A thud on the deck outside our Highlands Mountain Retreat log cabin wakes me. I open my eyes to an enormous baboon perched on the railing outside our bedroom window. His fur glistens with early morning dew drops. He attempts to survey his kingdom far below us in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Only there isn’t much of a kingdom to survey; we are enveloped in a thick mist that swirls around the cabin. I silently curse myself for leaving my camera in the lounge, he is the perfect photographic subject. But it is cold, and I’m not getting up out of my warm and cosy bed to grab it.
We lie in bed watching our baboon in the mist until he jumps off the railing and disappears from view. We panic! Is the front door locked?
Driven by the fear of encountering a large baboon inside our little log cabin, we charge out of bed to check. And yes, the door is locked. But our baboon friend is on his hind legs peering through the glass window panes in the door. We make eye contact. Well, my husband does, I’m hiding behind him. The baboon huffs at him in disgust and jumps off the patio disappearing into the mist.
A Retreat to the Mountain Highlands
We have come to Highlands Mountain Retreat in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park to do exactly that, retreat far from the pressures of our daily lives somewhere deep in the rolling foothills of the Maluti Mountains. We have absolutely no intention of doing anything except relax with our books on the patio and soak up the view. After all, we have a perfectly valid excuse, the camp is 2200 meters above sea level, so we should take it easy to avoid altitude sickness.
A Change of Plan
But the wonder of this natural landscape when we drove in yesterday makes us change our plans. The road into the park winds below towering yellow ochre and orange sandstone cliffs. They are soon replaced by wide-open grasslands when we turn off the main road and up into the Maluti Mountains towards our accommodation at Highlands Mountain Retreat.
Even though it is mid-summer, it’s chilly in the South African highlands, so we layer up with scarves and jackets. Armed with a thermos of coffee and a handy map of the roads and hikes in the park, we venture down out of the mountain mist to explore this jaw-dropping beautiful landscape.
There is Nowhere to Hide
In most of the national parks of South Africa thick bush abounds making game viewing a challenge. I’m one of those Stop! Stop! I saw something people. Only to find that when we do stop, what I thought was a lesser-spotted creature behind a bush is actually a rhino-lion-elephant-buffalo-leopard rock.
But here on the plateau of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park there is no chance of that, nothing can hide in these wide-open grasslands. With very little effort on our part we soon spot herds of wildebeest, red hartebeest and zebra.
We are entranced by the antics of a baby zebra. His fur is fuzzy, and he is still quite wobbly so he can’t be more than a few days old. Despite his long gangly legs, he is still figuring out how to use them, he is determined to explore the space a meter or two away from his mom.
Don’t Forget to Look Behind You
And then, something tells me to look behind us. And there on a slab of rock not far from us sits a black-backed jackal looking straight at us. He gives us a wide doggy grin as if to say it’s about time you noticed me.
I can barely contain my excitement black-backed jackals are always so hard to spot. They move swiftly and you usually only have a split second to see them before they disappear into the African bush. Not this guy, he seems quite content to watch us for a while.
Until I stealthily reach for my camera and with a yawn and a flick of his bushy tail he is up and on the move. But the beauty of this open grassland is there are no bushes for him to disappear into. We watch him for a while as he goes about his jackal business and eventually disappears over a ridge.
A Vulture Restaurant
The walkway from the parking lot to the vulture restaurant meanders along the top of a mini ridge. Open grasslands dotted with small herds of grazing buck extend to either side of us surrounded by distant blue mountains wearing cloudy crowns. It is breath-taking, not only in its beauty but a biting wind slices through us, quite literally taking our breath away.
And just in case you are wondering, a vulture restaurant is a bird hide where carcasses are left out for carrion eaters and not a place where humans get to eat vultures.
I know, vultures! Yuck! But after the surprising acrobatic beauty of the Cape Vultures soaring up the cliff face of the Lenong mountains in the Marakele National Park I’m keen to see these creatures up close. And apparently the endangered Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier is a regular patron of the restaurant.
After what feels like an extremely long walk in the biting wind, we finally reach the welcome shelter of the hide. Sadly, for us, the latest carcass has been picked bare and there will be no vultures, bearded or otherwise dining today.
