Cheer up at Ficksburg’s Cherry Festival
Ficksburg feels a lot like a frontier town. Even from the town’s 144 year old steets, the not-so-faraway ribbons of 3km high Maloti Mountains climb into the sky. The sandstone cliffs perhaps inspire the visitor with the sense that Ficksburg is in a world of its own, further from Bloemfontein than the 196km drive feels. The Free State valleys weaving under the golden mountains do produce a bounty of apples, apricots, asparagus, plums, peaches and prunes. Every third week of November, 3 days are set aside to celebrate one crop particular to the region, cherries. This year marked Ficksburg’s 44th Cherry Festival, South Africa’s oldest and arguably most popular crop fair. In March, on the opposite of Bloemfontein but still in the Free State, Petrusburg offers the Aartappelfees (potato festival), a big music festival. But the Cherry Festival is a famously festive, fun and fruity way to get through a weekend when Christmas and December holidays just feel too far away.
Around 30 000 visitors attend each year, many from Gauteng. Although the festival itself plays out at the local show grounds, in front of a few grain silos and beneath sandstone cliffs, there are plenty of vendors plying their trade to queues of people making their way in and out of the gates. These pavement traders sell everything from glow-in-the-dark horns to cowboy hats, and cherries by the bucket load of course.
Inside the gates (tickets cost from R20 for kids to R37 for adults) a small fairground offers rides, including a modest Ferris wheel, for the young ones, whilst the beer tent beckons typically from the back of the compound. Plenty of food stalls en route to the beer tent offer traditional fare, and the NG Churches’ boerewors rolls definitely hit the spot. A very big white tent is the centrepiece for a myriad of home crafts and stalls, including Gooi Mielies, a company specialising in Afrikaans-themed t-shirts.
Right next door is an open section of lawn covered in plastic chairs, and a modest stadium behind, geared towards a sound stage setup and big screen TV. This year the likes of Monique, Ray Dillon, Peter West, Gerhard Steyn (Baby Chocklits) and Snotkop took to the stage. The festival programme also included a very diverse range of activities, including the R10 000 Hole-in-One Cherry Challenge, a Miss Cherry Blossom and Mr Cherry Pip competition, a KFC/Klipdrift Fear Factor, a speed eat, a dog show, a showcasing of horse breeds, a bowls tournament, South African Air Force Freedom of the Town parade, a magic show, wine tasting and ladies Day with Nataniël – both at Imperani Guest House, a 4x4 Obstacle Academy, a fun run, boeresport and a festival staple, cherry pip spitting. Workshops ranged from goose-plucking to ribbon embroidery and cooking with cherries.
If the festival gets too much, Ficksburg itself is worth a walkabout. Many out-of-towners may be surprised to learn that the Union Buildings, perhaps South Africa’s grandest building and the seat of political power in this country, was built with sandstone from Ficksburg and surrounds. And Ficksburg sports more than a few sandstone beauties of its own. Start your sandstone expedition in McCabe Street, and look out for McBrides House (with Ficksburg’s first bay window, beautifully built in 1885). Cameras should also be pointed toward Ficksburg’s Town Hall, the Magistrate’s Court, Old Post Office and the Dutch Reformed church in Voortrekker Street.
If the sandstone starts to feel a little old, have a look at Helen Dickson’s colourful wild flower windows in the All Saints Anglican Church on the corner of Lang and McCabe Streets. For something arty, try Die Blikplek in Fontein Street, a whimsical spot that employs 10 to recycle metal junk and scrap. If the bustle in town is still too much, try the local farm tours for a gentler pace. Visitors can pick their own cherries, ride tractors through farm orchards, have a look where and how cherries are stored and packaged, and swig on cherry liqueur.
Another option is the only floating cigar bar in Africa, the White Mischief cruise. The 3 and a half hour cruise offers some game viewing too, since the Meulspruit slices between sandstone cliffs through a section of the privately owned Thaba Sediba Nature reserve. Also watch out for Goliath Herons, small, bright Malachite Kingfishers and Fish Eagles. For something different, check out the Sangoma Caves on the Ficksburg-Rosendal road, close to Versierskerf.
A good place to stay in Ficksburg for the duration of the festival, or just an incidental overnight visit, is the reasonably priced Imperani Guest House on the hill in McCabe Street. Whilst it sounds like a single house, Imperani offers 30 rooms, a restaurant and bar, as well as a swimming pool (a godsend in summer). Imperani is walking distance from the show grounds, and just far enough not to hear late night revelling. It’s reasonably priced, has adequate creature comforts, including air conditioning, and is conveniently just around the corner from the local Spar. For the very budget oriented, a camping site is diagonally opposite Imperani.
Visitors approaching Ficksburg from Bloemfontein ought to know that the speed limit is 100km/h, and there are around half a dozen speed cameras at various locations on route. At present there are also a number of mandatory stops on the road, due to construction, which can extend travelling time by around 45 minutes. There are also two wonderful roadside stalls beyond Thaba Nchu, around 30 kilometres outside Ficksburg. Whilst driving on the maloti Route keep an eye out for black shouldered kites haunting the telephone wires, and gorgeous widowbirds (with long black tails) flapping across the Free State’s yellow veld like large black commas. Cherries turn up at your window well before you arrive in Ficksburg, so be sure to roll down your window and get your first taste of the good stuff early on.