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AAlmost all the nature reserves in South Africa’s central province, Free State, are created around large, scenic dams – and Maria Moroka Game Reserve is no exception.
But one thing not every Free State park has, is a nearby mountain of deep spiritual significance to the locals. Thaba Nchu – ‘the black mountain’ – near Maria Moroka Game Reserve is the spiritual heartland of the Sotho groups who have lived here for almost 200 years.
Sub-clans of a larger Sotho subdivision, the Barolong, settled in this area in the 1830s, after they had been expelled from their original homeland across the Vaal River by the disruptive impis of Mzilikazi.
Mzilikazi was the Zulu general who, having offended King Shaka with potentially fatal consequences, fled with his warriors over the Drakensberg Mountains, onto South Africa’s Highveld plateau. Here they carved a path of raiding, conquest and destruction through many Sotho and Tswana peoples, becoming known as the Matabele, before eventually conquering and settling Matabeleland in what is today Zimbabwe.
The Barolong Sotho clans who migrated to Thaba Nchu as a result of Mzilikazi’s depredations were led at the time by Chief Moroka II. They became subjects of the famous King Moshoeshoe I, who welded various Sotho clans into 1 nation that repelled colonial and settler incursions, in what is today South Africa’s neighbouring state, the Kingdom of Lesotho.
The revered mountain, only about 70km from the airport in Bloemfontein (the city is now part of the larger Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality, the provincial capital), rises above the Maria Moroka Game Reserve.
The large body of water at the reserve’s centre is the Moutloatsi Saetlogelo Dam, which is popular with anglers – and those who love sundowners on a boat.
You can walk or drive around the reserve and view herds of eland, black wildebeest (gnu), red hartebeest, springbok, blesbok and zebra. Sometimes there are spectacular sightings of birds – such as hundreds of blue cranes at a time – and there’s always lots of cheerful chirping from the many and varied feathered residents at dawn.
Wildlife is not the only attraction; there’s also the setting. ‘Big Sky Country’ might be a cliché, but never has it been more apt. The air here is clear, the horizons are wide, and the brooding majesty of the great black mountain brings it all into pinpoint focus.
Interestingly, the large hotel within the game reserve was formerly a casino, and has a swimming pool, putt-putt course, jacuzzi, sauna and a few other glitzy attractions – completely different to the standard self-catering chalets you usually find at a provincial park like this.
You’re less than an hour’s drive from the province’s bustling capital, but it feels as if you’re far, far away. As a bonus, this is a great stopover point if you’re travelling to the Lesotho border post and Maseru.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Black Mountain Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)51 871 4200
How to get here
From Mangaung, take the N8 towards Lesotho. After 65km you’ll find the little town of Thaba Nchu. Follow the signs to the game reserve and Black Mountain Hotel from here.
Best time to visit
The grassland wildflowers are in full bloom between November and January, but be sure to pack a hat and sunscreen, because this time of year is heading towards peak summer.
Within the reserve, you can drive yourself, go on group game drives in a reserve vehicle, or take a scenic 8km hike.
Length of stay
You could stay overnight, but to get in lots of relaxation, game viewing and enjoyment of the hotel facilities, try a long weekend.
Where to stay
There are self-catering chalets, if you prefer the simple life, or a large hotel if you like more comfort (and putt-putt).