A Beautiful Hike in Golden Gate (or, a Near-Death Experience in Golden Gate)

by | Mar 4, 2014 | Free State, Parks/Nature Reserves | 17 comments

On New Years Day, my friend Michelle and I paid an impromptu visit to Golden Gate Highlighnds National Park. We were staying nearby in Clarens and thought we’d check out the park, which I’d heard was beautiful. We were tired from our recent strenuous hiking in Lesotho, and Michelle had a bad blister. So a long hike was out of the question. We thought we might take a brief stroll.

Apparently Michelle and I don’t know ourselves very well.

We pulled into Golden Gate’s Glen Reenan Rest Camp at high noon, dazzled by the park’s emerald hills and golden cliffs. We walked over to the trailheads. Michelle studied the map.

“There are a couple of 45-minute walks, and a four-hour walk,” Michelle said. “I want to walk longer than 45 minutes. Should we do the four-hour one?”

“Sure!” Off we went.

Michelle hike start

We’re off.

Trail markers

We followed the Wodehouse trail. Just an easygoing, four-hour, uphill stroll.

It was hot at the beginning of our stroll. But even at the height of the summer day, the scenery was stunningly beautiful. We passed families with scampering children. The sky was bright blue, with fluffy clouds floating past. We stopped for a rest and a snack under the first massive sandstone overhang, and looked out over the park. The paved road was already far below, winding like a tiny black snake.

Golden Gate vista1

The view from our first rest stop. We were so giddy over the view that we neglected to notice the menacing black clouds amassing in the distance. Or perhaps we noticed them but chose to pretend we didn’t.

We climbed higher up the Wodehouse trail. The scenery became more stunning and the trail became more empty. No more scampering children. The clouds grew thicker and the air grew cooler — a welcome relief.

Rainy Golden Gate small

So. Beautiful.

We passed a Dutch couple walking the other way and stopped to greet them.

“Are you walking the Wodehouse trail?” the woman asked. We nodded enthusiastically.

“We got halfway up and turned around,” the man said. “It was peak after peak after peak.”

Michelle and I regarded the couple. They were young and looked fit. Quitters, we thought. We bid them goodbye and tripped along our merry way.

Heather and Michelle on mountain

The Golden Gate is beautiful. We are strong women. We never quit. We don’t see the black clouds or hear the distant thunder. Weeeeeee!

The Dutch couple was right — there were many peaks. After each peak we scaled, the scenery became prettier and the clouds became darker.

Eventually we acknowledged the black clouds. We also acknowledged that — unlike our Lesotho hikes, during which we had dutifully carried our rain jackets but never needed to use them — neither of us had brought a rain jacket for this “stroll”.

“We are probably going to get rained on,” I admitted, surveying the sky. “But hopefully we won’t get struck by lightning.” We were, after all, nearing one of the highest points in the park. The rumbling thunder crept closer.

Eventually we acknowledged that we were exhausted and slightly terrified. But there was no turning back now. We were closer to the end than the beginning.

Mountain and storm clouds


The rain started softly, just before the highest peak. We plodded on, tired but elated. The rain wasn’t too bad — actually it felt cool and wonderful — and there didn’t seem to be any lightning. We felt like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings.

Michelle in rain

Michelle in Middle Earth. See the raindrops?

We clawed our way up the last mountain, and saw blue sky ahead. The storm had passed over us. We made it! All downhill from here. I looked out and saw a lone hiker on the hill just ahead of us. He had made it too. I raised a hand in victory. He waved back, then disappeared down the hill.

Guy on hill

The lone hiker. I was hoping he would wait for us so I could get his email address and send him this photo. But he slipped away.

I hurried ahead to where the lone hiker had been standing, eager for the best view of the hike before we started our descent. I scrambled up the hill and looked back. Michelle, just below me, looked back too.

We saw it at the same time: a thick, black cloud, moving in the opposite direction from the one that had just passed over us. This cloud was clearly moving fast, and had lightning bolts in it.

We are screwed


“We are so screwed,” Michelle said.

There was no avoiding the pouring rain and thunder this time. To make things worse, we were hiking steeply downhill, picking our way between slippery rocks, mud puddles, and grass clumps. The trail was precarious. We were soaked.

