If you picture the Free State as a nondescript wasteland you speed through en route to somewhere else, think again. Several interesting dorpies dot this landlocked province, offering the open-minded traveller everything from toe-curling cherry mampoer to vintage tractor fairs and some of the feistiest white-water rapids in the country.
Fall in love with pretty Parys
Start your Free State odyssey just an hour’s drive out of Johannesburg, in the booming hamlet of Parys. It may not have the Eiffel Tower like the city of love from which it takes its name, but chances are you’ll swoon over its arty-villagey vibe, with galleries, bookshops and antique stores on virtually every corner.
Situated on the banks of the Vaal River, Parys is also a mecca for adventure sport junkies, with river rafting, golf, zip lining, paintball and abseiling on offer. This makes it ideal for a family or team-building weekend, or as a bachelor’s (or bride-to-be’s) last hurrah with a bunch of mates.
At least three craft breweries and a distillery can be found in the Parys area, plus countless coffee shops, restaurants and buzzing street cafés. Oh, and it’s home to the Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site – the oldest and largest meteorite impact crater on Earth, formed two billion years ago. Check out the dragon boat races held there during the annual Parys Dome Adventure Festival.
Tuck into art and craft (beer) in crisp Clarens
Moving southeast, travel to the even more picturesque (and, yes, more touristy) town of Clarens at the foot of the gorgeous Maluti Mountains. Here, you’ll encounter brisk air, crystalline streams and the distinct feeling that you’ve stumbled on the jewel in the crown of an otherwise dowdy province.
But, as our odyssey is starting to reveal, the Free State is full of pleasant surprises. As in most of these homely dorpies, Clarens floats on a river of craft beer, wine and gluhwein (the perfect cockles-warmer), plus pubs aplenty, coffee roasteries, non-franchise eateries and gourmet restaurants.
You can work off the grub and the grog with a brisk hike or a more sedate nature walk. Thrill-seekers can head out on a 4x4, quad bike or mountain bike trail, or try their hand at river rafting or fly-fishing. It being an artists’ haven, there’s also a bustling gallery vibe at play. Dinosaur and Khoisan rock art trails, and visits to an authentic Basotho village, add to the town’s cultural and historical palette.
What really makes Clarens special is its scenic, almost alpine character, fringed with poplars, and its proximity to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with its multi-hued sandstone cliffs. This picture-postcard feel makes it fertile ground for festivals, such as the Clarens Craft Beer Festival and the Lush music festival. And yes, if you’re lucky you may see a smattering of snow in the winter months.
Say ‘sharp-sharp, my cherry’ in Ficksburg
If Bloemfontein is our city of roses, then Ficksburg is the cherry capital of South Africa – or, as it rather cheekily claims, the world! This farming village on the Lesotho border is literally painted red every November, when the Cherry Festival rolls into town.
At more than 50 years old, it’s the oldest crop festival in the country – and probably one of the most festive. Here you can find cherry chocolate, cherry liqueur, cherry pie and, of course, the area’s signature cherry moonshine, guaranteed to make your head (and the room) spin.
Enjoy a vintage hoedown in Clocolan
A cherry’s pip’s throw away in the Eastern Free State highlands is Clocolan, which hosts a singular agricultural event of its own every year – the Vintage Tractor and Engine Fair.
More than 150 tractors compete, and the fair is made extra jolly with a street parade, a gymkhana, a dance (called an opskop in these parts) and the grass stalk-chewing excitement of the National Ploughing Championships. Besides, where else can you see an old-fashioned plough being pulled by a team of imposing Nguni bulls?
These spots are just the tip of the Free State iceberg – also worth a visit is the tiny but cosy and warm-hearted town of Smithfield, skirting the Karoo and the Gariep Dam, which markets itself as being “halfway to anywhere in South Africa”; the Verkykerskop country village near Harrismith, which a small coterie of city slickers has lovingly nurtured into a rustic must-visit destination; and Bethulie, the birthplace of late theatre icon Patrick Mynhardt, with its eccentric “book hotel”.
So, don’t diss the tucked-away Vrystaat dorpie until you’ve sampled its hospitality – chances are a weekend getaway or day trip may just flip your perceptions of South Africa’s “drive-through” province.