Free State (East) – Golden Gate Highlands National Park

About the Birding

The R712 tar road that cuts through the park can be quite busy traffic wise so best to focus your birding exploits along the two game drive loops in Golden Gate itself as well as walks around the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, the Golden Gate Hotel, the Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp (including access road) and at the vulture hide.

Birding walks around Glen Reenen Rest Camp, the Golden Gate Hotel grounds as well as along the nearby Holkrans Hiking Trail and trail to Brandwag Sentinel are all highly recommended. One then has access to grasslands, stunning sandstone cliffs and pockets of ouhout-dominated forest in sheltered areas. Cape Rock Thrush, Pied Starling, Red-winged Starling, Cape Weaver, Malachite Sunbird, Olive Thrush, Cape Canary, Cape Robin Chat, Speckled Pigeon, Cape White-eye, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, and Red-throated Wryneck are all quite common and confiding. In summer Red-chested Cuckoo, Klaas’s Cuckoo and African Paradise Flycatcher are often seen (and heard) around Glen Reenen. A pair of Verreaux’s Eagle usually breed each year on Brandwag Sentinel, directly opposite the hotel, and are often seen displaying in the area.

Patches of ouhout thickets, particularly along streams, are good areas to look (and listen for) Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Swee Waxbill, Speckled Mousebird, Streaky-headed Seedeater and Bush Blackcap in summer when they are more vocal. The elusive Barratt’s Warbler also occurs in these dense thickets, frequently heard more than seen. Ground Woodpecker is typically seen perched on large rocks. The sandstone cliffs and impressive overhangs provide ideal habitat for African Black Swift, Little Swift, Alpine Swift and Rock Martin.

Spend some time doing the two one-way game drive loops off the R712, namely the Blesbok Loop and the Oribi Loop. Both travel mostly through montane grassland, interspersed with rocky hillsides and wet, grassy seeps where one has a chance to see Yellow Bishop, Red-collared Widowbird, Wing-snapping Cisticola, African Stonechat, Grey-winged Francolin, Cape Bunting, Wailing Cisticola, Secretarybird, Banded Martin, Long-tailed Widowbird, Jackal Buzzard, Levaillant’s Cisticola, African Pipit, Cape Longclaw, Greater Striped Swallow (summer), Nicholson’s Pipit and Common Waxbill.

The Blesbok Loop provides access to Langtoon Dam for waterbirds such as Little Grebe, African Black Duck and Red-knobbed Coot as well as two lookout points (Zuluhoek and Generaalskop). The Oribi Loop also provides access to the vulture hide and vulture feeding project. Depending on when last a carcass was put out you may see Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture and White-necked Raven up-close from the hide as well as Familiar Chat and Rock Martin around the structure. On the access road to the hide off the Oribi Loop also look out for Eastern Long-billed Lark, Wailing Cisticola and Mountain Wheatear. Oribi Loop also has a scenic lookout (Drakensberg View) worthy of a stop.

Off the R712, also stop in at the Golden Gate Dam near the Van Reenen Family Graveyard. There is a nice vantage overlooking the dam and you might see Little Grebe, Cape Weaver, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Yellow-billed Duck, Southern Red Bishop, White-throated Swallow (summer), Common Moorhen and Reed Cormorant amongst others.

Another worthwhile stop off the R712 is the viewpoint at Protea Corner where a grove of proteas typically has Gurney’s Sugarbird, Malachite Sunbird and Greater Double-collared Sunbird in attendance, especially when in full bloom.

Southern Bald Ibis breeds in sandstone cliffs in the area and could be encountered almost anywhere, small groups often seen flying overhead. Raptors can also be seen all over such as Cape Vulture, Lanner Falcon, Rock Kestrel, Common Buzzard and Amur Falcon (summer) and African Harrier-Hawk.

The grasslands accessible on the access road to the Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp (with prior reservation) off the R712 can be good for Ant-eating Chat, Grey-winged Francolin, Blue Korhaan, Zitting Cisticola, Cape Longclaw, Eastern Clapper Lark, Cloud Cisticola, Spike-heeled Lark, and Common Quail.

SANPARKs also oversees clean, self-catering accommodation here and the birding can be quite productive around the huts for Ground Woodpecker, Mocking Cliff Chat, Karoo Prinia, African Black Swift, Cape Bunting, Red-throated Wryneck, Bokmakierie, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Neddicky, and Cape Rock Thrush.

In summer, expect 150+ species, with a high number of endemics, over a three or four night stay with focussed birding. Your birdlist will be lower in winter when many of the altitudinal migrants move to lower elevations, but the birding is still productive, and worthwhile, year round.

Golden Gate Highlands National Parkis also has an interesting mix of mammals to look out for whilst birding including Black Wildebeest, Blesbok, Red Hartebeest, Springbok, Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok and Eland. Troops of Chacma Baboon are also often seen.

Key species:

Cape Vulture, Jackal Buzzard, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey-winged Francolin, Alpine Swift, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture

About the Birding Site

Golden Gate Highlands National Park lies in the cradle of the Maluti Mountains in the north eastern Free State and provides access to a good mix of montane bird species set in stunning mountain scenery. The Park’s name comes from the stunning hues of gold caused by the sun on the sandstone cliffs, particularly the sheer Brandwag rock.

The dominant habitat at Golden Gate is montane grassland and vlei areas. This is interspersed with imposing sandstone cliffs and pockets of ouhout (Leucosidea sericea) scrub in forested valleys, especially along small watercourses. Two dams in the park (Golden Gate Dam and Langtoon Dam) is home to several waterbird species and warblers in the reedbeds.

Key species:

Cape Vulture, Jackal Buzzard, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey-winged Francolin, Alpine Swift, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture

Other Related Information

Directions:
Golden Gate Highlands National Park may be reached on the tarred R712 from the east (Harrismith) or the west (Bethlehem-Clarens). Golden Gate Reception (at Glen Reenen Rest Camp): -28.505861, 28.617639

Access and facilities:
Daily conservation fees payable. WildCard applicable. Map obtainable at Glen Reenen Reception.
Fuel (Petrol/Diesel) available at Glen Reenen Restcamp as well as a basic shop.
Glen Reenen also has a fascinating Interpretation Centre at reception which includes: An Introduction to Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Birds, Geology, Fauna, Vegetation, Palaeontology, History, Activities, Facilities, Climate and Rock Art of Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Various accommodation options, catering for all budgets, are available in Golden Gate Highlands National Park through SANPARKs:
Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets
Glen Reenen Rest Camp and Campsite
Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp
Highlands Mountain Retreat – a more exclusive offering located off Oribi Loop with incredible vistas.

A diverse array of accommodation options are also available in nearby Clarens.

No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available in the area.

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available in the area.

Text prepared and edited by:
Martin Benadie | Specialist Birding Guide

Key species:

Cape Vulture, Jackal Buzzard, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey-winged Francolin, Alpine Swift, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture

Contact details:

SANParks
Tel: +27 (0)58 255 1000
Email: goldengate@sanparks.org
Website: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/

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