To get the best views at Golden Gate, you have to stay at Highlands Mountain Retreat. It’s the most private of all the accommodation offerings in the park, perched on the top of a mountain at 2200 metres above sea level.
Sensational views over the grasslands on the slopes of the Maloti Mountains come standard, and you might even spot some zebra chewing their way through the landscape. Comprising just eight log cabins, it is thoughtfully tucked into the hills and grass even grows on the roofs, concealing them. Here, you’re high enough to see birds of prey swooping by and really feel a part of the landscape.
Of South Africa’s 800-plus bird species, 350 occur in the grassland biome and 171 have been recorded at Golden Gate. Two threatened species endemic to the area are the yellow-breasted pipit and southern bald ibis. The most renowned sighting, however, is of the highly threatened and very handsome bearded vulture or lammergeier – known for dropping bones from dizzying heights to shatter them into little pieces so it can get to the marrow. Senior section ranger Dhiraj Nariandas says that the vulture ‘restaurant’ in the park is their northernmost feeding site in the country. ‘There are approximately just 300 individuals in South Africa and the restaurant was set up for their sake, but Cape vultures bene t from the carcasses too. It’s also an easy place to spot black-backed jackal.’
Plan your weekend to Golden Gate
Cost: Around R1596 per person
Duration: Two nights
Special sights: Bearded vultures, secretive oribi and endless views
Also read: Get a free trails mail to Golden Gate
Just chill. This weekend is all about sipping red wine, taking panoramic shots from your doorstep and cuddling up in front of the fire.
Stay here: The self-catering cabins at Highlands Mountain Retreat are fully equipped (and super- cosy in winter, with oil heaters, electric blankets and fireplace) so just bring all the food you’ll need. There’s a braai on your stoep with the best views in the park. Collect the keys from Glen Reenen Rest Camp; it takes 15 minutes to get here via a game drive on Oribi Loop. From R1500 for two. Conservation fees R48 per person a day. Tel 0582550962
There really is little reason to wake up early if you’re on a romantic break. However, if cabin fever strikes, head for the vulture restaurant (a 10-minute drive away). If you’re a couple of die-hard twitchers, pack a flask and sit a while. There are five day hikes (no extra cost) in the park that depart from the Glen Reenen Rest Camp. For exceptional views, head up the Brandwag Buttress (one hour) and, if the weather is good, tackle the four-hour Wodehouse Peak trail. In the afternoon, slowly follow the park’s two game-drive routes, the Oribi Loop (4,2 kilometres) Blesbok Loop (6,7 kilometres). Keep eyes peeled for eland herds on the mountain slopes and secretary birds hunting in the long grass.
Before you leave, squeeze in another short walk and experience the forested corners of these red mountains. Echo Ravine is a gentle stroll that takes just 45 minutes and is one of the more picturesque routes. The mountains wrap almost entirely around you, thanks to centuries of weathering, and water drips from the cliffs in the rainy season. If it’s hot, cool off in the natural rock pool behind the Glen Reenen Rest Camp before heading for home.
Golden Gate: need to know
Day visitors pay R48 per person. The two game drives are short and spectacular, but it’s definitely worth doing a day hike – it’s easy to get a permit and parking at Glen Reenen Rest Camp is safe. There is a picnic site with braai facilities and ablutions close to the Golden Gate Hotel, but it wasn’t in the best state when I visited. Rather picnic at De Molen Farm down the road – this Nguni cattle stud is 7km from Clarens. Take a picnic basket and sit on the banks of the Little Caledon River for free.
Best time to go? Hiking is best and it’s greenest in spring and summer – plus you can swim. In winter there might be snow. Golden Gate is prone to sudden changes in weather, with thunderstorms from November to February (summer) and below-freezing temperatures in winter.
Supplies: Glen Reenen Rest Camp has a small shop with basic supplies, a bottle store and fuel station. There is no ATM.
This hiking escape first appeared in the October issue of Getaway magazine.
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