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Free State

© SA Tourism© SA TourismThe Free State is probably South Africa's Cinderella province but, somehow it's part of our identity, even if we've never been there. Perhaps it's the space. And you have to admit, there is something rather evocative in that name.

And it is, in fact, a rather underrated place. The capital, Bloemfontein, is an attractive, medium-sized city with some interesting monuments. Probably the most poignant is the Women's Monument, which commemorates the nearly 30 000 women and children who died in British concentration camps in the South African War (Anglo-Boer War).

On the northern border of the province, the Vaal River runs past the pretty town of Parys, which has become quite a fashionable settlement, with some quaint buildings, lovely coffee shops, art studios and - strangely enough - quite a few fashion designers. Perhaps it’s a tongue-in-cheek choice, as the name Parys, is also the Afrikaans pronunciation of Paris. It is also a convenient rat-race escape, being only an hour from Johannesburg by road but a million miles away in feel. Close by, near the small town of Vredefort, is the Dome Conservancy, otherwise known as the Vredefort Dome – the site of the world’s largest meteorite impact. It left some very interesting (and lucrative) geological features, but the most entertaining is the wonderful series of hills and gorges which make up its concentric rims, and creating wonderful scenery with interesting relief. This also makes for great hiking and rather challenging mountain biking.

In the eastern part of the province, near the Lesotho border, the Golden Gate National Park is a beautiful expanse of rolling grassland ending in steep, concave, golden-red sandstone cliffs. Close by is the small country town of Clarens, built mostly from that lovely golden sandstone and housing many artists and studios. The area near Clarens has a few small game farms, some really lovely hiking, fun horse trails and quite a wild rafting trip on the Ash River.

The eastern part of the province is well known for its cherry production and there are loads of opportunities for farm stays, hiking and mountain biking. For the culture boffins, there is the Basotho Cultural village, which has a museum, amphitheatre and tea garden.

South Africa’s largest river, the Orange (known to the Khiokhoi people as “Gariep”, forms the southern boundary of the Free State.

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