The great fossil hunt: Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Posted by Athenkosi Matyalana on 28 May 2013
We had spent 72 hours in the Sotho Kingdom on the great fossil hunt and the only trace of prehistoric life were a few footprints of the elusive Lesothosaurus. It was now time to leave the country for Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Instead of heading straight to the border through Mafeteng, our vehicle meandered towards Maseru.  The sky had cleared up and the road towards the capital was a lot more forgiving. In about an hour and half , without being aware  of it, we had driven through Maseru. We were all expecting to be stuck in traffic for a while but we just waltzed through the city. Thirty minutes later, we probed the GPS for directions to Maseru. It did not hesitate to bring home the news we had passed Maseru. There was nothing else to see, except the white Maloti mountains, a day’s drive away from us. We parked our vehicle at Teyateyaneng, while Dale tried to zoom in on the snow. After 20 minutes , we headed straight to the border.
At the border, we just flashed our passports at the guards and we were on the R26 in South Africa. Our first stop was the dorpie of Fouriesberg, an hour away from the border. Founded in 1892, the town was declared the capital of the Orange Free State Republic during the Anglo-Boer War. We sat at a restaurant called Die Plaastop for a great lunch before hitting the road towards Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
finding fossils- Golden Gate Highlands National Park 2

Brandwag at Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Photo by Jonathan Gill

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Without stopping in Bethelem, we drove straight to Golden Gate. As we entered the park, the first thing that captured our attention was a brown sandstone cliff that seemed to touch the sky. The Brandwag as the sandstone is known, appeared like a work of art as it glowed under the red twilight skies. We rushed towards it and found a few tourists  taking photographs of  the rock .

We rushed to the Golden Gate Hotel to cancel our reservation for a chalet at Glen Reenen Rest Camp. The camp lies at the foot of Brandwag, and we had to see more of the sandstone. After settling at the chalet, we had to end a perfect day with a braai under the Golden Gate skies. The magical lights at the foot of  of Brandwag made it sparkle like a jewel in the sky. What a great way to end the day!

finding fossils-Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Clarens. Photo by

The next morning, we rushed to quaint town of  Clarens to meet David, Sue and Gideon Groenewald from Clarens Fossil Tours. David ushered us to the room where they kept the fossil. After a few minutes, his parents joined him. Watching David, Sue and Gideon in action was like watching the Osmonds performing. The family, all clad in brown shorts and short sleeve shirts( on a cold day), was functioning like a well-oiled machine. David handled the lecture on fossil life in the Clarens area with ease. His father, Gideon, a paleontologist who has worked for institutions such as Wits University, spent the morning crawling in the veld trying to find follised footprints. Watching the entire family turn purple( due to cold weather) in the veld was quite exciting, especially after we’d experienced in Lesotho( The great fossil hunt: Lesotho).  After an hour in the veld, we returned to the Groenewald’s house for a photoshoot.

After a great lunch in Clarens, Bianca and I went for a game drive on the 11,600-hectare park. After wandering around the park, we landed up on the Blesbok Loop.  On the route, we encountered herds of zebra, blesbook and a lone wilderbeest. We leaped out of the car, cameras in hand to take a few shots of the animals.  However, the weather wouldn’t allow it. Despite all the layers of clothing I had, I was shaking and taking photographs while your eyes are watering is not ideal. We had no choice but to head back to chalet. We had tried to experience Golden Gate but Mother Nature wouldn’t allow it.

Finding fossils- Golden Gate Highlands National Park 3

Sunset at Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Photo by Bianca Preusker

 The weather did not improve the following day. We packed our frozen flesh under layers of clothing and squeezed our belongings into the car.  Dale had discovered that all the fossils in Kirkwood , our next destination, had been moved to the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. There was no point in visiting the town as nothing was there. So he cancelled the trek back to the Eastern Cape.  We jumped into the wagon and hit the N1 for a five-hour journey to our overnight home ,Orange River Tented Camps near Gariep Dam.
As we approached Edenburg, near Caledon, the weather improved. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. However, we could not stop to experience the lovely weather. As has been the story throughout the trip: Dale had to get to the dam before sunset! We rushed through the town of  Gariep Dam to find an empty dam. The water was not flowing with the vigour we had expected. We went back into the car and headed to Orange River Tented Camps.

Orange River Tented Camps

From the outside, Orange River Tented Camp appears to be isolated and free of technology.  We had expected to use candles and firewood throughout the night. The weather had returned to its unfriendly state. We were freezing and the presence of a stream near the tents was not making things easier.  When we reached the tents, we ran inside to see. What we discovered was the totally opposite of what we had expected. For staters, Dale and I were not going to share a matress. Secondly, the tents have all the contemporary inventions such as electric blankets and kettle. Lastly, all the tents have runnig water and showers.

In the evening ,we  had a short braai and headed straight to bed. With the Orange River whispering  in our ears, we slept like Gary Busey in a coma.  In the morning, Dale took some photographs of the area before we hit the N9 back to George. We had finished our journey into South African prehistoric life.

For a fossil tour in Clarens, contact Clarens Fossil Tours, tel: +27 (0)58 256 1314

What I learned from the trip

Travel journalism is a broad field. Discover what you are passionate about. It could be adventure, nature or culture.

Immerse yourself in your work. There’s nothing as boring as a story that sound like a brochure.

Being a writer or photographer only is not enough. It is important to broaden your skills set.

Although you are on assignment, take some time to smell the roses. Enjoy yourself.

Develop contacts in all the places you visit. Who knows if you could be sent there again?

Related:  The great fossil hunt:Karoo National Park

Find accommodation in the Free State here


yoast-primary -
tcat - On assignment
tcat_slug - on-assignment
tcat2 -
tcat2_slug -
tcat_final - travel