I first visited Golden Gate National Park as a child some 15 odd years ago. It was school holidays, early August, and I recall an Arctic cold. At dawn I crawled from a frosted tent to await the sun’s touch in the deep, ice-still valley. A stream running through the camp site maintained its solid state for most of the morning, as did all living creatures it seemed, as I could find little in the way of bird or animal life around camp. Eventual thaw of the crystal river at midday corresponded with the predictable arrival of frigid high-speed winds that chased us into the car for an afternoon game drive. The two tarred loops of the park produced sightings of all the local antelope, but I found them disappointingly tame in comparison to our annual 4x4 pilgrimages across Botswana. The vulture hide sounded promising to my young ornithological aspirations, but it yielded only a scattering of bare bones, unsurprising given the gale force winds sweeping through the high altitude grassland. After two long nights in the park we continued our journey down to the central Berg and I made a mental note for any future visits – one weekend in Golden Gate was more than enough. It was merely a gateway to the Drakensberg!
Until recently, my perception of Golden Gate remained based upon that dreary winter’s weekend, obscured by memories of severe cold. Then 2020 saw me placed in a nearby town for my compulsory community service year as a veterinarian. Of the approximately 200 posts available across South Africa in rural communities and welfare settings, we were to short-list fifteen preferences with a maximum of three per province. Qwaqwa Animal Clinic in Phuthaditjhaba (fondly called “City of Qwaqwa” by residents) was a mediocre 7th on my list. Its close proximity to the Drakensberg, ideal for weekend running getaways, was my motivation, but the size of the community serviced by the clinic was daunting. In hindsight though, it was the best placement I could have asked for. And the biggest reason, by far, was Golden Gate.
After a painful week-long search for accommodation around Clarens in January I eventually resigned myself to settling for a small place in the dilapidated town of Harrismith. It falls under the same municipality as Qwaqwa and similarly their service delivery leaves much to be desired. I made my way slowly into town, navigating roads that were more pothole than tar, and parked outside the Spar to await my appointment to view "a modern flat with burglar proofing, trellidors and built-in-cupboards, all within walking distance of the shops." Despite my car doors being locked and windows closed I found myself glancing nervously through my mirrors every couple of seconds - for some reason I just wasn't comfortable. Finally I picked up my phone, cancelled the viewing and departed Harrismith with a sigh of relief. There was simply no way I could run and live happily and freely in a built up suburb any more. I’d lived outside the city for far too long...
On my return trip to Clarens I spotted the farm called Bergwoning just outside Golden Gate. I had camped there previously and knew the owners from having caused a bit of a stir when my tent was "stolen." I'd gone out in the morning and returned later in the day to find all my camping belongings gone - chair, table, tent and contents. When I finally managed to track down the owner to report the theft he laughed, assured me of their zero-crime rate, and delivered my tent on the back of his bakkie a few minutes later. Despite having been securely pegged, a vicious wind had uprooted it and blown it several hundred meters across the farm before it was (fortunately) caught against a perimeter fence. The rest of my missing items I managed to hunt out of the surrounding Ouhout thicket. Apparently I wasn’t the first, nor the last (as I witnessed with amusement from the safety of my hut throughout the year) to lose my tent to the Golden Gate winds. But so it was that when I pulled over at Bergwoning that afternoon in January and politely enquired about the possible long-term rental of one of their self-catering rondavels I was met by a casual, “Sure, no problem!” And just like that I had myself a mountain hut for the year!
Being based on the edge of Golden Gate Highlands National Park for twelve months allowed me to explore this immense montane grassland biome far beyond the means of the average weekend Clarens tourist. And what I discovered was worlds apart from those childhood memories frozen in my mind. For starters, I arrived mid-summer in temperatures over thirty degrees Celsius. I immediately set about exploring as many trails as I could locate, but with chest-high grass limiting visibility this was a little challenging. So I tended towards the marked trails of Golden Gate which were at least maintained by regular traffic. The park has a neat network of short trails beginning at the camp site and ranging in distance from 2km for the gorge walks to 8km and almost 1000m of elevation gain for the Wodehouse peak loop. Each route has a significant natural feature and amazing biodiversity to keep you occupied as you meander along, with the imposing Mushroom Rock almost always visible. For the more adventurous there’s also the two-day Ribbok Trail which contours several of the park's other high points and offers spectacular views of the surrounding wilderness. This was a favourite long run route of mine throughout the year and somehow I never tired of it enough to push my pace while training. The summer months in particular saw me constantly distracted by a new butterfly, another waterfall, or a different flower just a short scramble away from the path!
