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South Africa

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Golden Gate Reserve, Clarens, Free State
‘You have to realise this Rooidraai archaeological site in the Golden Gate National Park is unique; these dinosaur nests and the eggs they contain are the oldest ever found.’

He was cut short by the excited shout from another team member from his research unit at the University of Toronto who had been scouring the rock face while we talked, hey, over here! I think I’ve found something.’

Then in rapid succession came another and another. ‘And something here … and here.’ The excitement was palpable.

We gathered around as one of the graduate students pointed out a pencil-line-thin white crescent in the red rocks. ‘It’s another egg.’ The team started to babble like excited children.

Could it be another nest? How were they going to excavate it? Could someone fetch the plaster-of-Paris bandages?

Prof Reisz pushed his Indiana-Jones-style hat back and peered at the rock, his eyes gleaming like a four-year old in the sweet aisle.

World-famous dinosaur nesting sites aside, Golden Gate National Park, in the northern reaches of the Maloti Drakensberg range, is one of the most underrated parks in Southern Africa.

Professor Robert Reisz right investigates a new findThe landscape is captivating and, while it may not contain hoards of animals, the 11 600-hectare park is critical in protecting some of the last remaining fragments of the highland grassland environment it straddles. It wasn’t always like this.

Back in the 1830s, Sir William Cornwallis Harris (the person credited with the first formal description of sable antelope) noted that the landscape in this area was one moving mass of antelope.

Unfortunately, many of these animals relied on wider migration routes to sustain their numbers, so the spectacle of massed herds will probably never return. These days visitors need to be content with the beauty of the surroundings.

Dinosaur eggsGolden Gate, so named because the exposed yellowish sandstone of the iconic Brandwag buttress glows in the evening light, is exceptionally photogenic, no matter in which season you visit. The combination of exposed sandstone outcrops and rolling mountain grasslands provides an evocative backdrop for nature lovers, walkers and hikers, cyclists (there are no dirt roads for mountain biking in the park) and those visitors content to grab a deckchair and unwind in the fresh mountain air of the eastern Free State.

However, this area has not only been attractive in recent times. Archaeological evidence ranging from stone tools and bushman rock art abounds, suggesting suggesting this area has been occupied by people practically as far back as humans go.

One look at the surroundings and it’s easy to understand why; the relatively soft sandstone is easily eroded and caves and overhangs are commonplace.

Spring in Golden Gate is incredible with the highland grasslands awash with colour

Possibly the most impressive of these is referred to as Cathedral Cave, spanning some 250 metres in length and roughly 50 metres deep. To get there, it’s a relatively easy hour-or-so walk along a stream that helped carve the cavern (together with continual fluctuations in temperature and wind erosion). In the dry season, the stream falls into the cave in a fine-mist waterfall, increasing in volume in the wet.

Golden Gate

Prof Reitz returned his attention to me. ‘This whole eastern Free State region has long been important for dinosaur fossils. These nests, for example,’ he waved his arm at the red rock cutting beside the road, ‘were first discovered back in the 1970s by South African paleontologist James Kitching. The problem is back then they didn’t have many of the ‘tools’ or the resources we have today to examine the eggs. So they sat around with very little being done on them.

Archaeological evidence abounds suggesting the area has been occupied by people as far back as humans goThese days, with technologies such as computer-assisted tomography (this is a 3D scan similar to the magnetic resonance imaging used in medicine) scientists have been able to delve into the eggs and embryos themselves with startling results.

These eggs belonged to one of the large plant-eating dinosaurs called massospondylus, so one of the questions we’re trying to answer is how something that could fit into a six-centimetre egg could grow into an adult soooo much larger. We’re also excited, as the youngsters look like they have no teeth or ability to feed themselves; that makes us wonder: did the parents care for their young?’

These thoughts plagued me for the rest of my time in the park. There is little evidence of this ancient history on display, no museum with intelligent displays, very little to indicate the park’s celebrity status among dinosaur fundis worldwide.

Come to think of it, in some ways this is the number one attraction of Golden Gate. It’s quietly understated, happy to receive the appreciation of those in the know without excessive hyperbole and marketing. There are those in the management team who believe they work in the most beautiful national park in the country. All things considered, I think they may just be right.

