Harrismith, including Swinburne, is a town situated in the Thabo Mofutsanyana region. It was laid out in 1849 and named after British Governor Harry Smith who tried to persuade the Voortrekkers not to leave the Natal area. Harrismith is an important crossroads in the country’s land trade routes. This town is situated near the Wilge River on the N3 highway and surrounded by picturesque rivers and mountains.
Harrismith is a town with matchless beauty. The calming rivers and majestic mountains offer a tranquil destination for tourists who wish to experience this town. The Harrismith Wildflower Gardens, founded in 1967, contains approximately 20% of the Drakensberg region’s flora. It is a definite must-see for all nature-lovers.
Harrismith is well known as an overnight or refreshment stop along the N3 route, and a convenient refuelling stop for trucks and vehicles, but it has much more to offer. Beyond the highway is a tidy town with many elegant late 19th century buildings made of hewn sandstone. There are numerous accommodation options available, from campsites to luxury lodges.
Located near the scenic eastern escarpment border with KwaZulu-Natal province, it is the best access point to the northernmost Drakensberg, including Tugela Falls and Mont-Aux-Sources (accessed via the Sentinel Hiking Trail, in the QwaQwa region of the Free State, 80 km south of Harrismith on the R57), Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve (20 km southeast of town on the R74), Royal Natal Park and the uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site (66 km southeast via Oliviershoek Pass beyond Sterkfontein Dam) and the spectacular Golden Gate Highlands National Park 50 km south of town on the R712.
Other things to do and see in Harrismith include:
• At the top of Van Reenen’s Pass, on the main road between KZN and Harrismith, you’ll find South Africa’s smallest church – the Llandaf Oratory. The tiny Roman Catholic church was built by the Maynard Matthews as a tribute to his son, Llandaff, who died in 1925 while rescuing 8 co-workers in a mining accident at the Burnside Colliery in Glencoe. Significantly, the little church can only accommodate 8 people. Now a National Monument, the church is open to the public during daylight hours.
• Visit the historic Deborah Retief Gardens and see a 250 million-year-old, 33m-high petrified tree.
• Relax at the beautiful Sterkfontein Dam Resort and Nature Reserve, the third largest dam in South Africa. Practically all the water is pumped up the escarpment from KwaZulu-Natal. Built before the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was developed, this was a vital source of water for Gauteng. Ideal for water sport enthusiasts and anglers. Sterkfontein Dam is particularly popular with windsurfers.
• Kerkenberg – The Voortrekkers camped in the area, while their leader, Piet Retief, descended into KwaZulu-Natal to negotiate for land with the Zulu chief Dingane. Retief’s daughter painted her father’s name and recorded the date, which was also his birthday, on the rock where they held a church service.
• One of the most famous landmarks in the Eastern Free State is the 9 kilometre long, 2,394 metre high, Platberg. The reserve covers the western slopes and summit of the mountain, including the former Drakensberg Botanical Garden (founded as a national botanical garden in 1967 but unfortunately now defunct), along with numerous trails and the Donkey Pass road to the mountain summit.
The reserve is popular with hikers and mountain bike riders. The two dams in the former wildflower gardens are part of a series of aqueducts, flowing from the Gibson Dam on the mountain summit, that were built as a water supply to support the town and the British troops stationed here after the South African War. A well-preserved sandstone blockhouse from that time guards over this water supply. Much of the southern slopes of the mountain are covered in eucalypt, wattle, and other exotic timber plantations from the time when a forestry centre was based here.
Akkerbos, near the base of Donkey Pass, is a grove of oak trees that provided a picnic site during a Royal Tour by the British monarchy, including Elizabeth II in 1947. The reserve is home to herds of eland, black wildebeest, blesbok and mountain reedbuck along with introduced species such as waterbuck and fallow deer.
• Harrismith Golf Course – The scenic 18-hole golf course, arguably the third oldest in South Africa (after the Royal Cape and George Golf Clubs) was founded in 1887.
• Harrismith Town Hall – A graceful sandstone and brick building built in 1907, and a National Monument.
• Dirty Harry – The Dirty Harry is a mountain bike race sponsored by the N3 Toll Company. The Dirty Harry also forms part of the popular Berg Bohaai festival. This festival is held annually in early October.
• Bushmen Paintings – Around 5 kilometers out of town in one of local caves well-preserved Bushmen paintings can still be found.
• The annual Platberg Mountain Race is a 15 km foot race, that includes a scrambling ascent and descent of the mountain. This race forms part of the Berg Bohaai festival (literally “mountain mania” in Afrikaans). The race has been described as the “toughest marathon in the world” by Wally Hayward.
Following the Free State’s southern border with Lesotho, the Eagle route runs from Ficksburg to Harrismith through some of the most picturesque landscape in the country. Activity highlights include cherry picking, seeing dinosaur fossils and rock paintings, arts & craft shopping, skiing in the winter slopes, horse riding and 4X4 trips.