An adventure in the Free State

Yesterday, Al and I and two of his work friends, Ash and Sarah, spent the day in the Free State, one of the provinces bordering Gauteng, where we live. Free State is a province that’s known in South Africa for being pretty boring and solidly Afrikaans, even though white Afrikaans people make up only 10% of the population there. However, I had read online about the Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Center right in the heart of Free State and only an hour and a half drive from Joburg: how could we resist?

The Vredefort Dome is actually the remains of huge crater caused by a meteor. According to the Vredefort Dome website, “The Vredefort Structure can be considered to be a gigantic scar that was left behind when a huge meteor (estimated size 10 km diameter) collided with the earth about 2023 million years ago.” Whoa. Apparently this ginormous meteor caused a crater that was “in the order of 100 km and some odd tens of kilometers deep,” but the crater was eroded away over millions of years. Bummer. But now there are cool hiking trails with waterfalls and birdwatching, so we decided to go and check it out.

Ash picked us up at 9 am and we all bundled excitedly into his car wearing our hiking gear. I brought my spiffy new hiking hydration backpack, which I am so obsessed with, I want to wear it ALL THE TIME, even to sleep, and we chowed down on biltong as we drove to the Free State, anticipating hours of challenging climbs and stunning vistas. Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the gate to the Vredefort Dome UNESCO World Heritage Site Interpretive Center (huh?) and – you guessed it! – it was closed. Cuz this is Africa. We considered jumping the fence but, this being Free State, decided that the risk of being shot with a rifle for trespassing was a tad higher than we were comfortable with, so we decided to keep driving and see if we could find another entrance to the park or a trailhead for one of the many hikes we had read about. Two hours later, we hadn’t found anything, so we took a break, parked in the little town of Parys and ate at one of Parys’s “best” restaurants, O’s Restaurant.

Koi pond
Koi pond

O, what to say about O’s? Well, it was pretty. I’ll give it that. There was a cool koi pond and a river (which smelled only a little funky) and the place was positively bustling. The parking guard outside told us proudly that it was the “one of the best restaurants in Parys.” We had high hopes. The food, though, hovered somewhere between mediocre and crap, and the service was glacial. About thirty minutes after we finally paid and left, one of our party started to feel ill from the ill-advised calamari platter he had ordered and we had to make an emergency pit stop. Not awesome, O’s.

Eventually, 3:30 rolled around. We had been driving/being slowly poisoned at O’s for six and a half hours and we had not done one step of hiking. My hydration backpack was going to complete and utter waste. So we pulled off at a place called Suikerbos (Sugarbush), which promised hiking trails. While Suikerbos technically did have hiking trails, they were all approximately 300 meters long and ended abruptly in barbed wire fences, so we just sort of walked in a circle for an hour and then called it a day. We did see some cool flora and fauna, though. We think this thing is an actual sugarbush flower:


And we saw this guy crossing the street/lying motionless in the street. He may or may not have been dead. Jury’s out.


In any case, he was scary.

At a quarter to five, we packed it in and went back to Joburg. We might not have accomplished what we set out to do – e.g., hike Vredefort Dome, see an awesome crater scar, not get food poisoning – but we still had a good day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving here, it’s not to expect things to go as planned – ever. Rolling with the punches, cuz this is Africa.


  • hi Stephanie,

    i ‘ve just read the sad account of your visit to the Vredefort Dome, and concerned that your “spiffy new hiking hydration backpack” might end up as a hot water bottle, i’d like to invite you to return soonest so that i may show you why some of us call the Parys area “Paradise”. I repeat soonest, as come winter you might well consider alternative uses for the hydropack. Yep, can get….chiiiiiilly at night.

    Members of the “Friends of Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site” and the Dome Meteorite Park Conservancy have been promoting the UNESCO ideal of a World Heritage Site since 1998. Unfortunately the area is 99% privately owned and you can imagine the number of conflicting ideas we are faced with. Still, a Memorandum of Agreement is now in place, and once the nitty gritty has been sorted out, the site will finally be proclaimed and gazetted. This will open the door for State funding for preservation, presentation and administration of the site.

    Both the UNESCO Convention as well as the South African Heritage Act state that all global citizens are responsible for assisting in preservation and protection of these sites. Obviously from your report there would be little inclination to show much interest in this site, and that needs to be changed! So, Stephanie and friends (and anyone reading this message) we look forward to meeting you soon…….i don’t think you’ll regret it.

    Warm Regards,
    “friends of Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site”

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