Snuggled away on the mountainous border of the Free State and Lesotho is the Golden Gate National Park, a reserve dedicated to the preservation of southern Africa’s amazing and extensive grass species. I took the week off and headed to Lesotho to look for a giant grass called Miscanthus capensis, that is in full flower at the moment and is one of only two Miscanthus species that occur in southern Africa.
Driving through the province of the Free State, the roadside was completely surrounded by endless miles of colorful cosmos. Yes, cosmos in a daze of purple, white and pink. I know cosmos is a highly invasive plant in South Africa, but it is still incredibly beautiful when in flower, and you can’t help but running through the fields of flowers like a child.
The Free State is known for its friendly people, good old traditional South African food and wide open plains, but on the eastern corner and on the Lesotho border its a completely different scene with mountains, forests, waterfalls and wetlands.
I haven’t been to the gym as much as I should have in the last couple of months, and the hiking trails I wanted to tackle stated in bold letters “FOR THE EXPERIENCED AND FIT MOUNTAIN CLIMBER ONLY… ” So I packed another energade!
When ascending Golden Gate’s big yellow sandstone cliffs that arise out of the ground like a freshly baked bread rising out of its baking tray, you can’t help but feel so small and insignificant in the scale of everything that surrounds you. Golden Gate got its name from the magnificent golden color that the sandstone cliffs turn into when the sun starts to set over the Drakensberg mountains in the west. It’s magic, just pure magic.
The early morning breeze blessed me with the sweet scent of the yellow flowering Clematis brachiata creeping in the shrubbery all around me. It is autumn with the last flushes of color before the freezing winter and snow is in full swing, from the blue lobelia to the bright yellow gazania and from the streptocarpus to the erica, all trying to out do the other with flowering perfection.
It took me a while and all huffing and puffing I finally reached the top of the mountain where some of the worlds most famous alpine plants thrive. Rhodohypoxis, Euphorbia clavarioides , Diascia babaraea, bakopa, erica and geranuim just to mention a few, growing all over the sandstone cliffs. The strange Euphorbia clavarioides looked like coral tightly packed on a reef, with the flowerring gazania as the anenomies. ( It might have been the lack of oxygen to my brain that lead to that thought).
The views were spectacular from the top, overlooking the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the bird life rife, and startling me half to death every now and then were a black wildebeest and zebra crossing my path.
On the way down I entered a spectacular scene where the previous season a wildfire had burnt through the veld and left a trail of huge black protea stumps and, flushing underneath them was a sea of flowering grass, the Misanthus capensis. They are spectacular, shooting their inflorescence high up in the air, just to show off and confirm that they are the kings of the mountain grasses. They prefer damp growing conditions, usually colonizing around tricklings of water.
They are an evergreen grass that flower from December to May, attracting birds not only to feast on the abundance of seed it produces, but also to devour the masses of insects it attracts, and using the long strong strappy leaves as nesting material.
I had my very ‘healthy’ brunch consisting of mainly a variety of fudge and coffee in one of the many hollowed out sandstone caves in the cliffs. In front of me was yet another strange small tree, Widdringtonia nodiflora which is one of only 3 species of cedar trees occurring in southern Africa. It still remains weird to see cedars growing in the African wild.
The Drakensberg is still a very much untouched part of South Africa, that gives you a sense of how Africa must have been like before mankind were present.