Tent Travels: Birds, bikes and the fabulous Free State

Watery Marievale wearing its summer green.

ANYONE who thinks the Free State is flat and boring has obviously never visited its eastern region, with its incredible mountain vistas, golden sandstone and big skies.

This often overlooked province also has its magnificent Golden Gate Highlands National Park, beautifully situated in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains.

It is truly one of the most scenically splendid of all our national parks.

I was thinking how undervalued this golden province was as we drove towards Fouriesberg after leaving Lesotho and re-entering South Africa at the Caledonspoort border post.

We were taking the long, slow route from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg and once again it was proving a great way to travel.

Lesotho had been gorgeous but the summery Eastern Free State, with its sandstone formations and Maluti Mountains backdrop was lovely as well.

And even more bikes – in all shapes and sizes

After driving through Bethlehem, quite a major centre, the road flattened out and the Malutis started to fade.

The long drought had broken and the Free State was at last getting plenty of rain.

Crops alongside the road all looked so healthy, the mielies tall, their stalks densely packed with dark green leaves.

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We passed more mealie fields and fields of yellow sunflowers that were lifting their faces in unison towards the sun.

Happily we dawdled along the R26, a delightful road-less-travelled that runs parallel to the N3 toll road but is so much quieter than that well-used main artery.

The stationary engine display at the Deneysville Museum.

Our route passed through quiet country towns like Reitz, Tweeling and Frankfort then it eventually crossed the bridge over the Vaal Dam at Oranjeville, a quaint little town almost surrounded by water.

We stopped there for breakfast at a picnic spot next to the dam.

A major source of water for Gauteng, the Vaal Dam is South Africa’s second biggest dam in surface area and fourth biggest in volume.

Built during the depression, it was completed in 1938 when the dam wall was 54.2m high and it had a 994 million cubic metre capacity. The wall has been raised a couple of times since then and today its capacity has increased to about 2 500 million cubic metre.

It can also accommodate temporarily another 26 percent of this volume for flood attenuation.

After admiring this man-made wonder we headed on to Deneysville, our first stop for that day.

The bridge over the Vaal Dam at Oranjeville.

The town, on the Free State shore of the extensive Vaal Dam, is situated right next to the dam wall.

It was named after a former Minister of Agriculture, Deneys Reitz, and is a popular weekend destination for people fleeing the Gauteng rat race.

Not surprisingly it is something of a mecca for fishermen and people who like to mess about with boats but it has also become a biking destination, not least because of the efforts of John and Charmaine Boswell, the owners of the Lake Avenue Inn and Guesthouse.

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The attractive pub and restaurant is a popular Sunday morning bike run destination and the lodge itself particularly caters for the motorcycling fraternity.

However, it is the Historic Motorcycle Museum on the property that is the main draw card. A former TT Isle of Man sidecar racer, John is passionate about restoring classic British bikes and about motorcycles in general.

The museum is his brainchild.

Bike, bikes and more bikes.

It is an amazing place even for someone like me who is not that enthusiastic about two-wheeled transport.

Bill, who is passionate about bikes and motorcycle racing was ecstatic.

About 400 square meters in size, the museum is jam-packed with an amazing collection of more than 100 restored vintage and classic motorcycles dating back to 1909.

It is also a shrine to southern African motor cycle history and the legendary riders who made it so great.

The walls are plastered with interesting posters and John has set up informative and eye-catching exhibits immortalise motorcycle greats from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In one corner there is a fascinating display honouring Jim Redman, six times world champion. Part of the display is a replica of his Honda 250/4 motorcycle.

There is also information on Dave Peterson, Jimmy Whyte, Keith Zeeman, Les van Breda, Peter Labuschagne and many more.

Of particular interest to visiting petrol heads is the Jawa Z15, 1976 model, of which there are only three left in the world.

And if this isn’t enough, the world class tourist attraction offers an interesting display of stationary engines, too.

Needless to say, Bill spent a long time at the museum, doing a couple of laps of the display area to make sure he didn’t miss a thing.

He then sent out Whatsapps and messages to all his petrol head friends, extolling the virtues of the amazing place.

We crossed the Vaal, bidding the Free State farewell and heading into Gauteng, South Africa’s frenetic powerhouse.

We had one more stop on the way to Springs where we would spend the night with my brother and sister-in-law.

No visit to Gauteng is complete for us if we don’t pay at least a fleeting visit a watery, marshy urban oasis called Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Nigel, on the edge of South Africa’s most intensely urbanised centre.

This twitchers’ paradise is about 1 400 ha of wetland, crystal clear ponds, extensive reed beds and grasslands.

It is beautifully maintained and well equipped with tourist roads, bird hides and picnic area.

I adore Marievale and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of happy birding hours in this watery paradise before we left for Springs.

View from a Marievale hide.

I am definitely more of a bird person than a bike person and I have to admit our Marievale visit was the highlight of my day.

All the same, although much of what we’d seen earlier at the motorcycle museum in Deneysville had gone over my head, I love it when people are passionate about what they do and I’d been awed by the amount of passion and dedication that John has put into his amazing museum.

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Judi Davis
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