Sometimes the journey becomes the destination, and with the fuel price on the increase once again, holidays that involve long distance road trip are becoming the exception rather than the rule
I, like many other drivers, sometimes forget to factor in the toll costs on a road like the N1 to KZN.
So when my wife and I recently visited Clarens in the Eastern Free State Highlands we decided to use as many of the back roads as possible.
Aside from being expensive the N1 is also bland, boring and featureless. We chose to use the R26 instead, which meant that we only had to use the De Hoek toll plaza before turning off the highway to take a road less traveled.
By taking this ‘back road’ we had hoped to be able to visit several small towns along the way. This meant that although it might take us longer to get to our final destination, we would at least get to see some of the “old” South Africa. We had earmarked Frankfort, Tweeling and Reitz as potential towns to visit, but such is the price of progress that the R26 now bypasses them all. It is an indictment of our modern society that we are so focused on getting to our holiday destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.
The R26 is certainly more scenic than the N1 and it is toll free but as we had not realized the towns were no longer on this route we had, unfortunately, not left ourselves enough time to explore so we had to pass them by. (This gave an excuse for us to plan another road trip at a later date)
While we were complaining about the price of progress when we spotted a huge billboard that said “Stop and cuddle a lion” just outside Villiers. This sort of sign cannot be easily ignored so we turned off the main road and found ourselves at the gate of the Siesta Guesthouse. There were cubs to cuddle and while my wife got to meet Douglas and his siblings, I wandered off the meet some of the other wildlife on the property. Douglas enjoys having his tummy scratched and we were both amazed at the size of his paws. (And we thought our cat at home was a big boy!)
The property is home to fourteen mature lions, three Caracals and a porcupine…not to mention the owner’s Yorkshire terrier that follows him everywhere. But I digress and Clarens is calling
We DID get to drive through Bethlehem, or as the residents of Clarens refer to it, “Town”, seeing that it is their closest major centre. (There are no major supermarket chains of pharmacies in Clarens…yet)
Bethlehem has grown to serve the needs of the surrounding area and the price of progress is that it has lost some of its rural charm.
Clarens, which is about twenty-five kilometers from Bethlehem on the R712 lies nestled at the foot of the Maluti Mountains. These towering edifices were spectacular in the fading sunlight.
Why has Clarens become so popular? At first glance the reasons might not be obvious. It does not have the sea views of a coastal destination, neither does it have access to the Bushveld and wildlife parks like some of the Northern Provinces have.
What is does have is small town charm…in spades. People will stop and chat to you in the street almost for no apparent reason. I did not see many beggars and the traffic, or lack of it, is another HUGE plus.
Currently the permanent population of Clarens consists mainly of artists and people who make a living selling crafts or food.
It also has great places to eat. From the “posh” to the “family” and plenty of pubs that serve the permanent population of only 3500!
Art galleries are the backbone of this community and several of the artists live close by and will offer you at home hospitality while you choose from their range of artworks.
Perhaps it’s the proximity of Golden Gate National Park with is spectacular sandstone cliffs and rock formations.
With all of these attractions it’s no wonder that the major real estate players have moved into the area and the prices have put most of the properties out of reach of people who might just want to but a weekend home.
But with the current economic downturn a couple of major projects that were planned have been put on hold or scaled back.
I cannot really see the need for not one but two golf estates next to each other…and this view is shared by many of the locals who see them as a blight on the landscape.
My hope is that Calrens does not bow to corporate greed and sell its soul to the highest bidder. That would be a travesty and our country needs to keep these small towns alive and thriving.
Clarens abounds with B&B establishments that will suit most holiday budgets. We found Sir Henry’s Guesthouse on the Internet and we rated it as one of the “Top Five” properties we have stayed at. (Unfortunately we never did find out who Sir Henry was but that was not really important)
Our suite was decorated in a French Colonial style with a working fireplace instead of a heater and no TV. With the owner choosing each piece of furniture herself, the attention to detail was superb.
To our surprise and delight we found a rubber duck in the bathroom which we were informed was to bring out our inner child while enjoying a relaxing bath. Much like the dead parrot from the Monty Python sketch, this duck seemed to have shuffled off this mortal coil as it would only float in an upside down position. Although we both joked about this, our inner children were upset and disappointed. When we discussed this with management they were mortified and promised to rectify the problem by buying a new duck and more importantly making sure that it would float.
