The Free State

The Free State, South Africa

The Free State's vast flatlands form the heart of South Africa. They stretch from the province's northern boundary on the Vaal River and south to the Orange River, which is far away the country's largest watercourse. Two of the largest dams in South Africa have been built along it's course.

The Free State is farming country; it's landscape is dominated by seemingly endless fields of maize and extensive tracts of grasslands. The Voortrekkers crossed the Orange River in 1836 and discovered that beyond the boundaries of the British-ruled Cape lay vast tracts of ideal farming land. Pioneers settled in the area, erected homesteads and began to cultivate the lands. Surface water is scarce, but the soils are deep and rich, the grasses sweet, nurturing great numbers of sheep and cattle.

By contrast, the land in the east is scenically spectacular, rising in magnificent fashion in a series of picturesquely weathered sandstone hills. The Free State is one of the wealthier segments of the subcontinent; in addition to it's agricultural wealth it has massive mineral resources. Gold, diamonds, platinum and coal are mined in the province; the goldfields, around Welkom, are among the world's biggest.

The capital of this province is Bloemfontein ('flower spring'). The centrally-situated city was named after the natural spring waters which quenched the thirsts of the hunters, Voortrekkers and traders. Monuments and statues, scattered throughout this spacious city, pay tribute to the forefathers, presidents and statesmen who shaped the history of this small province.

Of the province's few other major urban centers, the mining city of Welkom is the largest, followed by Kroonstad and Sasolburg, and in the eastern areas, Bethlehem and Harrismith.

The Orange River rises in Lesotho's Maluti Mountains to the east and flows for 2250 kilometers (1400 miles) to the Atlantic seaboard, draining 47% of South Africa's total land area. The river was once known as the Garieb (Khoisan word 'Garip' meaning 'Great River'), but was renamed in 1779 in honour of the Price of Orange. The terrain around the river's lower reaches is rich in semi-precious stones, many of which lie on the surface. Diamonds are found, and still mined and panned, in the inland gravels around the estuary.

Climate: summer rainfall region. Summers are hot, thunderstorms bring rains. The winters are bone-dry; cold nights, cool and sometimes warm days.