It is in plain sight at the foot of a sandstone cliff. But one has to look out for the village almost camouflaged in the winter landscape, or spot the small roadside sign at the turnoff.
A tour of the Basotho Cultural Village is one of those must-do activities when visiting the Golden Gate National Park near Clarens. It is managed by the Free State Province’s department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation.
The park is unusual in the sense that the main road seems to be the shortcut route from Harrismith to Clarens, with taxis and private vehicles speeding along – flatly ignoring the mandatory speed limit in our national parks.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that the entrance gates into the park, at both ends, are no longer staffed at all – at least when we visited there. The actual structures have also fallen into disrepair. There’s no one to register visitors or receive payment of any kind, or to check the vehicle.
It begs the question whether poaching is not the order of the day…
Still, it is worthwhile to take time off the usual game viewing to acquire some of the ancient knowledge for which the village is a repository. Some of the activities include tasting indigenous food and traditional beer, or enjoying music played on traditional instruments. Arts and crafts are displayed in the museum, with some for sale to tourists.
We opted for the Herbal Trail. A tourist guide and a traditional healer ushered us on the hike up to Matlakeng Mountain, all the while pointing out plants and herbs with medicinal value. It was probably not the best time of year for this activity; according to the brochure the herbal trail is conducted during the summer months and we were there in August.
However, on our hike the healer Sello Keletso every now and then would indicate a tiny, obscure and barely visible, plant that could be used for medicinal purposes. Some would be crushed into a poultice to treat injuries or insect bites, others dried out for infusing as a herbal tea. A stringy leaf among the rocks would reveal the presence of the wild African potato, a tuber used to enhance immunity and treating ailments such as urinary infections.
Our tour guide Lehlohonolo Lefalatsa led us to a sandstone overhang high up in the mountain where he pointed out exquisite San (Bushman) rock paintings. This art form depicts not only the culture of early hunter-gatherer societies, but is also some of the oldest evidence of storytelling – often thousands of years old. It is believed the shamans used brushes made from animal hair or feathers and natural pigments to document the lives of their people.
According to our two guides, much of the ancient knowledge of the hunter-gatherer societies was passed down to inhabitants of this wonderful land.