The vast Free State and the neighboring province of Mpumalanga in the northeast of South Africa are rich in natural beauty. Mpumalanga means “the place where the sun rises,” and here travelers can explore lush forests, mountains, rivers and waterfalls. Mpumalanga is known for its popular game parks, particularly the southern part of the world-famous Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s top attractions, and the spectacular Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, which cuts through the Drakensberg escarpment. Popular zoos surround the small capital, Nelspruit, including Chimp Eden and Elephant Whispers, offering unforgettable animal encounters.
The Free State, southwest of Mpumalanga, stakes its fortunes on agriculture and is a land of vast fields and vast vistas. Tourists can explore the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with its twisted sandstone mountains and rolling green hills, while the Free State capital, Bloemfontein, is home to an impressive art gallery and beautiful botanical gardens. Both states are popular travel destinations.
Read also: Exploring Kruger National Park
1 Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga
The largest and oldest national park in South Africa, the Kruger National Park is known for its incredible diversity of wildlife. The park covers more than two million hectares and the Mpumalanga Province provides access to the popular southern section. The park is also part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a vast wilderness area connecting Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and, in the future, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. Many visitors come here to see the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino, but the park also protects more than 500 species of birds, 114 species of reptiles and 147 different mammals, including rare species such as African wild dogs. San petroglyphs and Stone Age archaeological sites provide insight into the park’s original inhabitants. Visitors can choose from a wide range of accommodation options, including modest campsites, affordable government-run rest camps, safari tents, guest houses and luxury private safari lodges. Most visitors explore the park in their own vehicles, but guided game drives and walks are also available.
Accommodation: where to stay in Kruger National Park
2 Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga
The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (also called Motlatse River Canyon) is a favorite stopover on the way from Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park. It lies on the edge of the Eastern Transvaal Drakensberg plateau, one of the most beautiful regions in South Africa. Here the highveld drops steeply from an altitude of more than 2000 meters above sea level to the lowveld, a fertile region with a subtropical climate. The central feature of the reserve is the Blyde River Canyon , a spectacular gorge with steep lips. Tourists can explore the reserve by car along the Panoramic Route , deviating onto side streets to breathtaking viewpoints. Favorite sights are the Three Rondavels, towering dolomite pillars ; God’s Window , a panoramic viewpoint; and Bourke’s Luck Potholes , where prospectors once searched for gold. The canyon floor is only accessible on foot. Hiking, swimming, rafting and abseiling are great ways to enjoy this beautiful reserve, which also has a diversity of wildlife.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mpumalanga
3 Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State
At the foot of the Maluti Mountains, near the tourist town of Clarens, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a land of rolling green valleys and sandstone cliffs with spectacular views from their peaks. Iron oxides provide a pink blush to the bizarrely shaped sandstone rocks, which contrast beautifully with the lush valleys, shrouded in green. The park’s namesake Golden Gate consists of two 100-foot-tall rocks flanking the road, which shimmer in gold at sunset. Bushmen used to occupy some of the hill caves and during the Boer War the caves sheltered many farming families trying to avoid the British concentration camps. Today the park also protects antelopes, zebras, warthogs and 100 different species of birds, including the majestic bearded vulture and the black eagle.
Official site: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Free State
4 Editor’s Pick Elephant Whispers, Mpumalanga
At Elephant Whispers, about 20 kilometers from the Kruger National Park, visitors can feel an elephant’s trunk and the soft skin behind their ears, receive treats and even experience an elephant-back safari. Run by passionate conservationists, this popular attraction aims to educate and inspire visitors to protect these intelligent animals. Most of the elephants were rescued from culls and brought here to live a better life. Dedicated handlers share fascinating facts about elephant behavior, their anatomy and compassionate training techniques. Visitors can choose from a range of different experiences, including a one-hour interaction; an elephant trekking tour with lunch; and a day with an elephant, learning how to care for them and accompany them on their adventures.
Address: R40 Hazyview, Mpumalanga
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mpumalanga
5 Cheetah Experience, Free State
Unsurprisingly, cheetahs are the biggest attraction at this beloved non-profit nature reserve about 12 kilometers from Bloemfontein. Here, visitors can spend quality time with these graceful creatures at a short distance, cuddling cubs and learning about their behavior from passionate volunteers. Servals and caracals are often in the mix too, and the park also protects lions, leopards and wolves. This is a fantastic place to get close-up photos of the big cats. Tours include a safety presentation and last between 60 and 80 minutes. Early bookings are essential.
