44 FREE STATE
You can race down the N3 from Gauteng to Durban, or you can leave the highway at Villiers, open your window and take it slow in the greenest corner of the Free State.
Take a detour through the Riemland, via places like Memel, Vrede and Cornelia.
The Free State was once South Africa’s version of the Serengeti, where large herds of antelope grazed on the plains. Of course, the bountiful game eventually attracted hunters who shot the animals and sold the meat and hides. The hides were cut into thongs ( rieme in Afrikaans), which led to the region being called the Riemland. The hunting industry boomed in the north-eastern parts of the province. In 1866, one company in Kroonstad exported nearly 150 000 blesbok and wildebeest hides… Some say the Riemland is the area between the N1, N3 and N5, including towns like Heilbron, Frankfort and Petrus Steyn. Others say it goes all the way to the Vaal and Klip rivers – and the Drakensberg. There’s not much free-ranging game left in the Riemland, but it’s still a scenic area and has grown into an important agricultural centre where maize, wheat and cattle are farmed. I leave Bloemfontein early. My plan is to drive to the N3 and travel along the highway to Villiers, then turn off and visit places like Cornelia, Vrede, Memel and Verkykerskop.
I’ll rejoin the N3 at Harrismith. Between Petrus Steyn and Frankfort, a herd of merinos shuffle along the road. Their mouths are open and they’re dragging their feet under the hot sun. It’s January and not the best time to be wearing a thick wool coat. The sheep veer off the road to some shade under a stand of bluegum trees. Two herders on horseback try their best to get the exhausted animals moving again, shaking empty feed bags to spur them on. I inch my bakkie through the herd and pull over on a hill down the road to take some photos. Dust swirls between the bluegum trees – it feels as if the sun might set me alight.
One of the shepherds canters over, his empty feed bag catching the wind. His name is George Louw and he asks if I could please warn him about any approaching vehicles. I mention that it’s a hot day to move sheep to new grazing. George is a young guy, but he sits so comfortably in the saddle and his smile is so genuine that he looks like a wise old man. “If you stand still and think about how hot it is, then it’s hot,” he says. “But if you keep moving you’ll find there’s a light breeze, and it’s cooler.” The sheep stop again when they see my bakkie in the road. I don’t want to deprive George and his sheep of their breeze, so I say goodbye and drive on.
Villiers is next to the Vaal River and the N3. You’d think this would be a prime location, but the town is scruffy and seems worn out. “Villiers has seen better days,” says Jenny Webb, who works at Die Padstal at the Engen filling station outside town. She says there are no restaurants in town; the residents drive to the filling station and eat at the Wimpy. “How many times can you eat at Wimpy before you get sick of it?” she asks, exasperated. Thankfully Die Padstal does well thanks to Jenny’s winning recipe. “I enjoy the people,” she says. “Visitors often pop in because they’ve heard that this is the friendliest farm stall in the country. That’s all people want: friendliness… And good biltong.” From Villiers, I follow the R103 across wide green plains and past a red windmill.
Cornelia is next to the road. This small town on the Skoonspruit was named after the second wife of FW Reitz, president of the Orange Free State from 1889 to 1895. It’s scenic here, and peaceful. Cattle graze next to the Dutch Reformed church. The only shop in town is the Cornelia Supermark – an old-fashioned place where plastic containers full of sweets stand on the counter and you can fill your 2-litre cooldrink bottle with fresh milk. A fan lazily swivels from side to side, making a light breeze like the one George described this morning. Estelle Steyn and owner Magda de Witt are behind the till.
“Cornelia is quiet. Very quiet,” Estelle says. “I live in a flat at the former school hostel. I get three bedrooms for R460 per month. And you don’t want to know the size of my hallway – it’s as wide as a street!” The Cornelia Supermark is also rumoured to serve the best fish and chips in the Riemland. I order a parcel and Dina Molise brings it over with a big smile, the kind of smile that could improve most things in life. I say goodbye and go eat my fish and chips under the poplar trees near the spruit. The chips strike the perfect balance between slap and crisp and soon I’m also smiling.