I made a game of ranking what I feared most. Initially my fears ranked like this:

1) Getting struck by lightning.
2) Falling and breaking a leg.
3) Losing my camera/lenses due to severe drenching.

As the lighting died down and the rain picked up, fear #3 moved to the #1 position.

We are screwed2

Another look at the storm before we started our descent. This is the last photo I shot before the rain hit and I had to stow my camera.

In the end we made it down — wet, shivering, and laughing hysterically. We took a “short cut”, which involved fording a stream (more like a raging river after the storm) and walking a mile or so along the road back to our car. The next day Michelle had to have a minor operation on her blistered toe, which had become severely infected during our damp and dangerous “stroll”.

I have no regrets and neither does Michelle. The hike was beautiful and we’re not quitters. Weeeeeee!

PS: My camera is fine.


  1. LittleAshCloud

    Beautiful pics as usual. Glad you didn’t end up like the couple in the Van Reenen Family Graveyard, who both got hit by lightning on Mont-Aux-Sources.

    • 2summers

      Oh my goodness. I’m glad I didn’t know about that while we were up there.

  2. De Wet

    Hi 2Summers, thanx for this nostalgic report. I have had many many happy hiking days and leisure times at Golden Gate when I was younger. Hiking up Brandwag for the stunning scenery and then doing the long Wodehouse walk has always been a great day in nature. Drive the game viewing drives for some more spectacular views, and return to Joburg by doing the dirt roads from Glen Reenen via Kestell before heading through the smaller Free State roads.

    You don’t mention where you stayed, but for this winter treat yourself to a weekend in the Highlands Mountain Retreat (Number 1 has excellent views). http://sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/tourism/accommodation.php

    But do remember that lightning in those mountains are really dangerous, don’t tempt fate

    • 2summers

      Thanks for the comment. We actually stayed in Clarens, at a B&B called Aspen. I’ve heard that the Highlands Mountain Retreat is great though — I think a good friend of mine just stayed there.

      You’re right about the lightning. What is the best way to avoid being caught? Once we were up there and knew there wasn’t time to get back down, we were clueless as to what we should do to protect ourselves.

      • De Wet

        In the mountains its not that easy to prevent being caught, as the weather is very unpredictable, and builds up rather rapidly. However, the only advice I can give, is to get to lower ground and prevent being the highest point, as the lightning normally prefers the shortest route. Thus, halfway down and under is already better than at the top.

        Other advice and not relating to the weather, I can give though, is to travel on the lesser traveled roads when you do venture into the ‘platteland’. Those little dirt roads and small towns in South African often make for stunning photographs, nice little coffeeshops (or butcheries if you’re into biltong) and this time of year Kosmos flower fields. Read one of my blog posts at http://aldiepaaie.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/country-roads-take-me-home/ in this regard

  3. eremophila

    Glad you both lived to tell the tale!

  4. blacksdoswim

    I love Golden gate, it’s so gorgeous. Glad the two of you made it down alright 🙂

  5. Kathryn McCullough

    Wow! Stunning, absolutely stunning. Reminds me of a hike we did just before Thanksgiving here in the Andes. Glad your camera was okay.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • 2summers

      Thanks Kathy. Yes, it was a really amazing hike.

  6. Homeless Jesus

    Haha keep going is exactly what I would have done too. And what a great story and amazing photos you have to share! Nothing like the natural lighting a storm can provide. Glad you and your camera are fine 🙂

    • 2summers

      Yes, the light was great. Unfortunately I could take half as many photos as I wanted to. Still got a pretty good selection though.

  7. mvschulze

    Beautiful description and photos of your hike. I laughed at the two 4 letter expletives!!! Incoming weather reminded me of a hike I did near Provo Utah, when after 45 minutes up, a cold front moved in, producing thunder snow. It was wondrous and frightening at the same time, and I was not dressed for the sudden change. M

    • 2summers

      Lack of preparedness seems to be a common problem among day hikers 🙂

  8. autumnashbough

    Late to the party, but good for you! Imagine if you’d quit. That hike is a metaphor for your life. Maybe.

    • 2summers

      Yes, in many ways. Great but terrifying.



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