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This two-day road trip into the eastern Free State is a perfect weekend break for Joburgers. And it’s full of very big things.

Also read: why Clarens is the perfect weekend escape

Our road trip companion meant we could explore a couple of 4X4 routes along the way. Photo by Tyson Jopson

The only thing small about the Free State is what people know about it. Determined to change that, I took the N3 out of Joburg on a late Friday morning to explore a part of it that I hadn’t ever visited before. The Eastern Highlands extend along the lower reaches of the Maloti Mountains and three of its towns – Clarens, Fouriesburg and Ficksburg – had been on my radar for some time.

For company, I had wrangled the services of my mother as navigator, deputy note-taker and primary stand-there-please photo assistant. We round Gilloolys, noodle through traffic and head for Villiers, a place that, regrettably, I still know only for its Engen garage and cluster of grain silos visible from the highway.

Loaded up on padkos at Die Padstal, we head for Harrismith where we get off the N3 and take the road east toward the Malotis. We pass a few more farms, their houses surrounded by copses of trees providing respite from the Free State sun.

This trail in Clarens tracks around a small lake. Photo by Tyson Jopson

They’re mostly willows, as far as we can see from the road, and Mom points out that they would have been planted many years ago with the intention of providing shade for generations to come. There’s just enough time to debate the paucity of altruism in ‘today’s generation’ before the road curves and sweeps towards Golden Gate National Park, where large sandstone cliffs stand sentinel on the Lesotho border.

We wind our way along Lichens Pass, named because of the lichens that grow on these mountains, and stop at a viewpoint to watch the sun illuminate their ochre chests.

We reach Clarens in the late afternoon, check in at Aspen Guesthouse and then head into the Clarens Village Conservancy for a short walk. From the top of a ridge, I look down at Clarens below. It’s boomed, I’m told, now home to a profusion of artisanal restaurants, a craft brewery, boutiques and adventure centres that whisk visitors over the border to ski or ride mountain bikes. But the gravel roads and grassy town square still make it feel like a village. So, too, we discover that evening in town, do the people.

Clarens was established in 1912, the same year the Titanic sunk – ask a local about that. Photo by Tyson Jopson

The following morning we head for Fouriesburg, in search of nothing in particular and with no accommodation booked at all. It’s risky, but it’s early April, we’re between school holidays and I’m feeling whimsical. So whimsical, in fact, that we take the wrong road out of Clarens…

It’s not long before the navigator notices the blip on the radar is moving towards Bethlehem. We look for a place to turn around. A sign ahead comes into focus: ‘Lesotho Highlands Water Project Ash River Outfall’. We take the exit and are soon standing inside the cross-section of a gigantic pipeline. ‘This,’ says deputy note-taker reading a plaque, ‘looks like the place where water from Lesotho flows underneath the Malotis and into South Africa.’

‘That’s a big pipe,’ I say. ‘It could swallow our car.’ We head back through Clarens, musing on the bigness of things out here in the Free State. Little do we know, we’re about to stumble onto the biggest of them all…

In Fouriesburg we stop at Jenlee’s Country Shop and Bistro for a snack and get chatting to one of its owners while a plucky Angora goat tries to steal confectionery from a potjie pot. ‘Are you here for the Stars of Sandstone Festival?’ asks owner Jen Lee. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have guessed it was a talent show held atop one of the surrounding cliffs with contestants earning a 300-style Spartan kick off the edge if they failed to amuse the judges.

Ever wanted to ride an old narrow-gauge locomotive? You’ll find more than one on this farm in the Free State. Photo by Tyson Jopson

Rather, Stars of Sandstone is a gathering of the colossal – a place where trains, planes, army tanks and cranks gather every two years to celebrate engineering feats of days of yore. And we’re just in time. We turn left at Fouriesburg and surf the black wave beside the Witteberge to Sandstone Estates.

Cosmos and sunflowers are in bloom and pinks, whites and yellows colour the edges of the gravel road into the estate. It’s an irony, I suppose, that such beauty should line the path to machines that were once used for a thing so ugly as war. Still, the vehicles are impressive and firepower makes up just one part of this historical hurrah.

By far the most impressive are the trains. Over the festival period, Sandstone is home to the largest collection of working two-foot, narrow-gauge locomotives in the world.

‘We have 25 on site, all running on a railway through the estate to the Lesotho border. There’s more than 25 kilometres of it,’ says the estate’s owner, Michael Myers. And so, with that and a shrill whistle, we take the No. 16 train to the border, departing from Hoekfontein Station in a cloud of soot. Overhead, a button-yellow de Havilland Tiger Moth wings its way over the Malotis and in the distance a VW Kübelwagen bumbles alongside a maize field.

Moolmanshoek is a South African Natural Heritage Site especially because of the Berg bamboo, which is the only bamboo native to South Africa. Photo by Tyson Jopson

Back in the present day, we continue towards Ficksburg in search of cherries and get the lowdown on the best place to go when it’s harvest time, before doubling back onto an alluring dirt road I’d seen along the way. We head north along the western side of the Witteberge this time, which get more beautiful with each passing kilometre. And then stumble upon Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve.