We have the hide to ourselves because any sensible human being, or bird, knows that today is a stay at home in your warm nest kind of day. Normally, we would be quite content to sit for a while in quiet contemplation of the natural splendour before us. But not today, it is simply too chilly for these delicate petals. And besides, we left our thermos of coffee in the car.
Mother Nature Says Retreat
Back in the shelter of our cosy car, we huddle over our coffee cups warming our frozen hands as the soothing warm liquid trickles down our throats. We wonder what happened, did we get the seasons wrong, after all it is supposed to be mid-summer!
By mutual agreement we abandon all ideas of a hike, no matter how short, and begin to plan a new driving route around the park.
My husband glances up at the mountain where Highlands Mountain Retreat perches near the top. But it’s disappeared. Hidden by an ominous grey-black cloudbank that stretches across the mountain tops and oozes down their slopes. Snaking up the mountainside two ribbons of concrete track glisten in the fading light. This is the only road back to our snug log cabin and it looks like it might be wet, very wet.
And then, a crash of thunder rumbles in the clouds above. It echoes from mountain top to mountain top. Mother Nature has spoken, it is time to retreat back to our cabin.
There Will Be Weather
We make it back into our cabin as the rain sets in. And set in, it does!
A mournful wind howls past one corner of the cabin driving horizontal raindrops in front of it. Who knows if they will ever fall to the earth? Clouds gust and billow past the cabin windows in great big folds releasing little puffs that waft across the patio like mischievous cloud children.
And from deep in the mountains around us thunder rumbles in long continuous growls. A physical sensation that you feel in your gut as the thunder resonates from mountain top to mountain top. It’s also strange, feeling and hearing thunder, without the searing white light of a strike.
And we settle in around our log fire in our snug highland eyrie with our bottle of wine and enjoy the show around us, just two baboons in the mist.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park Good to Know
“Up in this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”
Karen Blixen wrote these words about her time in the Eastern Highlands of Kenya in Out of Africa. But we think she was writing about a stay at the isolated Highlands Mountain Retreat.
Where is it?
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a South African National Parks property. You will find it tucked into a far eastern corner of the Free State province in South Africa about 23 kilometres from the pretty village of Clarens. Here, the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho and the mighty Drakensberg Mountains meet in competition to see who can rise to the most dizzying altitude.
The park is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg and four hours from Durban.
If you are heading to this part of the world, why not get the best of both worlds? Spend a couple of days in the highlands and a couple in the lowlands at Thendele with its spectacular views of the Drakensberg’s Amphitheatre. Thendele is a very scenic two-hour drive away from Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Did I Mention That There Will Be Weather?
This was my second visit to the park. The first trip was in the middle of winter and it was even more chilly than this mid-summer trip. Take plenty of layers, and a raincoat. Oh yes, and firewood – most of the accommodation in the area has a fireplace in the chalets.
SANParks offers a variety of accommodation options in the Golden Gate Highlands Park.
Our favourite accommodation is at Highlands Mountain Retreat where eight cosy log cabins perched on the edge of a mountain top overlooking the grasslands below. I’m sure that you can see forever on a clear day, that is if there are clear days.
The design of the log cabins retains the heat perfectly. And they have plenty of blankets, a fireplace and an electric heater in the bedroom so you will always be warm and cosy. And Guests receive a courtesy bag of wood for the fireplace but be sure to bring more – lots more!
Highlands Mountain Retreat is a self-catering stay, so do remember to bring everything that you will need, the nearest shops are in Clarens. The kitchen is tiny but fully equipped for a self-catering stay. Do remember to bring a sharp knife and braai tongs with you.
How to Book?
Book directly on the SANParks website, online bookings receive a 5% discount.
Nature’s Beauty isn’t Free?
But there is a good reason for this. Funds raised from the daily conservation fees go towards protecting and conserving the park’s natural and cultural heritage.
Conservation fees can be paid at the gate, don’t forget to take your ID or passport with you.
From 1 November 2023 to 31 October 2024, the daily conservation fees for Golden Gate Highlands National Park are as follows:
- R67 per adult and R33.00 per child per day for South African residents.
- R 133 per adult and R67 per child per day for SADC residents and
- R266.00 per adult and R133.00 per child per day for International Residents.
Alternatively, think about buying a Wild Card instead. It’s worth it.
DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with SANParks or any of its affiliates. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.