The jewel of Free State shimmers

SEPTEMBER is South Africa's Tourism Month. It is an opportunity for the country to display its hospitality to locals and the international community.

SEPTEMBER is South Africa's Tourism Month. It is an opportunity for the country to display its hospitality to locals and the international community.

As part of showcasing its hospitality industry, the Free State Tourism Board last week launched its Tourism Month programme at the Gariep Dam.

Known as the jewel of the Free State and South Africa's largest inland water mass, the Gariep Dam is situated 200km from Bloemfontein on the NI to Cape Town.

As guests attending the launch my wife and I stayed at the newly renovated De Stijl Gariep Hotel.

The four-star hotel is perched on the hills overlooking the dam.

The Gariep Dam is part of the province's Klein Karoo region, which has various tourist attractions, including three game reserves - Oviston Nature Reserve, Tussen-Die-Riviere Reserve and the Gariep Nature Reserve - consisting of 85000 hectares of unspoilt bush, ideal for sundowner game drives and game viewing.

Other leisure activities in the region include 4x4 trailing, quad biking, river rafting, kayaking, fishing, boating, horse-riding, abseiling and hang-gliding. Tourists can also visit the numerous Anglo-Boer War historical sites in the area.

As part of the adventure, our group visited the Tussen-die-Riviere Game Reserve. Established by the National Party government in 1972 (after buying several private farms in the area), the 22000 hectare game park is situated at the confluence of the Caledon and Orange rivers. It is home to 19 species of game, including buffalo, white rhino, zebra and buck.

Besides game watching, the reserve offers kilometres of 4x4 trails, which our team explored under the able guidance of one of Free State's seasoned adventurers, Jannie "Oom Jannie" du Plessis.

With him in charge our 12-vehicle convoy (including Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Jeeps) traversed the reserve's low and steep slopes, negotiating the treacherous trails.

Adding to the excitement was our sighting now and then of herds of eland and gemsbok galloping away, obviously trying to get as far away as possible from our convoy of steel and rubber behemoths.

The reserve also boasts one of nature's most amazing creations - the Klipstapels. These are rocks neatly stacked as if the whole process was done by a team of workers. Legend has it that the Klipstapels were actually stacked by angels whom God punished for some misdemeanour.

There are also a couple of well-preserved Khoi rock art sites.

For my wife and I, the highlight of our trip was watching from the highest point of a pass in the reserve, the shimmering Orange River below, snaking down towards the Gariep Dam - which is 60km westwards.

After that there was the gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring final descent down the treacherous pass.

At the end of the eight-hour exhausting, but exciting trip through the park, we drove back to the Gariep Dam.

After taking a shower we sat on the balcony and took in the picturesque sight of the fading light on the dam, with the yachts bobbing in the background.

Later that evening we went to a braai where we enjoyed a variety of meats ranging from lamb chops to a tender eland fillet.

When we eventually crept into bed later that night, my wife and I agreed that our experience in the little Karoo was worth the more than 600km we drove from Joburg.

l The board has launched a five-year multi-million rand plan to develop the Gariep Dam into a world pleasure resort. The plan includes building a casino, a theme park and a luxurious time-share condo.

Free State MEC for economic affairs and tourism Mxolisi Dukwana said that the Gariep project was part of a bigger trans-frontier development that will involve Eastern Cape and Northern Cape - the provinces with which Free State shares borders.