Parys in the Free State South Africa

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Parys lies in the midst of one of the oldest and most spectacular events recorded on earth. But the town named after Paris is also an unpretentious tourist community with a warm heart.

Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

Your average Free State dorp isn’t a place you’d visit for weekend excitement. At one o’clock on a Saturday they shut the shops and roll up the main street. Parys was like that. But no more. On this Saturday afternoon the streets are full of visitors driving sparkling-clean Gauteng 4x4s that have yet to see a farm road.

Belinda Elrix is hard at work in her photographic studio. With her impeccable English, funky hairstyle and obvious fashion sense, she could be a Sandton socialite. Instead, she’s proud to call Parys home and has made Kiki’s Vintage Foto Studio into a magnet for visitors. Indeed, it’s so popular you should book to ensure a place in front of Belinda’s lens.

“We dress you in vintage clothing from yesteryear and then have fun with the camera,” she explains. “We play dress-up and create magical memories.” What’s so attractive about being dressed up and photographed?

“In a world where everything is so disposable and transient, this is an opportunity for people to get together, capture a moment of togetherness and have a bit of magic and laughter,” she says.

Belinda came to Parys from the KZN Midlands and likes that it’s only an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, where she attends auctions and dance classes. “It’s a country town, but with a city around the corner,” she observes.

Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

The easy proximity to Gauteng has helped transform Parys into a buzzing quick-break destination. Art studios, guesthouses, antique stores and coffee shops are flourishing.

Among the latter is The Garden, a coffee shop-cum-restaurant, designer store and kiddies’ playground. There’s even a well-stocked wardrobe of dresses and pearls so that little girls can play dress-up. What is it about this town and dressing up, I wonder?

As we recline on couches in the leafy garden, we’re joined by part-owner Venezia Maclons. Exotic and elegant, she’s a bank manager during the week and a charming hostess on weekends. She laughs at my observation that she seems an unlikely banker. “Banking is what I do, not who I am,” she says.

The Garden is all about the art of living; creating a laid-back feel, but with a buzz, Venezia explains. “Parents relax while their kids play, and older people join their friends in a safe environment. Husbands enjoy a coffee while their wives shop. We want it to be like the TV sitcom Cheers, but without the bar; a place where you’ll always meet someone you know.”

As we enjoy a selection of Venezia’s to-die-for sweet treats, we meet one of The Garden’s own personalities, Iris Andrew. A member of the town’s sizeable retirement community, she fled Johannesburg for the quiet life, but never found it. “I’ve never been so busy,” says the bundle-of-energy chatterbox. “I ended up not retiring, just re-wiring.”

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Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

Iris is a passionate local historian and when the municipality stopped supporting the museum, she funded it herself. “After six years I had to give up. But we’re continuing to talk to the municipality and the first chance I get, I’ll reopen the museum. In the interim, I’m collaborating with The Garden to stage history nights and to put interesting history snippets on the menus.”

History abounds here. The town likely got its name from a German land surveyor in the late 1800s. He’s been a soldier during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War and named the fledgling settlement “Parys”. Presumably, he was inspired by the fact that, like Paris, Parys straddles a major river – in this instance the mighty Vaal.

Parys saw conflict of its own during the Anglo-Boer War, when many buildings were destroyed. Much later, Iris tells us, struggle history of another kind was made in the local Tumahole township when anti-apartheid activists began an uprising that quickly spread to became the famous 1976 Soweto Uprising. Throughout the struggle years, ANC activists used Tumahole as a hideout when things became too hot in Soweto.

Iris takes us on a walking tour of downtown Parys and we soon realise that it has more than its fair share of antique shops. Pine’s Antiques is the oldest and dates back to the early ‘70s.

Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

“It’s amazing how many young people from the cities are buying antique furniture,” long-serving shop assistant Mara van Wyk says. “They’ve realised how solid and durable the old items are. They buy old wardrobes and make them into TV cabinets. Antique sideboards are also popular. People put them in bathrooms with a basin on top.”

With darkness falling, we head to our accommodation at the newly revamped Egweni River Lodge. It’s one of the few in-town venues with a river frontage and sleep comes with the sound of the Vaal River rushing past our bedroom window.

Day two brings an early start and the chance to explore outside town. The first stop is Stonehenge, one of several river-side properties offering excellent accommodation and conferencing facilities, as well as outdoor activities ranging from rafting to abseiling.

The morning mist is still thick on the Vaal as a group of paddlers come ashore for a coffee break. We stop and chat to the group’s guide, the fit-looking Juan Grobler who is a team-building facilitator with Stone Adventures.