Spring in Golden

Look for these animals …

Oribi black wildebeest * grey rhebok * mountain reedbuck * eland * blesbok * Burchell’s zebra * common duiker * steenbok and springbok

And these birds …

Cape and bearded vulture (lammergeyer), bald ibis, black stork, lanner and peregrine falcon, Verreaux’s and martial eagles, jackal buzzards and black and alpine swifts are often seen soaring over the park.

Also look for a number of grassland species such as greywing and redwing francolin, mountain, mocking and buff-streaked chat, sentinel and Cape rock thrush, Drakensberg rock-jumper, rock pipit, ground woodpecker, Ayre’s, wailing and lazy cisticola, Gurney’s sugarbird and Drakensberg siskin.

The spectacular scenery makes this an ideal spot for a breakfast runUnfortunately all the roads in the park are tarred and there are no good dirt tracks to challenge you.

That said, the surroundings are exceptionally beautiful, so pack some slicks and hit the road for a crank down to Clarens (roughly 25 kilometres away).

If you feel the need for dirt, there are a number of farms nearby which offer trails.

We’d recommend trying the Rebellie Game Farm Trail (cell 082 944 8799, info@rebellie.co.za) or Bergwoning Farm Trail (tel 083 437 4485, stay@dibusstop.co.za) or Bokpoort Farm MTB Trail (tel  083 744 4245, buckpoort@gmail.com.

Don’t Miss:

• Lammergeyers or bearded vultures.

• Morning/afternoon horse or pony trails.

• One romantic night in the Highlands Mountain Retreat Rest Camp.

• Oribi – this is one of the best places to see these elusive antelope.

Travel planner

Getting there

Walking and HikingGolden Gate is roughly three hours from Gauteng, Bloem-fontein and Durban, making it an ideal spot for long week-ends. From Johannesburg and Durban, take the N3 to Harrismith, turning off on the R712 to the park. From Bloemfontein, head north on the N1 then take the N5, turning near Winburg towards Bethlehem. From Bethlehem, take the R711 to Clarens and then the R712 to Golden Gate.

Where to stay

There’s an accommodation option to suit almost every budget at Golden Gate, from campsites to newly renovated hotel rooms. Families can bunk down in comfortable chalets and couples on a romantic break can find privacy and relaxation. There’s even a Basotho village for cultural excursions. All reservations can be made through San-parks tel 012-428-9111, cell 082-233-9111, emailwebsite.

There is a daily conservation fee of R45 (valid from 1 November), unless you are a Wild Card holder, in which case entrance is free.

Glen Reenen Rest Camp

This is the bustling hub of Golden Gate and is probably the best option for families; caravan and campsites are available in a shaded grove. Each site has a braai area and there’s a clean communal scullery and ablution area. Across the road, you’ll find rondavels, ‘longdavels’ and guest cottages all well kitted out for self-catering, with small kitchens and private braai areas.

Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp

Basotho Cultural VillageThe village is modelled on an early Basotho settlement, but with all the mod cons to ensure a cosy visit. Families can share a meal with others around the communal braai in the kraal, or keep to their chalets, which all have private braai facilities. The accommodation is kitted out for self-catering. The four chalets (sleep two to four) are nestled in the eastern side of the camp with fantastic views and the opportunity to see game close by.

The Golden Gate Hotel

Renovations were completed on the hotel (previously known as Brandwag Hotel) earlier this year, nipping and tucking the old dame into a crisp, modern version of her former self. More rooms were added, and all have been kitted out in stylish decor themed around the seasons. A number of the units are wheelchair accessible with properly equipped bathrooms for people with disabilities.

There’s a cocktail lounge and coffee bar on the top floor where guests can enjoy views of the Brandwag cliffs while sipping a martini or espresso. Alternatively, there’s a sports bar on the bottom floor.

Highlands Mountain Retreat Rest Camp

Retreat is the best word to describe these gorgeous log cabins, which are literally cut into the mountainside with thick grass growing on their roofs. The views are incredible and, although there are eight cabins in total, they’ve been designed in such a way that absolute privacy and peace are assured. The cabins sleep between two and four and are fully kitted out for self-catering. They’re pricier than other accommodation in the camp, but get a royal thumbs up as one of the most relaxed and beautiful mountain hideaways in the eastern Free State.

Highlands Mountain Retreat Rest Camp

Text and pictures by Cameron Ewart-Smith

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