It’s a stud farm and grand country house with sprawling lawns and opulent rooms that open onto Serengeti-like plains where hulking eland, wildebeest and oryx move in the shadow of the mountains. It’s magnificent.

So we stay the night and, over dinner, share our thoughts. ‘They don’t do small out here, hey,’ Mom says. She’s right. Whether it’s mountains or manufacture, the Free State does it big. And that makes this part of the world no small wonder.

 

Our Eastern Free State loop

Eastern Free State

Jenlee’s Country Shop and Bistro is awash with trinkets, fowl and other farm animals. Photo by Tyson Jopson.

Day 1: Joburg to Clarens

Distance: 375 kilometres
Allow: four hours.
Take the N3 out of Joburg. After about 90 minutes you’ll get to the Engen at Villiers and Die Padstal (1). Continue to Harrismith and take the N5 west out of town and then immediately right onto the R74. This road becomes the R712 through Golden Gate National Park to Clarens. You’ll find the Clarens Village Conservancy (2) directly behind Aspen Guesthouse (3) at the end of Van Zyl Street and the Clarens Brewery (4) in town on Market Street East.

 

Day 2: Clarens to Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve

Distances: 80 kilometres
Allow: five hours.
Take the R712 to Bethlehem for about 10 kilometres and turn left at the sign that reads ‘Ash River Outfall’ (5). Double back through Clarens and out on the R711 to Fouriesburg. Jenlee’s Country Shop (6) is at the turn-off for Fouriesburg town. A short stretch further down the R711, take a left at the T-junction onto the R26 to Ficksburg. About 35 kilometres down this road, you’ll find Ionia Cherry Farm and, a little way further, Sandstone Estates. From there you can either head towards Ficksburg and take the next gravel road right, or double back and take the gravel S385 left at Generaalsnek. Both will take you to the same junction. Follow the signs north for Moolmanshoek Private Nature Reserve (9).

 

Day 3: Moolmanshoesk Private Game Reserve

Distances: 80 kilometres
Allow: 5 hours
Take the gravel road north from Moolmanshoek until you get to the tar R70. Turn right onto it, drive past Rosendal and into Senekal. Take the R70 out of Senekal and then turn right onto the R720 towards Steynsrus. At Steynsrus take the R76 to Kroonstad, where you can hop onto the N1 and shoot back to Joburg.

 

Your Eastern Free State directory

1. Die Padstal. This shop behind the N3 Engen outside Villiers is worth a stop for the biltong alone. It’s still a long way to Clarens and you’ll want some high-quality padkos to see you through. R290 per kg. Tel 0828593117.
2. Clarens Village Conservancy. Stroll beside a babbling brook or head up the sandstone formation for a view of Clarens below. Permits for mountain biking and fishing are R40 per person and available from the Protea Hotel in town. Tel 0603071489.
3. Clarens Brewery. Order the free tasting tray (six beers, two ciders and a gin), then pick a pint of your favourite, sit outside and watch the town go by. Lunch from R40. Tel 0829014700.
4. Aspen Guesthouse. This magic find is on the edge of the Conservancy and an easy stroll from town. Rooms are beautifully themed and there’s a self-catering family cottage. From R450 per person sharing B&B. Cottage from R350 per person sharing (sleeps three). Tel 0582561192.
5. Ash River Outfall. A short detour gets you to the spot where water gushes into South Africa from Lesotho via the epic Trans Caledon Tunnel.
6. Jenlee’s Country Shop and Bistro. There’s probably more goeters crammed into this farmstall than in the rest of the Free State’s combined. There’s also a petting zoo (free). Tel 0845125030.
7. Ionia Cherry Farm. We were out of season but if you visit in October and November you can take a cherry tour (R185, booking essential). We contented ourselves with tasting cherry jams and liqueurs. Don’t miss Ionia’s Crop Celebration Festival (16 – 19 November 2017). Tel 0725853684.
8. Sandstone Estates. You’ll want to earmark the next Stars of Sandstone Festival (April 2019) to see the classic cars, armoured vehicles and narrow-gauge locomotives rumble around the estate. Until then, its heritage site is open to the public and boasts a stellar collection of bygone machinery, albeit stationary. A tour is from R228 per person for four people or more (bookings essential). Tel 0716586970.
9. Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve. Surely the jewel of the Witteberge; we fell in love with everything about this reserve. There’s a spectacular 4X4 trail through game-rich foothills (self-drive on request only), mountain biking, horse riding, hiking and meals to di(n)e for. The setting, big-stone architecture, farm-style hospitality and umpteen distractions (billiards, anyone?) complete a standout experience. From R1764 for two sharing DBB. Tel 0519332220.

 

This epic road trip first appeared in the September Getaway issue.

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Our September issue features 11 amazing beach cottages, two ways to see the Klein Karoo, a windswept 4X4 drive in Namibia, our guide to swimming in Greece and much more!