It’s largely ignored for its tourist value, but Bloemfontein – a small city located in the interior of the country, midway between Johannesburg and Cape Town in Free State Province – has plenty to do and see. So, next time you’re on your way north or south, why not stay awhile?
Here are 10 facts about Bloemfontein that will convince you there’s more to explore than a quick pit stop on your way through to somewhere else…
1. The city’s strange name
Was Bloemfontein (‘flower fountain’ in Dutch) taken from Bloem, the favourite ox of a local farmer who mysteriously disappeared (thought taken by a lion)? Or from Jan Blom, a KhoiKhoi leader in the area? A mystery to be solved!
2. City of Roses
Speaking of flowers, roses, notoriously temperamental, do exceedingly well in Bloemfontein’s semi-arid climate. The annual Rose Festival draws visitors from far and wide – with the vivid colours and sweet scent of 15 000 roses enveloping the city, it’s certainly a spectacle worth seeing.
3. The Cheetah Experience
The original inhabitants called the area Mangaung, which means ‘Place of the Cheetah’ (the local rugby team, the Cheetahs, pay homage to this motif). While you’re here, do pay a visit to The Cheetah Experience, a cheetah breeding and conservation programme.
4. The birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien
The famed author of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit was born in Bloemfontein, where Tolkien’s father was a bank clerk, on the 3rd of January 1892. Enjoy the South African connection to literary history at The Hobbit Boutique Hotel – although the house the Tolkien’s lived in has long since disappeared, the hotel boasts some interesting memorabilia relating to that time and place.
Bloemfontein is the Judicial Capital of South Africa and the seat of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Except for constitutional matters which are referred to the Constitutional Court, it’s the land’s highest court of appeal. The sandstone court building was built in1929 in Free Renaissance style. Find it at the corner of Elizabeth and President Brand Streets.
History buffs will enjoy learning about this pivotal time in South Africa’s history, when the British and the Dutch (drawing in indigenous peoples, too) fought a bloody war over South Africa soil. Visit the Anglo-Boer War Museum, the National Museum and battlefields in and around the city.
7. The National Women’s Monument
Special mention must be made of the National Women’s Monument, a poignant tribute to the 26 000 Boer women and children who perished in British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer Wars, and funded by the pennies and shillings collected from South African citizens in the aftermath of the War.
The bronze structure features a mother and child and is based on English humanitarian Emily Hobhouse’s recollections from her relief work in the concentration camps.
South African history can rarely be separated from its politics. Bloemfontein is the birthplace of two major role players – the African National Congress (ANC), formed in 1912 and the National Party (NP), formed in 1914.
9. Sporting heroes
Bloemfontein has produced some of South Africa’s most outstanding sporting achievers, including athlete Zola Budd, cricketers Hansie Cronjé, Alan Donald and Kepler Wessels, and tennis star Amanda Coetzer.
10. Seeing stars
From sporting stars to those which light up the sky, Bloemfontein is home to the Boyden Observatory, installed in 1927 and now part of the University of the Free State. Excellent weather conditions and atmospheric stability make for good stargazing – the public is welcome to visit.