Situated in the heart of South Africa, the Free State borders six out of the country’s nine provinces, as well as the Kingdom of Lesotho. It is both a substantial agricultural and mining hub, with fertile soils that hide a wealth of minerals below their surface. Its capital is Bloemfontein, the City of Roses, and its people are mostly Sotho speaking although many of the province’s residents speak Afrikaans too.
Lying between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south, the region is one of flat, rolling grassland and crop fields, rising to lovely sandstone mountains in the northeast.
The Free State has much to offer the tourist - whether it is nature reserves or mountains; museums or monuments the province has no shortage of attractions. It is filled with quirky towns, historical towns, sleepy towns and towns that are better classified as cities. Ancient civilizations, or parts of them at least, are found in the region with some of South Africa’s best San rock art on show in parts of the province.
Perhaps its premier attraction, the Golden Gate National Park sitting at the feet of the Maluti Mountains, draws many visitors who come here to catch sight of the brilliant shades of gold that are reflected off the sandstone cliffs at sunset. This is quite a sight to see, but not the only thing. Numerous bird and animal species as well as the famous fossils and San rock art can be marvelled at - whether by foot on the multitude of hiking trails, via mountain bike trails or on horseback. For superb game and bird viewing opportunities head to the Willem Pretorius Nature Reserve that is the Free State’s premier game reserve.
Clarens or the ‘Jewel of the Free State’ has established itself as a hip and happening town that has an astounding magnetism. It is known for its many restaurants, craft brewery and annual beer festival, interesting shops and abundance of art galleries. Its list of outdoor activities include 4x4 and mountain bike trails, hikes, fishing, white river rafting and bird watching to name a few. It is an eclectic, fun town which sparks creativity thanks to the ever growing artist population that call the town home.
Other small towns in the Free State experiencing increasing popularity are Ficksburg and Parys. Ficksburg, the ‘cherry capital of the world’ holds an annual cherry festival that sees over 20 000 people visiting the town to get their hands on the tastiest cherries around. Parys is a small town on the Vaal River that is also buying into the artistic, quirky atmosphere with antique shops, fine restaurants and artsy shops lining the streets.
The Gariep Dam and both the Vaal Dam and Vaal River serve as the Free State’s liquid playgrounds for those looking to spend some time in or on the water. Boating, fishing, sailing, swimming, cruising and all sorts of watersports assure you of endless fun and laughter. Even the views themselves, especially those surreal sunsets, are reason enough to visit!
Lastly, owing to its phenomenal diversity, the Free State has many tourism routes that snake their way through the various regions. The Maloti Route traverses the eastern highlands as well as the majestic Maluti Mountains belonging to South Africa’s landlocked neighbour, Lesotho. The Goldfields Route explores the history of Lejweleputswa's gold mines whereas the Battlefield Route takes participants though the province's battlefields and into its war museums. Or, follow the diamond prospectors on the Diamond and Wine Route that stops in Jacobsdal for a wine break at the Wilreza and award-winning Landzicht wine estates.
The Free State province is a melting pot of history with scenic beauty that is humbling. Rolling plains, majestic mountains and farmlands that tumble on for what seems to be forever, hypnotise and calm visitors. Its rural towns stand in stark contrast to the purring centres of activity, creating a unique atmosphere of tranquillity and buzz, at the same time.
The history of the Free State is fraught with cultural clashes, wars, victories, surrenders, peace treaties and conventions. Two of the most significant events that unfolded here and helped shape the history of South Africa were the arrival of the Voortrekkers and the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War).
The history of the Free State is a portrait of turbulence and turmoil. Previously called the Orange Free State, South Africa's Free Sate province is located between the Orange and Vaal rivers and has seen its fair share of bloodshed.
In the 1800s, the notorious Zulu chief Mzilikazi rampaged through the region, all but wiping out the indigenous peoples that inhabited the area.
Then in 1824, the first Dutch, German and French Huguenot farmers arrived from the Cape, followed by the first families of the Great Trek – a mass migration of Dutch-speaking colonists known as the Voortrekkers who left the Cape in search of independence.
These settlers clashed with Mzilikazi, but the infamous Zulu chief was later defeated and fled north. The Dutch, German and French settlers who established themselves as Afrikaners, and many of whom established themselves as farmers, or 'Boers', attempted to establish an independent republican government, but struggles with the invading British armies put paid to this.
The region's troubles were far from over. The Afrikaners clashed further with local indigenous peoples and then took up arms against the British in the South African War. This bloodiest of wars raged unabated for three years, ending on 31 May 1902 with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which placed the Orange Free State (and South African Republic) under British rule. There are numerous sites scattered around the province that tell the story of these skirmishes, including battle sites, blockhouses, cemeteries and monuments.
The history of the Free State also includes the discovery of gold, after which the province experienced a gold rush and mines sprang up overnight. Entire cities were planned around the rich gold deposits, which are today rated among the best in the world.
In 1910 the Orange Free State became a province within South Africa. It remained so until after the first democratic elections, when it was renamed the Free State.
The Free State’s weather is characterised by hot summers and moderate to cold winters. The eastern parts of the province experience frequent snowfall whereas the western can be extremely and almost unbearably hot. Summer temperatures reach north of 30°C in the day and winter temperatures of around 17°C although it often falls below freezing at night in winter. Most rain occurs during afternoon thunderstorms in summer.