South Africa: Through golden gates

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Join Dale Morris as he swims, walks, drives and horse rides his way through the Free State’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park. But will he spot what he is after?

It was a stunning sunset view such as this that inspired the Golden Gate moniker in 1875

It was a stunning sunset view such as this that inspired the Golden Gate moniker in 1875 (Photo by Dale Morris)

This article was published in Issue 58 (Spring 2012)

The bearded vulture is a very rare bird in South Africa. Just a few hundred of these attractive scavengers drift the high thermals in search of food, but as the great herds of game no longer roam the foothills of the Drakensbergs, Lesotho or the Maluti Mountains, the birds are no longer guaranteed a daily dose of naturally occurring corpses on which to feast. The meals have become so rare, in fact, that conservationists have had to step in to provide food to help these impressive birds survive.

Every week teams of South African National Park employees visit mountain sites to keep them well stocked with carcasses donated from surrounding farms or scraped off the local roadside verges. Like fast food outlets the world over, South Africa’s vulture ‘restaurants’ are not the most aesthetically pleasing of places, nor are they particularly healthy (with all the decay and botulism and whatnot) but they do serve an important role. They keep a beautiful and valuable species from going over the edge (yes, bearded vultures are beautiful – they have feathers on their head for one thing and they also lack the ‘grotesque and wrinkly mother-in-law’ neck that other vulture species possess).

The smell at the vulture feeding station that I was hiding in was appalling. It was far, far worse than anything my hiking socks have ever come up with (and that’s saying something), but I managed to hold back my gagging reflex and hunkered down behind a desiccated cow’s rib cage, camera in hand and hopes as high as the vultures who were circling up above me.

It was an idyllic summer’s evening in the Free State’s gorgeous Golden Gate Highlands National Park, and the blue sky above was peppered with little fluffy clouds between which two vultures soared. They were the size of pinpricks though, and, despite their distance, I think they may have detected my failing deodorant (it had been quite an arduous hike to get there) as they were reluctant to come closer.

The late afternoon light was perfect for photographing vultures; the sandstone cliffs that characterise this scenically stunning park were alive with twilight hues, as were the gently swaying grasses where the cow’s corpse was situated. But the birds were just too far away for a shot. They were probably hungry too, so, not wanting to disturb them further, I retreated back towards the Glen Reenen campsite and instead watched the cliffs put on their radiant sunset light show.

I had been in the Golden Gate for a week exploring its many mountain trails, its rolling plains and its beautiful valleys, sometimes on foot, other times in a 4WD, and even on a few occasions,

on the back of a sturdy horse. I swam in idyllic rivers where reflections of blood-red mountains were cast between the bows of drooping willow trees, and discovered obscure caves upon whose walls I found a myriad of ancient Bushmen paintings.

I hadn’t seen many vultures though.

The Bushmen, along with the great herds of game that once roamed this region, are sadly long gone, victims of discrimination by black tribes from the north and white settlers from the west. But their legacy remains in the form of intricate stories that have been painted onto their former dwellings with ochre and clay.

The Maluti Mountains of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, with their sculpted cliffs and many overhangs, must have been a mecca for Bushmen in their day, and it is certain that the hunting was very, very good. After all, between the steep
cliffs and mountain peaks, gently rolling grasslands and lush highland plateaus once supported vast
herds of scrumptious zebra, eland, blesbok, hartebeest and wildebeest.

While Bushmen will never again walk amid the majesty of these mountains, the park’s authorities are doing everything in their power to bring back those stately herds, enabling healthy populations of bearded vultures to scavenge for real once again.

Originally, Golden Gate was quite a small reserve with very little biological importance. Its proximity to the metropolises of Durban, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, and its stunning scenery (especially in winter when snow is common) made it a draw card for its aesthetic qualities alone.

However in 2008 the adjacent Qwa Qwa region was incorporated into Golden Gate, expanding the park from a mere 11,000ha to more than 34,000ha, thereby creating a reserve large enough to maintain healthy populations of wildlife. There are even plans to link it into the much, much bigger cross-border initiative known as the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Park. Consequently, the herds are now growing steadily and large aggregations are once again a fairly common sight. Large predators are still absent though, but a fence currently being erected around the entire perimeter of the reserve may one day facilitate the return of the region’s extinct hyena and lion.