The gravel road between Cornelia and Vrede rolls between grass-covered hills. It feels as if I’m bobbing along on big, green waves. Vrede (which means “peace” in Afrikaans) got its name after a dispute over the proposed location of the town was settled in 1863. If you google Vrede, you’ll find news reports about the Guptas and their involvement in a corrupt dairy farm project outside town. But if you can look past the headlines and the general deterioration that plagues many towns on the platteland, Vrede is still a gem. It has a beautiful sandstone church, old buildings in the main road and lots of trees. It’s also bustling with life: Children ride their bikes in the streets and I spot a cow on the back of a trailer parked in front of the Russells. Driefontein farm is about 15 km outside Vrede towards Memel. This is where I’ll be sleeping tonight – in a cottage next to a big dam. On the way to the farm I see two secretarybirds and lots of amur falcons. And swallows, swooping low. Dusk arrives on a cool breeze and a jackal calls in the long grass. Is anything as beautiful as a summer night in the Free State?
Cigars, cards and the promise of rain
Driving between Vrede and Memel, the landscape becomes more scenic by the kilometre. My route takes me along gravel roads east of the R34. The veld is green and wildflowers bloom next to the road. A juvenile martial eagle is perched on a bale of hay and weavers and bishops chatter in reed banks next to abundant streams. Long-tailed widowbirds hang suspended in the air, black tails billowing. Memel is in the middle of all this natural beauty. The name has Prussian origins and apparently means “surrounded by water” – an apt description considering all the vlei land surrounding the town. (The Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, with a 25 km-long marsh, lies to the north.) Behind the Dutch Reformed church, in the last house on the right, I meet Oom Neels Swart. He has the key to Flintstones Cottage in the mountains, about 10 km outside town, where I’ll be spending the night. The cottage belongs to Afrikaans singer Mel Botes and Oom Neels keeps an eye on the property. “The road there is poor,” he says, studying my bakkie. “But your trokkie looks up to the task. I hope you’ll be okay if it rains. They said it would, but the weather people make me cynical. I swear they’re just a bunch of guys who sit underground smoking cigars and playing cards. The one who loses has to make up something for the next day’s forecast.” The road to Flintstones is indeed a little bumpy, but I get there without too much hassle. The cottage is tucked up against a mountain slope full of oldwood trees, with a stunning view of the valley and the Klip River. To the east I can see the back of the Drakensberg. There’s a big boulder near the cottage – the inspiration for the name. This is the kind of place where you can sit and watch the sun march across the sky; the moon wax and wane; the trees turn red and lose their leaves; the clouds gather and empty… A thunderstorm wakes me in the night. It seems like the card players were right on the money.
I wake up early the next morning and drive a circular route to the top of Normandien Pass on the border between the Free State and KZN. There are puddles of rainwater on the gravel road and the sun is struggling to burn through the thick mist. The air smells fresh and humid. When I reach the top of the pass, I watch as mist rises up the cliffs and hides the world from view. What a dramatic border! From here you can follow more dirt roads to Verkykerskop, or all the way to the towns of Swinburne and Van Reenen next to the N3. I turn back to Memel, driving through one landscape painting after another. Oom Neels invites me in for a cup of coffee when I return the key. He tells me how he used to see wild animals and birds in town, until a few years ago. “This place was like a reserve,” he says. “A martial eagle killed many people’s chickens. Steenbok nibbled the flowers in the church garden every day.” These days, however, sightings are few and far between. Is lack of conservation efforts to blame? Before I can ask more questions, the conversation shifts to the 1914 Boer rebellion, which started in Memel, and inevitably turns to the current political climate of looting and mismanagement. It sounds like Neels wants to organise a little rebellion of his own. I say goodbye before he can recruit me.
