An exclusive musical weekend, the FNB Golden Classics, combined sublime music with Golden Gate’s stunning scenery. And at times Mother Nature also made her voice heard. By Lesley Stones

It began with the metallic twanging of a flagpole in the wind, and a sudden gust that chilled the skin. Darkening skies altered the colours of gleaming sandstone outcrops in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park as fat plops of rain fell around me, but I could still hear a tenor rehearsing behind the hill. Right on cue, the afternoon rain let rip as the Free State Symphony Orchestra held a sound check.

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Pictures by Lesley Stones

I was in Golden Gate for a weekend of glorious music in the stunning setting of the national park. Now in its first year, the FNB Golden Classics is a novel way to experience nature. During the day guests can ramble, horse ride, quad bike or even zipline through fabulous scenery, then spend the evenings listening to music under the stars. With its line-up of celebrated musicians, the event is a treat for young and hip jazz fans, as well as classic aficionados who adore Carmen and Tosca. SANParks envisions that the FNB Golden Classics will be an annual event for perhaps no more than 300 people, to keep it intimate and promote the delights of Golden Gate without seeing it overrun.

On the Friday night, a jazz evening starred Gloria Bosman and Timothy Moloi with the Jazz Trio. As we arrived at the Basotho Cultural Village, umbrella-wielding escorts led us to a marquee warmed by gas heaters and soft, colourful lighting. The trio played, and everybody got lost in the music and conversation, the food and wine, with the rain creating a cosy camaraderie. Bosman and Moloi sang some classics, and we ended the evening dancing to “Pata Pata”.

Exploring under blue skies

On Saturday morning, the sun burst into my room in the Golden Gate Hotel heralding a hot day, and I jumped into a shuttle bus to return to the Basotho Cultural Village. Cultural officer, Lizzy Mokoena, guided us around the recreated village, first asking permission from the chief. He agreed, and we joined him to taste sorghum beer before meeting the sangoma and one of the chief’s three wives.

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Later field ranger Phadi Mashapane drove me through the reserve to the vulture hide, but no endangered bearded vultures or vulnerable Cape vultures were in residence. When local farmers donate a carcass it’s apparently a raucous scene, with 40 or 50 hungry vultures descending for a feast.

The park’s self-guided hikes vary from a 45-minute scramble to the aptly named Mushroom Rock, a challenging hour up Brandwag Buttress – an amazing piece of sandstone that mesmerises from every angle – or a four-hour hike to Wodehouse Peak. I set off to look at the beautiful sandstone cliffs, wind-blasted into odd shapes over the eons, safely knowing there were no Big Five predators about to become the last thing I ever saw.

The arts and crafty town of Clarens is close by, too, and many guests enjoyed spa treatments or explored the town.

A grand spectacle

The main event was the Free State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kutlwano Masote, with tenor Given Nkosi and spinto soprano Kelebogile Besong. A full stage had been erected on the lawns of the Golden Gate Hotel, with camping chairs in front. Behind them stood a marquee covering clusters of settees, the bar and buffet.

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As Masote lifted his baton, the wind rose in crescendo too, and most of us retreated under the open-fronted marquee to watch the performance. Masote led the orchestra through some wonderful arias and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, better known as the “Can-Can”.

Besong and Nkosi’s powerful voices put the rumbles of thunder to shame, and when the evening ended with the irresistible “Nessun Dorma”, we walked back out in the rain to cheer them.