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Free State, South Africa: Kroonstad, Bethlehem, Harrismith - a Travelogue

Martie Coetser is a freelance writer from South Africa. She has a keen interest in a variety of topics.

Kroonstad to Bethlehem to Harrismith

Kroonstad to Bethlehem to Harrismith

Free State Province

The Free State Province in the middle of South Africa cannot be ignored. Traveling from north to south, from south to north, from west to east, from east to west, the traveler will find himself at one point or another in the Free State.

Not that the Free State is a free state per se! Being one of the nine provinces of South Africa, it has no special allowances regarding freedom.

This region between the Orange- and Vaal River was named Orange Free State in 1854 by Dutch settlers who had fled the British-ruled Cape Colony since 1836. The 'Orange' referred to the House of Orange which was (and still is) an important dynasty in the history of the Netherlands from where many of the forefathers of Dutch settlers migrated during the second half of the 1600's. Knowing the history of the Free State makes journeys through this little province an unforgettable experience. Most of the towns are roughly 50 km (31 miles) from each other - the distance that could be ridden in a day on horseback.

Our destiny was the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.


Traveling through the Northern and Eastern Free State

Traveling from Klerksdorp (my hometown in the North West Province) to enjoy a holiday in KwaZulu-Natal, we chose the provincial road that took us through the Northern and Eastern Free State, instead of the alternative to Johannesburg where the N3-highway is the most popular and fastest route to Durban.

Klerksdorp to Harrismith

Our route from Klerksdorp to Harrismith

Our route from Klerksdorp to Harrismith

Free State regions, South Africa

Free State regions, South Africa

The Vaal River

Only 13 km (8 miles) from Klerksdorp is the little mining town, Orkney, located on the banks of the Vaal River which forms the border between the North West Province and the Free State. We crossed the bridge, looking forward to our journey.

The route we took through the northern and eastern Free State, compared to the mountains, valleys, ocean and beaches of KwaZulu-Natal, is quite boring, unless a traveler delights in grazing cattle on stretched-out grasslands, crops of all sorts and windmills.

Vaal River at Orkney

Vaal River at Orkney, North West Province, South Africa

Vaal River at Orkney, North West Province, South Africa

Northern and Eastern Free State

As far as we drove, we saw thriving crops of sunflowers and maize (the main staple food in SA), as well as groundnuts, and potatoes. Although we didn't see them, we knew the region also produces soy beans, sorghum, and wheat.

Large and small herds of cattle and sheep, and indicators to stud farms and game ranches convinced us that the tranquility we sensed was misleading. Farmers and their employees were working where we couldn't see them.

This region also produces gold, uranium, diamonds, coal, calcite, iridium, muscovite, pyrophylite, rutile, uranite, and isoferroplatinum.

In mid-February it is almost the end of South Africa's summer. The bright blue sky, green of all shades, yellow sunflowers and pink flamingos are the dominant colors.

Game farm in the region of Kroonstad

Game farm, Kroonstad, Free State, South Africa

Game farm, Kroonstad, Free State, South Africa


Established in 1855 by the Irish pioneer Joseph Orpen, Kroonstad is today the Free State's third largest city hosting approximately 198,000 people. While "kroon" means "crown", the kroon in Kroonstad was the name of a horse that had drowned in a nearby ford. The tragedy made such a deep impression on Orpen, he decided to call his settlement Kroonstad,

Most, if not all, of South Africa's towns were established on the banks of a river. The river at Kroonstad is the Valsrivier (False River) - a tributary of the Vaal River.

We spent some time at the Kroonstad Concentration Camp Cemetery - one of eleven concentration camps that was erected in the Free State by the British during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). In this camp alone, 1,268 of the ± 2500 women and children died between April 1901 and April 1902.

First languages spoken in Kroonstad are Sotho (73.3%); Afrikaans (15.8%); English (3.1%); Xhosa (2.5%); Other, such as Greek, Portuguese, Indian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Mandarin, and other Asian languages (5.3%).