As we read through the guest book in our room we noticed that every guest had commented on the superb breakfasts they had enjoyed and we were keen to put these comments to the test.
The quality and presentation of the breakfasts we enjoyed during our two-day stay were superb. Each morning the menu was varied so that we did not get the same food but the crockery was changed as well. The starters were mainly fresh fruit but served in a quirky and delightful manner. The main course arrived at our table under a silver cloche that we were not allowed to peek under until both of us had been served. It is this attention to detail that makes this guesthouse very popular with guests and advance booking is recommended.
Clarens has become the “Melville” of the Free State with enough art galleries and restaurants to test the hardiest credit card, but even with the burgeoning tourist trade and booming property market Clarens seems to have retained its inherent charm and small town feel.
The center of town is President Square, a large park that on weekends becomes an open-air market. Unlike “flea markets” in the major cities, this one had all sorts of interesting items on sale. Wrought ironwork and homemade goods of all description were on offer but more interesting for me were the people manning the stalls. Each had a story to tell and although we did not buy anything we were certainly regaled by their tales (Oom Schalk watch out!)
House prices (from R1m to R5m) currently reflect the popularity that Clarens is enjoying. Aside from renovated homes there are also two golfing estates under construction. Unfortunately one is situated directly opposite the entrance to the town and really spoils the view of the mountains…but such is the price of progress!
While chatting to one of the locals during an early morning walk I was told that in season (November, December and January) there are traffic jams in the streets and accommodation is at a premium.
The weekend that we were there a group of bikers chose to “invade” Clarens, but luckily bikes take up less parking than cars do.
This need for accommodation has been noted by a national hotel chain that has recently opened a seventy-room hotel in the middle of town that will certainly ease the peak season accommodation needs. (Although the style and position of the hotel does not agree with all the residents)
The Golden Gate National Park Being is only 20 kms from Clarens and a visit there is a must. Unlike most of our National Parks the main attractions are not the animals but the sand stone mountains and Bushman rock art.. Looking like a Piernief painting these majestic sandstone cliffs come in a variety of different colours and shapes. The best news about Golden Gate is that there is no entrance fee! A huge plus in today’s tough economic climate.
On our return to Clarens we “discovered” a restaurant called ‘Valley Cats’ which not only serves great coffee and scones but the best and most reasonably priced biltong we have eaten in a while
Aside from sitting and drinking coffee and watching the passing parade, Clarens offers a variety of adventure activities. Quad biking, horse riding, archery and river rafting are just some of the activities to keep the most discerning adrenaline junkies happy. The local information centre is fully stocked with brochures and the staff was very helpful when it came to offering suggestions as to what was on offer.
Clarens also has some of the best trout fishing waters in South Africa.
Unfortunately for us time was an issue, so we did not have time to try out any of the adventure sports on offer.
Like most small towns there are a variety of interesting places to visit in and around Clarens.
There is the Titanic rock that guards the entrance to Clarens or for those interested in history a visit to the Clarens museum is a must. About 10km from Clarens on the Fouriesburg road is Surrender Hill, an Anglo Boer War site.
We had to limit this visit to exploring the multitude of art galleries that form the heart of Clarens. All are within walking distance of each other and this made it easy for us to browse through each before finally extracting the credit card and making some purchases. The galleries stock a mixture of works by well known (expensive) and lesser known (more affordable) artists.
The gift shops sell a variety of imported goods and local crafts that include leather work, pottery candles and ethnic art.
Although some artist’s works are available in more than one gallery, each gallery seems to have a featured artist. Several of the artists live in or around Clarens and offer the prospective buyer visits to their studios in order to see and discuss their works before buying.
The town also has a multitude coffee shops and variety of restaurants to choose from. We certainly put a couple of these to the test to bolster our sagging energy levels. Trying not to spend money is a tiring business!
As the drive back to Johannesburg is only about three hours, we were able to delay our leaving till mid afternoon that gave us some extra shopping time.
With so much on offer the easiest way to get information on what to do, see and where to stay is via www.clarenstourism.co.za. (Their contact phone number is 058 256 1542)
Other Contact details:
Sir Henry’s Guesthouse…highly recommended!
058 256 1194
Web site: www.sirhenry.co.za
Galleries which we bought from:
Art and Wine: 058 256 1298
Johan Smith Art Gallery: 058 256 1620
The Addy Hoyle Gallery: 058 256 1875
Richard Rennie Gallery: Cell phone: 082 771 0396
058 813 1382/082 441 2743