West of Memel, I visit Driekoppen, a game and guest farm owned by Gerrie and Alda Janse van Rensburg. A phone call and the promise of
a good story have lured me here. I join Alda on the stoep. “See that koppie?” she asks. “It’s Spitskop, where the first commercial aircraft crash in South Africa took place.” I look at the cliffs, which make a crown around the top – Spitskop hardly seems high enough to be dangerous. But on 15 May 1948, this little mountain caused the demise of a Mercury Airways aircraft on its way from Durban to London. The aircraft was scheduled to make a stop at the Palmietfontein Airport in Johannesburg. The weather was poor and visibility was limited and the pilot, a certain captain JN Smith, had trouble keeping course and maintaining the aircraft’s altitude. The plane crashed into the koppie, killing Smith, his wife and all 11 passengers. “It’s still a hazard!” Alda says. “A while ago I watched an aeroplane fly over the house. It
was really low, just above the bluegum forest. Had its flight path deviated by only a few kilometres, it would also have flown straight into Spitskop.” Gerrie and Alda love this part of the Free State. “We live in the most scenic part of the province. People always go gaga about Clarens, but it’s more beautiful here. Yes, you can publish that. Clarens is a heap of sandstone. You can’t do much with a heap of sandstone.” From Driekoppen, gravel roads take me to the village of Verkykerskop. It’s quiet. Nothing moves. The road to the N3 near Harrismith is just as quiet. And then suddenly the roar of trucks and speeding cars washes over me. I want to turn around and drive back across the plains until I meet George on his horse again. I want to ask him what to do when everything is moving too fast and that breeze feels overwhelming.
Driefontein Cottage This self-catering unit is on a farm so you might get to drive a tractor. The unit sleeps six people in two rooms and the kitchen is well equipped. You can hike, ride your mountain bike on the farm roads or fish in the dam near the unit. Where? About 15 km outside Vrede on the R34 towards Memel. Rates: From R250 per person per night. Contact: 082 459 6193 (Suzanne)
Flintstones Cottage The view from this stone cottage is hard to beat. The stoep has braai facilities and if it’s cold or windy, you can lower the canvas awnings to provide shelter. The cottage sleeps five people and there’s a rondavel that sleeps two next door. There is no cellphone reception or power, but gas lamps, lanterns and hot water are provided. The kitchen is well equipped and has a gas stove and a fridge. Bring your mountain bike. Where? The turn-off is about 3 km east of Memel on the R34. From there, you drive 10 km along a gravel road that’s only suitable for vehicles with high ground clearance. Rates: From R300 per person per night. Contact: 079 876 0406; “Flintstones Cottage” on Facebook
Driekoppen Game Farm The farm has two houses: the luxury Sandstone House and Asbeshuis. You can drive around on the farm and look for game like zebra, wildebeest, gemsbok, waterbuck, eland and lechwe, or go on a guided game drive with owner Gerrie Janse van Rensburg. There are seven dams with bass where you can fish for free; rods can be provided. All the dams are catch-and-release. Where? The turn-off to the farm is halfway between Vrede and Memel on the R34. From the turn-off, it’s about 13 km along a gravel road. Rates: Sandstone House (sleeps six) R2 400 per night. Asbeshuis (sleeps eight) R1 800 per night. Minimum of R1 000 per night for two people. Contact: 084 514 6376; driekoppen.co.za
Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve The reserve is home to hippos and buffalo, but most people visit to see birds like blue crane, wattled crane, grey crowned crane, yellow-billed stork and African grass-owl. There are three hides and about 30 km of dirt roads to drive. Opening times: Daily from 7 am to 7 pm. Where? The turn-off to the reserve is on the R34 about 6 km east of Memel. Rates: Day visitors R70 per vehicle. The reserve has eight self-catering chalets. Each chalet sleeps four people. R750 per night. Contact: 058 924 0183; 082 325 9760 (Morné); preto[email protected]tea.fs.gov.za
GO WHERE THE GRAVEL TAKES YOU. Turn off the N3 in the Free State and you’ll trade traffic and stress for scenic landscapes and back roads like this one between Memel and Normandien Pass.
TRAGIC HISTORY. On 15 May 1948, an aeroplane flew into Spitskop due to poor visibility (inset photos). Captain JN Smith and his wife died in the crash, leaving behind five children all under the age of 13.