If your perception of the Free State is that of a land-locked dry province far from the oceans then you’d be right. But also wrong. Slap bang in the middle of South Africa is an expanse of water so vast that you can easily imagine that you’re spending your days at the coast. Only here you can enjoy the views, the fishing and the watersports without having to contend with sand, salt, wind and crowds of people. Just my kind of a ‘seaside’ holiday.
Gariep Dam, recently rebranded as Lake Gariep, the largest dam in South Africa covers an area of 352 square kilometres when full – more than twice the size of the Vaal dam and even bigger than some small countries. In fact I could dazzle you for a good long while about megalitres of water and cubic metres of cement in the dam wall, but the only really important fact you need to know is that the lake is so huge that you can gaze at the sunset on the horizon without seeing land on the other side.
Gariep Dam is situated just off the N1 so a convenient place to break a long journey, but I would urge you to spend a little longer than one night in this tranquil little haven as there’s plenty to keep the whole family occupied for much longer. The more upmarket hotels and the large Aventura resort are found in Gariep town and this side of the dam therefore has the most to offer in terms of watersports, organised activities, shops and restaurants. A very pleasant sunset cruise departs each evening.
Those seeking a more tranquil laid-back break will find a great little campsite and reasonably priced self-catering chalets on the Oviston side of the dam. If your perfect holiday is a combination of lazing around, fishing and exploring the nature reserve then this is the place to stay. At Oviston there are motor boats to hire if you want to explore the dam or fish deeper waters for yellowfish, carp and barbel.
The Oviston Nature Reserve is well-stocked with game including springbok, red hartebeest, mountain zebra, ostrich, black wildebeest, gemsbok and reedbuck. As the reserve is used for hunting at certain times of the year we found the animals rather skittish, but seeing the huge herds stampeding and pronking was a magnificent and unusual spectacle in its own right. The viewpoint at the top of Reedbuck Heights gives a panoramic vista of the dam and reserve. On our way back from this spot we were lucky enough to get close to a pair of aardwolves – a rare sighting that the larger game reserves in South Africa have thus far failed to deliver to me. What’s more, there is no charge for driving around the reserve so in terms of value for money it’s up there with the best of them.
At the time we visited the dam was 90% full and had recently been overflowing due to heavy rains upstream. That must have been an amazing spectacle – even with the sluice gates closed the dam wall is impressive. We marvelled at sheer power of the water coming out of the hydro-electric plant and back into the Orange River. It is possible to take a tour right inside the dam wall and learn more about this incredible structure, but on this trip we found the views from the top gave us plenty to admire. Gazing at the coloured sailing boats in the late afternoon light it would have been easy to believe that we were in the Greek Isles. A very lovely and yet bizarre vista to find right on the edge of the dry Karoo.