Year in the Wild Blog

YITW 2013-14 – Golden Gate Highlands NP in summer

When the summer thunderstorms arrive, this protected area in the Free State province of South Africa turns into a green mountain paradise. The pristine grasslands are some of the last remaining in the country, with more than 50 species of grasses. This park is a vital water catchment area, supplying a large portion of the fresh water that flows into the Vaal and Orange Rivers. But for visitors, it’s just a beautiful place, at a beautiful time of year…the tiny, colourful flowers are great to photograph with a macro lens.

I think this species of grass is Panicum Maximum, or Buffalo Grass. It's one of the most valuable grazing grasses, and is indicative of healthy grasslands. When overgrazed, it tends to be smothered by less palatable grasses. It's one of close to 1000 grass species in Southern Africa, and together they are the foundation of many of Africa's wilderness areas. They are also vitally important for retention of soil, and therefore water. Overgrazing tends to reduce grass cover, which leads to erosion, which leads to soil depletion and eventually the water simply runs off the top of the soil, instead of soaking into it.

Another species of grass...I'm not sure which one this is, but a very good book to buy is "Guides to Grasses of Southern Africa" by Frits van Oudtshoorn. I need to get a copy!

This view is looking west over Glen Reenen campsite and chalets, towards Brandwag Buttress.

The beautiful sandstone cliffs of Golden Gate are made up of ancient desert sand from 200 million years ago, just before the entire region was covered with volcanic outpourings of magma. The sandstone is a mecca for dinosaur fossil hunters, and in 1977, Wits University palaeontologist James Kitching discovered seven fossilised eggs very near to this look out point where I'm standing on my Ford Everest. Today, American palaeontologist Jonah Choiniere is studying the fossils of the park and surrounding region, and he put the Golden Gate eggs into context. The small eggs – about 10 centimetres long – come from the herbivore Massospondylus carinatus. From a hatchling, it would have grown into an animal about four metres long, with a horizontal neck, thick tail, short forelimbs and long back legs. ‘These are the oldest-known dinosaur embryos on Earth, dating back 200 million years,’ said Choiniere. Even more profoundly, the hatchlings don’t have teeth. ‘This suggests the babies required parental care of some kind for some time after emerging from the egg. If this interpretation is correct, it’s the oldest known indication of parental care in the fossil record.’ In terms of palaeontology, Choiniere explained, Golden Gate is one of the world’s most valuable protected areas and these eggs are among the most important fossil discoveries.

This view is from the Blesbook Loop road to the south of the main road through the park. There aren't lots of antelope to be seen, but the scenery is spectacular.

I think these are two Hook-winged beetles (Lycus melanurus) in the process of mating.

A type of red hot poker (Genus of Kniphofia), a blaze of colour in the green fields of grass

The park has over 60 horses that the rangers use for patrolling the inaccessible areas, and when the sun is out, some of the horses spend their day lazing on the lawns in front of the so-called hotel of the park.

The famous sandstone cliff of Brandwag Buttress as seen from the hotel and chalets. Golden Gate's accommodation is among the best in the park's network, and the staff are among the friendliest and most efficient.

For more, go to and Check out my Flickr photos at and my Instagram photos at Twitter on

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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