This tranquil land is the geographic and agricultural centre of South Africa.

However, The Free State is fast becoming a tourist destination in its own right. Famous for its warm South African hospitality, `boerekos’ (traditional Afrikaner farm-style cuisine) and decidedly slower-paced lifestyle, this province has become a draw-card for holiday-makers intent on exploring small-town South Africa.

Known, locally, as South Africa's 'bread basket', the Free State is cultivated by more than 30 000 farms to produce over 70% of South Africa's grain consumption. It is also home to the most productive gold and diamond mines in the world.

  The Free State

The Free State lies in the heart of South Africa, with the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho nestling in the hollow of its bean-like shape. Between the Vaal River, in the north, and the Orange River, in the south, this immense rolling prairie stretches as far as the eye can see. Formerly known as the Orange Free State, this province has had its share of battles – most importantly, perhaps, the Anglo Boer War.

The Free State is the third-largest province in South Africa. However, it has the second-smallest population and the second-lowest population density, housing some 2,8 million people on about 129 480 km2 of land. There is a wide mix of cultures and people living in this laid-back province.

This summer-rainfall region is warm and temperate in the summer but can be relatively cold during the winter months, (especially towards the eastern mountainous regions where temperatures can drop as low as 9ºC). The western and southern areas are semi-desert.

  Clarens - Jewel of the Free State

There’s a brooding presence that looms over the eastern Free State village of Clarens called Mount Horeb. Some like to climb it, play golf on its flanks or simply sip at their single malts and contemplate it from a distance in the early autumn evenings, when the Lombardy poplars in the valley turn gold and the air is still. They also say that Mount Horeb with its winter snowcap is a sight to behold.

About 20 years ago, a writer stricken with muscular dystrophy (MS) used to have a weekend hideaway in Clarens. She would often stare up at the village’s mountain guardian and wish to be at its summit. Maybe wave down to her friends in the streets below.  The thing about the inner circle of Clarens is that word gets around, as they say. That’s life in a small village. News of the writer’s yearning spread, and a number of Clarentines built a special chair for her. Then 14 young men from the area lifted her and carried her to the top of Mount Horeb. Such was the spirit of the village of Clarens.

Visitors arrive in Clarens and suddenly find themselves in a frenzy of art-buying, restaurant-hopping, cycling, gamedriving, trout fishing,whitewatering, birding and late-night partying…and where exactly did that quietweekend go?And then you see that shy couple emerging dewy-eyed from the farmhouse they rented, keeping their own company and going their own romantic way, and you know that a weekend in Clarens is really what you make of it.

The more adventurous head out to Bokpoort, a farm near the Golden Gate, to ride with Christo Roos, whose ancestors go back further than the Anglo-Boer War. If you like a horse, a drink or an old-fashioned lang-arm dance to concertina music that sounds almost exactly like Louisiana Cajun, then Christo is your man. A two-day outride on a Basotho pony down the Caledon River Valley with Christo & Friends is an indelible memory.

Photographs and information © South African Tourism