With the advent of autumn and cooler afternoons I decided to pick up my cycling. Those two tarred loops that had bored me so fifteen years ago now became the highlight of my every day. On a 45km ride after work I was able to ascend over 1000m, free-wheel the equivalent descent with hairpin bends at exhilarating speeds, and work my arse off on the occasional flat sections which always had a headwind. But it was worth it... At an average altitude of over 2000 meters above sea level Golden Gate has a unique variety of life that is not as easily accessible elsewhere along the Drakensberg range. On almost every ride I was treated to sightings and snorting's of vertically bounding reedbuck, calmly grazing plains zebra, large herds of contouring eland, sedentary blesbok and hartebeest, and the crazy black wildebeest with golden manes and tails flowing as they galloped across the highlands. One of my most memorable wildlife encounters though was of the avian variety. It was an overcast, drizzly day and all Golden Gate's peaks were hidden in the mist. As I crested the top of Lichen’s Pass the weather was oppressive with the cloud base barely above the ground. Suddenly, from the silence, there materialised an unmistakable form gliding effortlessly in the narrow belt below the cloud, right alongside me. The magnificent Lammergeier. If only I could reach out a little further...
As the Free State winter finally took hold of my mountain playground I ditched my bike in favour of running again, the heat generation of movement by foot preferable to the wind chill and frozen extremities of riding. With the dying and thinning of the dense summer grasses, additional game trails began to emerge where I hadn’t noticed them before. Miles and miles of well-trodden game tracks now crisscrossed the valleys and basins, seemingly haphazardly. But upon following individual trails I discovered the true perfection of nature – the way animals contour high points at the ideal level, reach water bodies by the most economical routes, and constantly adjust their trails to account for erosion. For yes, even wildlife can cause erosion on its popular highways. But the reason for human trail destruction being so much more extensive is our inability to adapt. We usually head out into nature on a whim, have no connection with the specific environment in which we’re moving, understand little of the local geology, fauna and flora, and then stick avidly to a designated trail, regardless of its condition. Of course, with our sheer numbers, this is probably the least destructive approach for the long term. But running alone every weekend, flowing along the endless natural lines of Golden Gate’s untouched areas, I couldn’t help but feel immense admiration for the purist ways of the antelope and relief that the majority of humans do not share my inklings for off-trail explorations!
In reality the winter of 2020 was not far removed from my first Golden Gate experience. While weekend drive-through visitors enjoyed the swaying golden grasses, glowing orange rock buttresses and perfect pink sunsets from the warmth of their cars, living in the area throughout winter revealed its true harshness. There were days where our taps didn’t produce running water until 10am, an unpleasant week without power where our hut’s interior temperature didn’t rise above 8 degrees Celsius, and not much training happened before mid-morning on weekends. The wind continued to blow incessantly and I found myself running on the road more and more frequently. It was just too tempting to knock out a 12km asphalt run in an hour rather than the inevitable two hour slog and buffeting winds of a mountain trail. Towards the end of August though I began to long for some signs of spring. Large expanses of Golden Gate had been block burned, presumably in preparation for summer grazing, and everything was constantly covered with a layer of fine ash. I was tired of the black tar and the black dust. It had been a long and cold winter but according to local farmers this was a sign of good summer rains to come... I crossed my fingers.
As I now sit typing this blog at my improvised camping-table desk, thunder rumbles on the ridges all around the Bergwoning basin. Rain strikes the small window of my mountain hut at a forty-five degree angle and Swartkop moves in and out of view as the clouds roll through the valley. The Dobby Dog lies in her new favourite spot under the table, shivering gently against my feet each time the lights flicker and the earth quakes. She’s done little else the last few days. Through my open door I can see the bursting dam, white through the drizzle, and hear the cacophony of its elated resident frogs. Just a week ago, early December, their home was still a mere pond in the centre of a silty black crater with all the water birds fighting for their little patch of water. Now two pairs of coots and the Egyptian family of nine are all out in the rain, dabbling contentedly in the saturated lawn of the vacant camp site. I too was out in the rain this morning, splashing contentedly along literally flowing mountain trails between lush grass and wild flowers as far as the eye could see. Indeed, the good rains have finally arrived.
And so the year comes full circle. This mountain hut will soon no longer be mine, and I’ll have nothing but memories to show for my time here. The memories will be fond though, defined by the distinct seasons and trails of Golden Gate. I know that these winter winds will always howl, the temperatures will plummet below zero and the grasses will fade in colour. But I know also that the cold harshness of winter will be tempered by a breathtaking spring and an unrivalled green summer beauty. And it is this very seasonal contrast of its mountains, their sandstone features the only constant, which has earned Golden Gate a life-long place in my heart. Not merely a gateway to the ‘Berg.