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.
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.