Sunday, April 3

Sunrise to Sunset, a day in the Free State

Waiting for sunrise, south of Villiers, Free State
Late summer / early autumn in South Africa and on the the rolling, high altitude grasslands of Mpumulanga and the Free State it's peak cosmos time. Sprinkled across the landscape are spectacular displays of the white, pink and cerise flower, Cosmos bipinnata.

It's been quite a few years since I last made an effort to photograph this floral wonder. So on Thursday this last week I left home an hour and a half before dawn, to get early to one of my favourite stretches of South African road, the R103 between Villiers and Warden. I wanted to see the sun rise on the cosmos.
Cosmos bipinnata, as the sun rose above the horizon.....

 To orient you, here are 2 maps – the first showing where the Free State Province fits in South Africa,
and second is a section showing the North and Eastern Free State, with a rather wobbly red line and arrowheads sketching out my route.

You can estimate the scale of the map if you understand that the distance I covered, on the loop from Villiers down to Warden, Harrismith, and then through Golden Gate to Clarens and north again to Villiers via Bethlehem and Frankfort, was a distance of about 480 kilometres. It took me just over 12 hours to do the loop – that included lots and lots of stops for photos, and a lunch break........

(and then I had the 140 km's to travel both ways in the dark, that morning and evening)

Needless to say, by the time I got home that night, I had a “numb bum”, locked-up knees and a very stiff neck after all that time behind the steering wheel!!

But what a great day I had.

The weather was perfect, clear skies and no wind in the early morning, and by the time I got to the mountains there were scattered clouds to provide enough shadows to make the midday landscapes a little more photogenic! It was hot, but a cool wind played across the green/gold mountainsides.

I managed to take 530 photographs and also cover enough territory to have enough material for up to three blog postings!

This is the first post .... (and a warning - it's turned out a whole lot longer than I planned)

Interestingly enough, despite being such an attraction, our cosmos is not native. It's considered an exotic weed where it grows on the roadsides and in neglected farmland or disturbed areas. I haven't been able to establish exactly where it comes from in Central/South America, but most accounts appear to agree that it's introduction to South Africa was via contamination of horse feed brought from Argentina (and/or Mexico) by the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War, 1899 to 1902!

I took many, many photographs of the cosmos and I will be using them for a long time to come. Here are just a few. They give you a good idea of how beautiful the countryside looks at this time of the year.

By 9.00 am, almost 3 hours after sunrise it was getting too hot, too bright and having taken 200 pics of cosmos, farms, grass and birds I needed to take a break from the camera.

I carried on southwards. Not always on the R103, I took several side roads to explore the farmlands, and then it was the highway to Harrismith. By which time my flask of coffee and two granola bars for breakfast on the road seemed to be a very long time ago! Over a Mugg&Bean coffee and muffin I decided to carry on exploring and go west to Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

the dirt track....
I've passed through here once before, about 8 years ago, on a gloomy, cloudy afternoon – not the best lighting to admire red, orange and gold sandstone butresses.... Today was different, and the rock formations and park itself will be the subject of a separate posting.

On this day I just wanted to get off the main through road, explore a little.... and have my sandwiches for lunch! Soon enough I spotted a dirt track on the left. No sign posts at all, definitely no No-Entry markers. For the next 2 hours I tested my, and my car's, 4x4 capabilities, did a whole lot of wildlife photography, and enjoyed my sandwiches high up a sandstone and grass ridge in solitary splendour. I didn't see a single soul the whole time – just mountain views and wary blesbok, wildebeest, zebra and sprinbok.  Bliss.
Skittish Blesbok
My lunch spot
The Brandwag Buttress, or Sentinel - a landmark feature of Golden Gate NP.
I will post again about Golden Gate – I have way too many photos of animals and rock formations to include in this post, but I've put in the above photo as a teaser.... The Brandwag Buttress is one of the iconic landmarks of the park. Magnificent isn't it?

It was mid-afternoon by the time I hit the road towards Clarens. The sun was still high, and hot, and I was tired. With the exception of a couple of brief pit-stops I just carried on driving and vaguely admiring the passing scenery.
The first sunflowers I passed snapped me out of that lethargy and I started paying attention again...

The Free State is predominantly a farming province. The goldfields in the north are, by far, the largest employer, but the rest (those that are not in the cities and towns) of it's relatively small population (2.8 million), are sprinkled across it's vast farming landscape. This explains why I saw hardly a soul all day......


Lots of mealies (maize/corn), soya, sunflowers, cattle and sheep. And hay bales....... 

The eastern and northern parts of this province, where the rainfall is relatively high, are natural grasslands. Lots and lots of tall, lush grass, where it hasn't been ploughed up for crops or grazed down by livestock. Due to our extremely hard drought this summer, hay is in high demand. I saw grass bales everywhere, even in the narrow strips between crops..... 

Farmer baling hay

and a last picture of the cosmos.......

Fortunately, in this featureless land, the bales provided a nice focal point for the sunset. The egrets flying past also helped :)

A long 12 hours since it was first light enough to start taking pictures!

I hope you enjoyed this rather long and wordy post. The whole day, and the post, turned out to be a lot more than just pictures of the cosmos!!

As mentioned earlier, I'll dedicate a post to Golden Gate and I have material for another short one. Watch this space over the next month!


Anonymous said...

Absolutely stunning time you must have had.
Next time I would like to be there to share this experience. Cousin Ken

Coral Wild said...

Well Ken - next time you're passing by Jo'burg we can plan something!

Gaelyn said...

Seems other than the flowers, the Free State is flat forever. I loved the Cosmos along the highways. Golden Gate is spectacular.

Coral Wild said...

Gaelyn - it is very flat, mostly, but then you can crest an invisible rise and be surprised by flat top hills, wide winding river valleys, and endless views of rolling country....
And of course one of the big advantages of flat country is that big bowl of sky overhead, horizon to horizon......
I will admit that further west - particularly on the N1 highway from Jo'burg to Bloemfontein, I find it especially difficult to get enthusiastic about the landscape!