Address: 1 Maluti Avenue, Bainsvlei, Bloemfontein
Official site: https://www.cheetahexperience.com/
6 Bagamoya Wildlife Estate, Free State
Located about 30 kilometers from Bloemfontein, Bagamoya Wildlife Estate offers fun game drives and close-up encounters with big cats. Bottle feeding of lions, tigers or cheetahs is a highlight here and visitors can help feed the adult lions. The park is also home to a small zoo with jackals, bat ears and even wallabies, but guests can also take a game drive to see classic African game such as zebras, ostriches, giraffes, antelopes and many more. Self-catering chalets are suitable for guests who want to stay overnight and expand their wildlife experience. Call to check feeding schedules and opening hours before visiting.
Official site: https://www.bagamoyawildlifeestate.co.za/
7 Bloemfontein Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens, Free State
Called the ‘City of Roses’, the capital of the Free State, Bloemfontein, is home to the beautiful Free State National Botanical Garden as well as the superb Oliewenhuis Art Gallery . The gardens combine natural landscapes of native woodland with perfectly prepared picnic areas and the lake here is a lovely place to take a break and see some of the garden’s many species of birds. Scenic, self-guided wilderness trails weave through the bushland and gardens, and highlights include a traditional Sotho hut with a herb garden and an old settler’s cottage.
Housed in a Cape Dutch mansion, the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery takes visitors on a journey through the history of South African art. The permanent collection ranges from the old masters to more recent works and includes paintings and sculptures. Featured artists include Pieter Wenning, Willem Coetzer and Thomas Baines. The gardens here offer an inspiring taste of alfresco art with sculptures of South African historical figures and a colorful carousel featuring European and African mythological flourishes in a nod to the country’s multicultural roots.
8 Chimp Eden, Mpumalanga
The Jane Goodall Institute’s Chimp Eden is located approximately 15 kilometers from Nelspruit in a 1000 hectare nature reserve and is South Africa’s only chimpanzee reserve. The sanctuary has been featured in an Animal Planet documentary series, Escape to Chimp Eden, for their work in rescuing the chimpanzees from traumatic and abusive conditions and reinstating them into social groups. Their mission is to educate visitors about these endangered creatures and promote a better understanding of their behavior, social structure and habitat. The handlers share some of the resident rescue stories while visitors get the chance to observe the animals in their large semi-wild enclosures and visit them at foraging areas. No human interaction is allowed, so that the chimpanzees can remain as wild as possible. Budding conservationists and animal lovers will enjoy this heartwarming experience and help a great cause at the same time.
Official site: https://www.chimpeden.com/
9 Lowveld National Botanical Garden, Nelspruit, Mpumalanga
At the Lowveld National Botanical Garden, visitors can stroll through tranquil woodlands to tumbling waterfalls and see an array of beautiful South African plants. These well-maintained gardens preserve rare and endangered species and host a cycad gene bank. Visitors can admire the impressive collection of cycads and view one of the largest collections of South African fig trees. Two rivers cut across the park and contribute to the peaceful ambiance here. In the African rainforest habitat, visitors can cross the Crocodile River via a suspension bridge and view the impressive cascades. The South African Forest mainly exhibits coastal vegetation and plants from the Limpopo Province.
10 Sabie’s Waterfalls, Mpumalanga
Nestled amid the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains, about an hour’s drive from the Kruger National Park, Sabie is a fantastic base for adventures in the lush wilderness. Waterfalls and mountain rivers surround this pretty town with fantastic opportunities for hiking, canyoning, fly fishing, bird watching, mountain biking and rafting. This area is home to the highest concentration of waterfalls in southern Africa. The most popular cascades are the 210-foot Lone Creek Falls , about nine miles from Sabie. A short and easy walk takes you through the beautiful fern-lined forest to the falls, where tourists can enjoy a picnic. A short drive from here, Bridal Veil Fallsspray water from a high cliff. Other waterfalls in the area include Sabie Falls , just north of the city; The Lisbon Waterfalls , The highest waterfalls in South Africa; Horseshoe Falls ; and MacMac .