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.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.