We’ll always have Parys

Posted on 3 February 2021 By Matt Sterne

The Free State town has long been a popular weekend getaway for Gautengers. It’s an ever-evolving scene, with more to it than just a meteor crash site.

Words & Photos Matthew Sterne

Parys has three Eiffel Towers, although none quite as impressive as the Parisian original.

It’s 9am on a Tuesday at Liewer Koffi in Parys and the regular crowd shuffles in. Hardus Engelbrecht is sporting a broken wrist after riding his mountain bike into a stationary Hilux on Sunday. ‘An old man trying to do young man things,’ he explains. The local councillor, Andries Vrey, sits on the veranda outside discussing the municipal water issues and a ‘small town with small town problems’. A breathless artist walks in carrying a large painting of hers for the Hutton Art Gallery in the back of the coffee shop. Ilze Botha, the coffee shop owner, introduces her from behind the counter. ‘She moved here after she lost her husband. Alive.’ Everyone in the café laughs.

Jams and organic vegetables rest on the counter, with ferns hanging higgledy-piggledy above them. Jazz plays in the background. Ilze potters around in Salomon running shoes and a fedora resting coolly on her head. Liewer Koffi was recently named as one of the top 100 coffee shops in the country by the Restaurant Association of South Africa, something which everyone seems to be very proud of.


The refuse removal in Parys is slightly unconventional.

‘We come to have coffee at Ilze’s, not Liewer Koffi,’ artist-activist Deon TerBlanche tells me with a cappuccino in hand. As the shop on Bree Street slowly fills with morning light, more locals drift in, greeting each other casually as though this is their own living room – Parys’ own Central Perk. Ilze writes everyone’s tabs on the wall behind her with chalk.

Here’s Frances Hutton, owner of the gallery, breezing in. She shows me her stand of honey products that come from her farm, ‘Propolis is a miracle ointment. It’s anti-everything, nothing is immune to it.’ She points out Zelda Bezuidenhout, sitting at a table, next to me. ‘There are lots of published writers in Parys, but she’s probably the best known.’ And here comes Belinda Elrix, also known as Madame Kiki, who gracefully sashays in with her bag at her elbow. Her well-stocked photographic studio, adjoining the coffee shop, will turn you into a Voortrekker, minister, war nurse or explorer. In her studio there’s a framed photo with the words: ‘There are hidden treasures in the familiar shadows of our small town.’

Pont de Val offers river cruises for up to 12 people, or dining cruises for up to six people, on the Vaal.

Almost everyone I meet at Liewer Koffi considers themselves ‘expats’. Like many in town, Hardus commutes to Joburg every day for work, just over an hour’s drive away. ‘Sometimes I have meetings and the antique markets also took hold. Suddenly, Parys became something of a boom town. At the same time, Mimosa’s star began to fade. Its loss has been the guest houses’ gain. There are now 160 of them in the area. Just 120km from Joburg, wedding venues and golf courses have also flourished. ‘The golfing crowd comes in on Wednesdays, and from Thursday onwards the weekend people come and there’s a real buzz in town,’ Annemarie told me.

There are three factors at play for visitors to this Free State town: the river, the dome and the town itself. The river offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the country but is manageable for everyone in the family. I spent an afternoon rafting with one of South Africa’s original ‘River Men’ Graeme Addison. I also learnt how to do the ‘Vaal Shuffle’ – a crab-like walk while wading in the river – with Anthea Piater when fly fishing in one of her secret spots. A tour of the World Heritage-listed Vredefort Dome is a mind-boggling look back at one of the largest meteors to ever hit the Earth – an event that changed South Africa’s fortunes forever.

Beekeepers often use a ‘smoker’ to calm bees when they inspect their hives as smoke interferes with the bees’ primary form of communication: smell.

My most memorable experience in Parys was with Frances Hutton and her bees. She and Pierre Roux van Niekerk got into beekeeping on a whim and, after telling their friends, soon many in the area were calling them to collect the hives near their homes. At Frances smallholding on the Vaal one evening, they threw me in a bee suit and showed me how they harvest honey. As Pierre smoked the bees out and the hive came to life like a chainsaw starting up, he said things like; ‘African killer bees have that name for a reason’, ‘This hive is like a loaded weapon,’ and, ‘We can’t begin to understand their complexities’. After retrieving the honey, we jumped on the back of the bakkie and fled, the smoke from the canister trailing us like a speeding train.


Otter’s Haunt has a network of riverside walks, best taken in the early morning.

After five days in Parys, I began to understand the town a little better. There were undercurrents of historical tension, the municipality had water issues and there were reports of occasionally toxic levels of sewage in the Vaal River. ‘At a guess, I’d say we have clean water for rafting about 98% of the time,’ Graeme told me. ‘That’s based on my experience over the past 20 years.’

