the national pecking order of parks, it is definitely obscure. If you were in Europe and were told that there were 140 species of bird to be seen in a national park, you’d have every twitcher on the continent flocking in and a traffic jam stretching halfway across the UK. But in South Africa, the numbers pale against the 500 to be found in Kruger. And while there are a number of antelope from eland to duiker but most of the animals are small.

However, there are some rare species of both birds and mammals in residence from the Cape bearded vulture and bald ibis to the African wild cat, black wildebeest, oribi and South African hedgehog. The lack of major predators means you are free to walk on the open grasslands drinking in the vast mountain views, the golden light bouncing off the yellow sandstone cliffs, stopping to admire the arum lilies and red hot pokers that grow wild here, native species that have been transplanted into gardens across the world. The 31 km (19 mile) Rhebok Hiking Trail runs through the park linking sites of interest from Brandwag Rock, an outstanding rock outcrop to various rock shelters with San rock paintings. And if all that isn’t enough, perhaps, like me, you will just love the huge skies filled with a billion stars.

A sunset spectacular
Overall rating
3/5

Golden Gate is not a place you come for large game viewing. None of the Big Five inhabits this mountainous park, although you can expect encounters with wildebeest, zebra and the largest antelope, the eland. Come instead for spectacular sunsets as the day's last rays hit the sandstone rock formations, turning them varying shades of orange, red and gold. Come armed with a picnic and meander off the main paved roads to find empty lookout points over the mountains, cliffs and rivers. It's also a hiker's haven, with walks ranging from half an hour to a couple of days, although for me it is simply a spot to fill your camera's memory card with glowing images at dusk.

Big skies and mountains
Overall rating
4/5

Covering a glorious swathe of the Free State's eastern highlands, Golden Gate is one of South Africa's most underrated parks. Driving through, en route between the northern Drakensberg and the arty town of Clarens, you'll see antelopes bounding across the plains and mountains rising on the Lesotho border. The park's four-legged inhabitants include zebras and wildebeest, but its chief appeal is the opportunity to spot animals in such a stunning setting. Its name comes from the brilliant shades of gold cast by the sun on the sandstone cliffs, especially the imposing Brandwag rock. Two side roads loop right into this landscape from Rte 712, and a two-day hiking trail leads up Generaalskop (2732m), with views of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains. There may be no Big Five here, but the shimmering grasslands and sandstone bluffs are a serene environment for appreciating the area's wide horizons.

Cliffs of gold
Overall rating
4/5

Set in the northern foothills of the vast and spectacular Drakensberg range, this park is another one set aside mainly for its scenery and excellent hiking opportunities. The focal point is the burnished sandstone formation for which the park is named, and this is seen to best effect is the soft light of early morning or late afternoon. The opportunities for day walks are limitless, and while it isn’t exactly a Big Five reserve, Golden Gate does harbour plenty of less glamorous wildlife – it ids a great lace to see endemic such as black wildebeest, blesbok and grey rhebok alongside more widespread species such as the majestic eland and tiny oribi. Two charismatic birds associated with the park are the cliff-breeding southern bald ibis, a striking South African endemic, and the utterly spectacular including the rare lammergeyer (bearded vulture).

Green grasslands against a backdrop of golden rocks
Overall rating
3/5

Golden Gate is named for its dramatic towering sandstone buttresses that glow in warm orange and yellow hues in the sunlight. These shelter some richly-grassed plains in the bottom of the valley. You’re unlikely to see many animals from the main road (the R712) that neatly bisects the park, but on the looping and higher drives, I’ve seen a few black wildebeest, zebra and springbok. Hikers may also encounter mountain reedbuck or eland and perhaps the shy bald ibis and bearded vulture at the top of the escarpment. I’ve been here when it snows, when an already beautiful landscape transforms into a black-and-white picture-postcard view, (though a heated chalet or hotel room is mandatory at this time). The park isn’t worth a special effort to get to – it’s small and not very time-consuming – but the drive through is quite lovely.

All that shines is gold
Overall rating
3/5

The Free State’s only national park, Golden Gate is renowned more for its scenic beauty than its wildlife. That said, you can still spy eland, zebra and black wildebeest roaming around the hillside. The real attraction is the spectacular wind sculpted sandstone bastions which glow against the vast turquoise sky and subtly changes hues as the sunsets. Twitchers should also keep an eye out for the rare bearded vulture – which I was lucky enough to see on my last visit –and the equally rare bald ibis, which breed on the ledges in the sandstone cliffs. With a number of hikes on offer from short hour-long rambles to the challenging half-day Wodehouse Kop walk as well as fossil tours and scenic drives, this park will appeal to anyone looking for a peaceful weekend getaway.

The sandstone cliffs of Golden Gate National Park
Overall rating
3/5

This is one of South Africa’s more scenic parks and a popular hiking destination. The main feature in this park is the sandstone cliffs, so typical of the Free State. As the name of the park suggests, they glow golden in the late afternoon light. There are a good number of day hikes available as well as the 2-day Rhebok trail. Game viewing is easier by car, but there are only 2 small game drive circuits available, which you can easily finish in a few hours. Animals you might spot include the rare black wildebeest, blesbok, zebra and the dainty oribi, usually found in pairs. Black-backed jackals are common, but sometimes hard to see in the tall grass. There are several accommodation options in the park, but I usually enjoy staying in the nearby quaint village of Clarens, which has a good selection of B&B’s, restaurants and art galleries. Golden Gate has its charm at any time of the year, but the dry winter months are the least scenic and scenery is in the end what this place is all about.

Sunset Magic
Overall rating
2/5

Although not containing any of the Big 5 and no large predators, the flip side to this park is the hiking trails. This means you can really get out and see some African wilderness under your own steam. I have seen plenty of antelope here while wandering around the grasslands, including rhebok as well as zebra, jackals and cheeky baboons.

The best time of day to come is around sunset when a blaze of colour flares over the Maluti Mountains in a kaleidoscope of soft, surreal light. The open-air museum at the Basotho Cultural Village within the park is also worth a meander, although I found nearby township tours to be more interesting.

Average User Rating

  • 3.1/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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