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TThink eagles, falcons, kestrels and buzzards, threatened vultures and endemic grassland species – they’re all on the avian menu when you go birding in Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Red sandstone formations, lots of game, rolling grasslands and exhilarating mountain air all contribute to a memorable experience.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park in Free State province is one of the largest protected areas on the Highveld – in fact, it’s one of the largest grassland reserves in the country.
But Golden Gate Highlands National Park about more than grassland: it’s one of South Africa’s most spectacular mountain parks, with striking red sandstone formations that rear up against blue skies and – what you’ve come for – more than 175 bird species, some of them hard to find anywhere else.
You’ll also see plenty of antelope – eland, black wildebeest (gnu), blesbok, springbok, grey rhebok and mountain reedbuck – as well as Burchell’s zebra and baboons. But it’s the birds you've come to see, so have those binoculars and bird apps ready.
Because of the altitude – you’re 1 750m above sea level – look for raptors. Soaring above you you’ll see buzzards, kestrels and Verreaux’s eagles. If you’re lucky, you might see a lanner falcon beside the road, feeding on a kill.
The bearded vulture is a special tick – known locally as the lammergeier, it’s already extinct in many parts of South Africa and in decline is some others, although healthy populations in East Africa and Asia mean the species is only ‘near threatened’ overall on the IUCN listings. Look out for their big nests of sticks on high rock ledges – local guides will point you in the right direction.
Other rarities in Golden Gate Highlands National include two endemic species listed as ‘vulnerable’: the yellow-breasted pipit and southern bald ibis. Other local birds with a limited distribution found here include the blue korhaan (bustard) and the handsome Drakensberg rockjumper – both listed as ‘near threatened’.
And when you’re all birded out at the end of the day, sundowners spent gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the surrounding grasslands and mountains will be a balm for your soul...
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
Make your way to the town of Clarens in Free State province; about 290km from Bloemfontein on the N1 and N5 and 300km from Johannesburg on the N3 and R26. You can fly to Bloemfontein or Jo’burg and hire a car. The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is 16km west of Clarens on the R712. If you’re driving from Durban, you’ll reach the park before you get to Clarens; it’s a route of around 370km on the N3, N5, R74 and R712.
Best time to visit
Any time is good, but be prepared for extreme cold in winter (June to August), especially after sunset. Seasonal visitors among the bird species are most common in summer, from December to February.
By car, horseback or on foot.
Around the area
The little town of Clarens has become a haven for artists and craftspeople. You’ll find delightful antique and craft shops, restaurants, pubs and coffee bars – and local festivals, from time to time.
What to pack
Binoculars, bird guides, sunscreen, hat and comfortable walking shoes.
Where to stay
The Glen Reenen Camp in the park has campsites and rondavels. The Alpine-style Golden Gate Hotel is also situated within the park, and there is a variety of accommodation in Clarens.