A Free State road trip

So…taking a road trip through small Free State towns on the 2nd of January, a public holiday in South-Africa, was perhaps not the best thought-out plan ever. Getting out of the air conditioned car into the 37 degrees hot dry air to look around towns that were essentially closed down for the holiday, was only slightly less exciting than planned :-). Still, it was interesting to learn more about the history of these towns and, as a bonus, the road back to Johannesburg from Britstown was quieter and less stressed.

The first stop was in Philipstown, where a school project to use car doors as art pieces decorated the outside of a garage building. It can’t help but put a smile on your face when you see it.

Outside Koffiefontein, we were lucky to see the unusual white springbok. By the way, the use of the springbok as the national rugby emblem of South Africa has quite an interesting background. In 1906, the first South African rugby team toured to Britain and visited the London Zoo. They were surprised to find a small herd of springbok there and some members suggested that they adopt the springbok as their teams’ nickname.

Today, Fauresmith is well known in equestrian circles for the annual National Equestrian Endurance Race, a 205km race over three days. But it is the history of the town that fascinated us. Not only is it the second oldest town in the Free State, but the first House of Assembly had to choose between Fauresmith and Bloemfontein as candidates for the capital of the Free State. The vote went to Bloemfontein with only a two-vote majority. It is also the only town in South Africa, and one of only three in the world, where the railway line runs down the centre of the main road. I loved the story of a local school teacher who promised his rugby team a “train trip” if they won. They did and the teacher then pulled the old steam locomotive train stationed in the centre of town off its tracks with his truck. Can you image the effort to get it back on its tracks!! A bit of welding was done to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself :-).

Jagersfontein is the oldest diamond-mining town of its kind in the world, and at one stage rivalled Kimberley in terms of importance. Mining was done by pick, shovel and dynamite and the mine is now the deepest hand-excavated hole in the world. Of the ten biggest diamonds ever found, two came from this mine. In 1893 a diamond of 972 carats was discovered and was called the Excelsior. Two years later another stone of 640 carats of similar quality was found and named the Reitz. Later this stone was named the Jubilee. During the mine’s lifespan it produced 9.625 million carats of diamonds mostly of jewel quality, but the amazing thing is that the experts say that a huge proportion of diamonds are still embedded there due to the inefficient mining methods used. 

In its heyday, the town had five big hotels, its own newspaper, a turf club and a social life unequalled in the rest of the Free State. I love the silver-painted lion-headed fire hydrants dotted around town - water used to be supplied with a unique system of coin-operated water pumps, using so-called Water Pennies.

Overall impressions? Maybe it is the fact that I was brought up in the Karoo, but the dilapidated state of especially Jagersfontein’s streets, filled me with a deep sadness. The interesting thing about finding everything closed was that it sort of forces you to judge a book by its cover (or, if you like, a coffee shop by its front door.) And so this was a sobering reminder that the things we build when things are going well, echo forward in time and must last when times are not so good. It was also a lesson: that towns are given life not by their streets and buildings, but by the people who live there, and if you haven’t stopped in a town, sat down and made small talk with a local, you really haven’t been there at all.

Image credits: All photography by me


  1. Not a part of the world I know at all. I look forward to seeing a bit more through your blog. Thanks for showing. I love the views you show, I don't like modern, austere, your images, in contrast are organic and warm.

  2. Very beautiful pictures you have shared. I really enjoyed your post. thanks for sharing.
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