Read: 6 things to do in Parys, the Free State’s adventure capital

The townsfolk, for the most part, were friendly, welcoming and intriguing. Many of the expats are entrepreneurs: resourceful, multi-talented, non-conformist and intellectual. They all seemed to be escaping a previous city or life and had found in Parys a sense of freedom. A freedom that comes with being able to walk safely in the streets and with the open spaces surrounding town. The river – with its sprawling nature, morning mists and wildlife – contributes to this feeling. As does the option of being able to drive into Joburg for the day (or never at all). It’s this sense of freedom, and a deep appreciation for it, which ties everyone in Parys together. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Because if there’s one thing Parisians have always been keen on, it’s their liberty.

Graeme Addison calls his rafting tours ‘Dances with Waves’.

The Vredefort Dome

Over two billion years ago, one of the largest meteors to ever hit the Earth collided with a spot 10km from the centre of Parys. It left behind the largest-known crater on the planet with an indentation 40km deep and 360km wide, stretching from present-day Joburg in a great south-westerly sweep to Welkom.

The impact pushed the Witwatersrand gold reef deeper into the Earth’s crust, protecting it from erosion and preserving it for the gold diggers of the 18th century to find. Around 40% of all the world’s gold ever mined has been harvested here.

Ilze Botha left a career in landscaping five years ago to pursue her coffee passion.

The meteor was roughly the size of Table Mountain and moving 1 000 times faster than a bullet. No other known event has ever released as much energy in a single explosion. As the huge meteorite slammed into the Earth, the surface liquefied and rippled out like water on a smooth pond. The ‘dome’ was the central mound that rose up over the original impact site.

Since then, however, it has eroded away and the crater is so big that it’s tricky to see with the naked eye. People often drive into Parys and ask ‘Where’s the dome?’ and locals chorus back, ‘You’re in it!’

Trip Planner

Getting There
Parys is an hour and 15 minutes south of Johannesburg. Follow the N1 for 90km, turn right onto the R59 and continue for another 20km.

Even the tourism office has its own Eiffel Tower.

Stay Here

Rus & Vrede on Vaal
This luxury, three-roomed guesthouse, with an infinity pool overlooking the Vaal, is top of Tripadvisor for a reason. Expect private entrances, cold breakfasts waiting for you in the fridge and superb comfort. rvonvaal.co.za



Local Lisa de Speville recommends visiting the Hartelus Market, which opens on the first Saturday of every month.

Otters’ Haunt
This rustic country retreat has cottages, suites and A-frame cabins, all a stone’s throw from the river.  otters.co.za

African Olive Country Estate
Lying just a kilometre outside town, on the far side of the river, this guesthouse offers two well-appointed luxury cottages and two studio apartments. They all overlook the farm and a century-old water channel leading from the Vaal River. africanolivecountryestate.co.za

Do this

Rafting with Graeme Addison
Graeme is a legend in the paddling world, having helped establish rafting in South Africa in the 1980s. Based at Otters’ Haunt, the team specialises in half-day and full-day trips. All ages and experience levels are welcome. 084 245 2490, otters.co.za

Harvest honey with Frances Hutton
Frances will meet you at her place, put you in a bee suit, take you to the hives, smoke out thousands of bees and tell you to remain calm. It’s fascinating, exhilarating and, plus you get a jar of honey. 082 801 6311

Fly fishing with Anthea Piater
Anthea is a provincial fly fisher who moved to Parys to pursue her passion. She provides half-and full-day excursions to her favourite fishing spots searching for smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish. She’ll also show you the Vaal shuffle. Lunch and drinks included on a full-day tour. 082 403 2741, [email protected]

Vaal rafting

Get your portrait taken at Kiki’s Vintage Studio
Step back in time at this popular photography studio where the experience might be even better than the photos you get. Package rates vary, enquire for more info. 082 452 9459, kikisphotostudio.com

Do a Dome tour
Christo Meyer will drive you up to a viewpoint on his farm to explain the phenomena of the Vredefort Dome. Morning and afternoon drives are available but I recommend going for sunset as you can take your own sundowners. 083 406 0841, kopjeskraal.co.za

Eat & drink

Pont de Val
Alongside a vineyard on the Vaal, this French-inspired restaurant is a classy-yet-relaxed affair 25 minutes out of town. Try the braised beef short ribs , pork belly and pan-fired linefish. 016 004 0019, pontdeval.co.za

Venterskroon Inn
The history of this former gold-rush town can be seen on the walls, alongside a bedazzled guitar and other trinkets. Sunday lunches are busy but otherwise the courtyard garden is quiet and peaceful. 30 minutes from Parys. 056 110 0074.


Pont de Val

O’s is widely regarded as the best restaurant in Parys. Signature dishes are the escargots  and fillet flambé. There are also a range of burgers and pizzas available. The adjoining bar, Die Plek, has the best river view in Parys. https://osrestaurant.co.za/

Liewer Koffi
Ilze’s popular cafe has the best coffee in town. Visit their Instagram page

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ALSO READ: Turtle Tracking in Kosi Bay

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