“Rafting is popular because we have a lot of rapids. Apart from one, called Big Daddy, they aren’t extreme and this stretch of river is ideal for people with limited experience,” Juan says. “Most people raft in summer, but I like the cold winter mornings when the mist comes off the water. It’s surreal.”

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The recurring ‘stone’ theme comes from the abandoned granite quarry nearby. It’s one of the few places where you can see evidence of the massive meteorite strike around two billion years ago that created the earth’s oldest meteorite impact site.

Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

The 10km-wide object hit near the village of Vredefort, just outside Parys, and the remains of the collision are known as the Vredefort Dome. The dome, 300km in diameter, is a World Heritage Site.

Warrin Flores, co-chairperson of the Vredefort Dome Tourism Association along with private nature reserve owner Renee de Jong Hartslief, has spent years studying the area and working to protect it from the would-be excesses of the mining industry.

Although he’s publicity-shy and lives in splendid isolation in the mountains of the dome, Warrin is another of those Duracell-Bunny retirees who seems forever on the go. Like everyone we meet in Parys, he’s super-friendly and helpful.

“The Unesco listing gives the dome some protection, as it stipulates the area must remain unchanged or be improved,” he explains. “That means keeping out the big commercial interests and putting in responsible and sustainable eco-tourism.”

Warrin takes us to the quarry to see how the old mining operations exposed rock that was turned to molten lava by the meteorite’s impact. Also clearly visible is how other rocks were shattered into small pieces and carried within the lava flow. Fascinated, I reach out to touch some of creation’s earliest history.

Climbing around a quarry is hungry and thirsty work, so Warrin suggests we visit the nearby Dog and Fig, which serves great burgers and craft beers. In its pleasant garden we find owner Sean Barradas holding court. He’s an oil-industry scientist by training, which seems an unlikely background for a cheery publican and brewer of fine beers.

He’s also one of those people who are lucky enough to work at something he’d clearly do for nothing. “I started collecting beers in 1992 and 10 years later I realised it was silly just looking at the bottles – so I started drinking them,” Sean recalls. “Then I started a beer tasting club and subsequently began brewing for family and friends. I went commercial in 2008 and it took about two years to perfect my recipes.”He hasn’t looked back.

The Dog and Fig is a popular dining and entertainment venue, and offers customers six different beers on a regular basis, as well as occasional special brews. “We’re now trying fruit-based beers like blackberry. People always want something new,” Sean says.

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Our final stop is the Dell Cheetah Centre, a small non-profit located just outside town. It’s run by Estelle and Pieter Kemp, a husband-and-wife team with a passion for the endangered animals in their care. They’ve postponed an important family gathering in order to tell us about their cheetah ‘family’.

“We started working with the animals in 2001 and opened the centre in 2009,” Estelle explains. “We breed captive cheetahs to stop organisations taking them from the wild. Some of them we sell to other breeding programmes.

We also have a reintroduction project. The objective is to teach cubs to survive in the wild and then introduce them into a private reserve. We don’t have cheetahs from the wild; they die of stress in captivity.”

Parys Free State South Africa Travel Ideas

It’s pleasing that the sanctuary isn’t a petting zoo, where supposedly wild animals are commodities to be trotted out whenever tourists want a holiday snap. Pieter and Estelle’s ideals are loftier. “It’s all about conservation and education,” they emphasise.

We leave the Kemps to return to their family get-together and gather our belongings for the short drive back to Johannesburg. It has been a great weekend and we can’t help thinking that, like the cheetah sanctuary, Parys is an authentic and charmingly unpretentious success story.

It retains a laid-back country feel, has natural beauty and is home to people who’ll ensure you arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend. Salut to the Paris of South Africa!

FAST FACTS:

Eating
For light snacks in an elegant but laid-back in-town environment, try The Garden (https://parys.mobi/the-garden-middel-st-parys-free-state or  call 083 338 4234). For a great selection of custom-brewed beers and a more substantial menu, drop in to the Dog and Fig Brewery 3km outside town. Evening meals served Wed-Sat.

www.dogandfigbrewery.com or 076 180 6521 for more details.

Sleeping
Located in town but right on the Vaal River, Egweni River Lodge is an established property in the process of being upgraded. It offers a selection of rooms and luxury self-catering suites to suit a variety of tastes. Our modern suite, just metres from the river bank, was outstanding.

www.egweni.co.za or 056 811 3643 for more details.

Out and About
Parys has a wide range of activities for outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from white-water rafting to abseiling, skydiving and game drives. There are also numerous shops selling everything from antiques to art works and décor items. Contact the Parys Info & Tourism Centre.

www.infoparys.co.za or 056 811 4000 for more details.

Story by Mike Simpson





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