With the magnificent Gariep Dam as its centre spot, this road trip through the southern Free State takes you back in time to the days of early human habitation and the violent era of the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), and to quiet little villages that have hardly been touched by the hands of time.

Did you know?

The southern Free State town of Bethulie has been renamed no fewer than six times.

Our journey along what we'll call the 'upper Gariep route' begins in the southern Free State town of Smithfield, a place of farmers, artists and publicans.

If you’re someone who likes to paint or draw a country landscape, set up your easel and capture the pure space of the veld (wild fields) around Smithfield. Here’s a mountain outline, there’s a windmill silhouette and there's a secretary bird on an early-morning hunt for breakfast.

We return to our B&B and a generous meal to start the day. Then we walk through Smithfield, meet some of its friendly townsfolk, and peek into the various general dealers, art galleries and craft shops along the way, before getting in our vehicle and heading off.

Shortly before lunch, we arrive at the concentration camp memorial outside Bethulie. The graveyard contains the remains of more than 1 700 people who died here during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War at the turn of the 20th century.

These concentration camp sites are a sad part of this country’s back-story, but very interesting from a military history point of view.

We forage for some lunch in a Bethulie pub and then wander down the road to the village of Gariep, perched on a hill overlooking the great dam of the same name.

Tonight we stay in a chic establishment called the De Stijl Gariep Hotel, dine on gourmet food and take our nightcaps on the porch overlooking the legendary Gariep Dam.

In the morning, we sip coffee and watch the sun rise over the dam, one of the most romantic settings in the vast Karoo.

We spend the day being ‘dude Karoo farmers’ on Prior Grange Guest Farm at nearby Springfontein. If you have an interest in ancient rock etchings or the South African War, then stay close to the owner, Blackie de Swardt. He is passionate about those subjects – also about farming and cricket. (By the way, Prior Grange has its own cricket pitch, and if it’s your lucky day, you can get to watch some good country cricket.)

After a lovely evening spent in the Prior Grange guest cottages and the pub in the old barn, we have breakfast and head west to Philippolis on a scenic dirt road.

This old town is worth a full day’s wander. Because it never underwent an architectural ‘remake’ like so many other country towns of the 1950s, Philippolis still retains its Victorian-era charm. Many first-time visitors to Philippolis end up buying little weekend cottages here – and many of them come here to live at some stage of their life.

There’s a good book shop, an art gallery, a number of guest houses and, on surrounding farms, some great birding to be done.

One of the special features of the Philippolis area is Tiger Canyons, where visitors can arrange to see a tiger-breeding programme. The sight of one of these magnificent beasts striding the flat lands of the Karoo is pure magic...

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Bethulie Guides
Cell: +27 (0)83 251 3555
Email: info@bethulie.za.net

Free State Tourism Authority
Tel: +27 (0)51 411 4300
Email: info@freestatetourism.org

Tiger Canyons
Tel: +27 (0)51 773 0063
Cell: +27 (0)82 892 4680
Email: info@jvbigcats.co.za

De Stijl Gariep Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)51 754 0062
Email: reservations@destijl.co.za

How to get here

Smithfield lies about 120km south of Bloemfontein on the N6.

Best time to visit

Visit the southern Free State in early summer (September to November) or autumn (April to May).

Tours to do

Go on an accompanied tour of Bethulie and the South African War sites in the area.

Get around

Hire a sedan from Bloemfontein and hit the road.

What will it cost

Apart from the more upmarket De Stijl Gariep Hotel, most of the accommodation along this route is typically inexpensive.

Length of stay

Set aside 3 days for this trip.

What to pack

In addition to your informal outdoor clothing, try to bring binoculars and a camera.

Where to stay

Smithfield and Philippolis have a number of good B&Bs, while Gariep has the De Stijl Hotel and the Forever Resorts complex by the waterside.

What to eat

While most of the country establishments along this route have wholesome Karoo dishes, De Stijl Gariep Hotel offers a gourmet experience.

What's happening

Festivals are popular along this route, from the Bibber Chill Festival in Smithfield to the Quenna Festival at Gariep Dam.