Caroline Hurry finds mountain magic in Clarens and surrounds. Just ‘pas op’ for the potholes!
To explore the Eastern Free State stretching beneath the Maloti Mountains, we took the N3 out of Joburg, pootling around the Gilloolys noodle for Villiers, before turning onto the R26 towards Frankfort. I don’t do highways so, by way of a chauffeur, I had solicited the services of my sister.
However, even with an advanced driver’s licence under her belt, Mags was no match for the bone-jarring potholes – some big enough to swallow a tractor – that confronted us on the Reitz-Tweeling road. As she swerved like a Hollywood stunt driver in the pouring rain to a surround-sound of shrieks, gasps and under carriage rasps, we alternated between aquaplaning ‒ drenched by approaching trucks negotiating their own pond-sized crevices ‒ and driving over what felt like a rockery.
‘They’ve even got 60km pothole speed limits,’ exclaimed my brother, Simon, out from San Francisco, for this was a family jaunt. He aimed his camera at the sign as if taking pictures in the circumstances was even possible. Incidentally, we drove home via Warden, which added 70km to our trip but was so much easier on the nerves!
On the plus side, having to slow to a crawl gave us ample opportunity to drink in the bucolic beauty of the vast highland plains with cows and sheep safely grazing, yellow sunflowers in sway, golden fields of mealies, Swiss-rolled bales of hay. As we wound up the final 42km from Bethlehem to Clarens, the Free State’s highest town at 1850 metres, the sun stepped out from the clouds, bathing the landscape in a translucent glow.
We marvelled at the quality of the light and the lush scenery that just kept coming. Dramatic limestone crags? Check. Poplars framing farmhouses? Check. Dirt roads, duck crossings, crowing cocks? Checkity, check!
While the rest of the family stayed in the comfy, self-catering Berg Street Cottage that sleeps eight, I opted for solitude at the 24-roomed Mont d’Or, an Extraordinary property, in Sias Oosthuizen Lane. Tossed amid mountainous swells of the Rooiberge and Maloti, this boutique hotel felt like the love-child of a multi-roomed millionaire mansion and a cruise ship in a sea of blue-gums, willows and golf-course greens.
The French doors in my Executive Room opened onto a communal terrace where I slumped into a comfy wicker chair to soak up mountain views on both sides. On the narrow road in front, a white rabbit – one of a brace of hoppity bunnies – sat and caught my eye in a ‘follow me, Alice’ sort of way.
If the charm of the town with its cutesy white-washed cottages, gabled facades, galleries, craft shops, and arty individuality was any indication, a squirrel carrying a kerchief-covered basket would soon swing by.
The best thing about Clarens is the total absence of Big Retail – no clothing chains or supermarkets peddling poisoned polonies – just farm produce outlets, quaint eateries, artisanal bakeries, unique boutiques, and galleries selling art and wine. Certain family members stocked up liberally.
The Clarens Brewery is worth a stop for berry ciders, craft ales and festive beerhall vibe that encourages the comparison of blisters between mountain walkers. With white-water rafting, quad biking, zip lining, abseiling, paintballing, archery, golf, a climbing wall, mountain biking, and enduro trails on offer, adrenaline junkies are spoilt for choice. Adventure centres will even whisk visitors over the border to Lesotho for some skiing, winter weather permitting.
While my sister and nieces embarked on a strenuous hike and spoke of grandiose views, my idea of an adventure was a Mediterranean foot treatment at the Mont d’Or spa; the better end of the bargain, I thought.
That afternoon we drove 17km to the 11 600-hectare Golden Gate National Park that offered a beguiling landscape of sandstone cliffs streaked with ochre hues, wild flowers, open skies of deep blues, and a Vulture Hide. Being mid-week, we practically had the place to ourselves.
Back in the tree-lined dirt roads of Clarens where a church bell tolled in the distance and the afternoon sun filtered through autumn foliage, I felt a transcendent moment of déjà vu. This felt like the rose-tinted village of my childhood with its white picket fences, tended gardens, and couples picnicking under trees on the town’s iconic grassy square; a moment I wished I could freeze-frame and put in a locket.