A White Winter at Golden Gate National Park

Photos: Alex Mayers (click to enlarge)

Visitors to Golden Gate National Park may be in for a wintery surprise. Instead of the characteristic warm and mellow shades of gold for which the park is famous, the area may transform into an ermine covered winterscape of dancing white light, with snowfalls predicted in many areas of South Africa’s highland areas.

The camps nestled in amongst the Maluti Mounains have a special appeal in the winter months, as guests wrap up warmly and enjoy the comforts of hot fires and warming drinks. Says GVI volunteer Alex Mayers "the hikes are especially beautiful in the winter months, as the red grass on the mountains gives the landscape an amazing pinkish hue. The air is even clearer than normal too, and tourists can not only breathe in and feel this pure air, but the stars seem closer and sparkle with a new intensity during the cold nights".

So far this year the snowfall peaked just towards the end of May, when these photographs were taken. With the current cold conditions though and new snow warnings, the park may be in for another covering or two before the season ends. Although in some years the valley has been pretty much cut off by snow, it has been a while since snowfall like this, explains Mayers, “for example, there was no snow at all in 2005”.

Average day temperatures at the park still reach into the high teens, which makes the snow disappear quite quickly, but at night the temperature drops. The lowest temperature recorded so far this winter is minus 9 degrees celcius. The Weather Channel predicts something similar for today, Monday the 24 July as well.

The staff are well prepared for the cold weather and the prospect of snow. They are on hand to clear the paths of snow and ice and according to Mayers, winter, activities have not been affected at all, as roads have remained open and local tourists have flocked to see the scenery.

The 11 600 hectares of unique environment that makes up Golden Gate is home to a variety of mammals – black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell's zebra. The park is also prime birding territory, with the park protecting a number of species including the rare bearded vulture and the equally rare bald ibis, which breed on the ledges in the sandstone cliffs. “The antelope in the park generally move lower into the valleys in search of better pasture during the winter months", says Mayers, "but they seem to cope very well with changing conditions. Our horses discovered early on that when they blow on a patch of grass, they can melt themselves a ‘food-hole’ in the snow!”

The Conservation department has recently managed a system of controlled fire-breaks and burns. This means that at the moment the is a lot of new grass around. This is attracting high numbers of animals, and makes for easy winter game viewing.