While tourism was once the park’s primary focus, conservation and local poverty alleviation schemes have now taken precedence. But that is not to say that
a visitor to the park will find himself at a loose end.

Far from it.

There are numerous lodging options, ranging from basic campsites where you must bring your own tent to 4-star hotels and self-catering cabins with the most splendid of views.

The early mornings in Golden Gate (especially during summer) are typically misty, with clouds rolling across the scenery like dust storms. In winter it is not uncommon to see herds of zebra moving through crisp fields of deep white snow (imagine witnessing that from the comfort of your patio).

Possibly the most interesting and certainly the most interactive of lodging options would be the Basotho cultural village, a mock-ethnic setup where guests get to stay in modernised thatched rondavels and meet traditionally-attired mountain folk.
I hobnobbed with the chief, a stately man with a portly belly (as is the custom) and I also met a witch doctor wearing a hat made from a cat, who told my fortune
by means of some rattling bones.

The most enjoyment I had though was when I learned how to make gritty bread from some lovely ladies whose lot in life was to grind away at grain for eight hours a day. They persuaded me to dress up in traditional costume (cat hat included) and then informed me that, as convention dictates, I was now eligible to take on an additional three wives. They smiled at me in an alluring way. It was all good-natured fun and an interesting insight to the cultures and traditions of the people who live in the region.

At night I slept to the sound of goats bleating, cowbells ringing and blesbok rattling horns with each other out on the plateau where the village is situated. I also heard baboons barking at something unseen that was hunting in the rocky ridges above.

Although Golden Gate is a hiker’s paradise (there are many kilometres of trails), one doesn’t necessarily need to be a hiker to enjoy it. A series of smooth roads enable you to drive through some of the most spectacular scenery on offer, and a rugged 4WD trail will let you explore some of the park’s little known riches (there are dinosaur footprints embossed into rocks and endless vistas of the most brilliant greens). Every day there are scheduled horseback forays (on dopey, but easily handled horses) up into the mountains, where sightings of white eland (Africa’s largest antelope species) are pretty much assured.

And then of course, there are the vulture restaurants…

With some local farmers leaving out poisoned carcasses to kill jackals, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is actually one of the last places the 30 or so bearded vultures remaining in the entire Maluti Drakensberg region can come to feed in safety. The meat left by park officials at the feeding stations is guaranteed free from toxins (or additives and artificial flavourings), is fat-free and recommended by the international council of heart surgeons.

Ok, I jest, but, in all seriousness, Golden Gate’s putrid handouts may well be the bearded vulture’s best chance for survival. And so, on my very last day in the park, I yet again concealed myself amongst the piles of rib cages, skulls and femurs that littered the ground, and there I waited patiently.

I wasn’t alone for long though, as a jackal arrived and began patiently chewing through the aromatic remnants of the rhebok carcass that lay ahead of me in the grass. He hadn’t seen or, perhaps more importantly, smelled me, and I took this as a good sign that perhaps vultures wouldn’t smell me either.

And then out from the mountain mist appeared two giant birds overhead, sailing like kites right in front of my camera. As they drifted elegantly by, I heard the sound of the wind ruffling over their feathers.

It was a moment of true beauty.

Click, click, click went the shutter on my camera, and then they were gone, vanished into the long grasses next to their shared lunch. Although the birds did not give me further opportunity to take more photographs, the sighting had been marvellous. I was happy. It had been a satisfying conclusion to a holiday full of wonderful moments beneath the gorgeous glowing mountains that typify South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

PLAN YOUR TRIP
Getting there:

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is centrally located between (and easily accessible by road from) Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein.

When to visit:
The southern spring (September/October) and summer (December to February) are the best times to explore the park. If you wish to see zebras in the snow and don’t mind the cold, visits in winter are an enjoyable option.

Visas:
Tourist visas are not required for most visitors.

Books:
Lonely Planet’s South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland (8th ed, 2009) by James Bainbridge et al is a good choice for trips to the Free State and Golden Gate Highlands National Park (the next edition is out in August 2012).

Find out more:
South African National Parks (www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate)

Author’s tip:
I found that sticking peppermint-infused pieces of cotton wool up my nose made the intense smells from the vulture restaurants more tolerable.

 

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