Clarens has it all: a cosy village atmosphere, great farm stays and statuesque mountains – and that’s where you should head, says Melanie Van Zyl.
In the south-eastern corner of the Free State, this famously flat province has a change in disposition and generously shares the sky with columns of the earth as broad as they are tall (kind of like the stereotypical farmers you’d expect of the OFM region too, come to think of it). Huddled up in the valley between these giant heights of ochre-orange sandstone, a little village called Clarens regularly charms city slickers with unique eateries, retail therapy and locally brewed beer.
Named after the Clarens of Switzerland, where Paul Kruger spent his last days in exile, South Africa’s Clarens has become quite the weekend destination. It’s a common outing for Joburgers and, according to village locals, Durbanites are also taking advantage of its close proximity ‒ it’s just over three hours away from both city centres. Known (and verified by the high number of galleries) as an artists’ haven, the real charm of Clarens is that there are no franchises or big outlets. The closest Wimpy, Woolies and 1-Stop are 40 kilometres away in Bethlehem ‒ just the way it should be. Every establishment is owner-run. No restaurant is replicated elsewhere in the country; the stores are small, unique boutique outlets and, except for the Protea Hotel, so are the accommodation options.
I’m at the Clarens Brewery having a glass of the cherry-flavoured Red Stone Cider (made from cherries grown in the region). Close by, at a blanket shop that’s been in business for more than 50 years, is a colourful array of thick, woollen Basotho blankets. Then, there’s the farm-fresh eggs and butter from Bon Appetit, the little deli further along the only tarred road in town. There are no traffic lights here either. Yes, this small village sure is seductive, but with so much natural beauty in the immediate vicinity, I always choose to stay closer to the mountains instead of sleeping in the village. Artists Simon Addy and Lynne Hoyle have a home just 10 kilometres from town and they’ve opened their sweeping country house to visitors. This is a family home with heart and the love here is palpable. It’s the place for a boozy lunch with family or friends – the 12-sleeper is more than spacious enough, and the chopping-board table in the kitchen kept warm by restored Aga ovens has ‘heard’ many stories.
Simon suggests a visit to Motouleng Cave (or the Fertility Cave) as something different to do in the area. He’s got a shortcut there and as we drive across the hills he chats about our private panorama. ‘Someone once came here in winter and described it as vaal. I think it’s just as beautiful with the taupe and khaki tones that come with the cold.’ I agree. Down a steep path, below an enormous overhang, lives a small community beside a stream. There are cats and chickens, small smoky homesteads and precarious rockeries. It’s eerie. This sacred spot has been a place of worship for as long as cultural memory extends. Motouleng means ‘the place where the drums keep beating’ and the caves, or more accurately the lengthy overhangs are an important area for both traditional religions and independent Christian churches – candles are lit in the deep crevices to symbolise this. This overhanging cave is also regarded as one of the largest in the southern hemisphere and is also a place of shelter for the small village. People are summoned here (sometimes for months and even years) to learn about their ancestors or to become a practising healer, and it gets busy on weekends as many descend the trail to give thanks. I’m surprised happily that such a pocket of culture still exists.
Each time I return to Clarens, I’m amazed by the extraordinary mountain settings and outdoor opportunities. The Rooiberge are the mountains that immediately surround the village. They shorten the days here as they cause shadows to fall across the village square a little earlier, and the sun peeps over them later in the morning ‒ the perfect light for sleeping in and making the most of your time off. Then there are the majestic Malotis further south-east, their colours spreading across the sky from pastel purples to a deeper hue of blue like litmus paper. The most unusual are the Clarens Formation sandstone cliffs, unique to the area and best experienced on the drive from Harrismith coming into Golden Gate National Park ‒ so called because the west-facing cliffs glow a glorious rust colour at sundown. The skies are sometimes patrolled by one of the most threatened birds in South Africa, the bearded vulture, which feeds on bone marrow. This clever bird has learnt to drop bones from extreme heights to crack them open. The mighty mountains are also responsible for 50 per cent of the country’s water supply and are the watershed of both the Vaal and Orange rivers. If you drive in any direction from Clarens ‒ towards Fouriesburg, Lesotho, Golden Gate or Bethlehem ‒ the farmlands and monumental peaks are breathtakingly beautiful. That’s why I always make for the mountains.
Plan your trip
Google Maps will want to take you via Bethlehem. I prefer the more scenic route (and there are less potholes). From Joburg take the N3 south to Harrismith and take the off-ramp into town. Join the N5 briefly and then turn left onto the R74. Then take the turn right onto the R712 and drive the remaining 70 kilometres to Golden Gate National Park. Once through the park, it’s an easy 20 kilometres to the village.
Walk in the Clarens Village Conservancy which surrounds the town. There are a number of trails ranging from half an hour to three. Highland Coffee Roastery on the village square sells maps for R25 (see Eat Here). 0603071489, clarensvillageconservancy.org.
Hike in Golden Gate National Park. There are seven well- marked trails ranging from 45 minutes to four hours. Most depart from Glen Reenen Rest Camp and one starts behind Golden Gate Hotel. They wind up the orange sandstone cliffs, dip into forested ravines and some will have you wading through windswept grasslands. The conservation fee is R40 per adult and R20 per child. 0582551000, sanparks.org
Explore the Motouleng Caves. The caves are considered sacred ground, so dressing appropriately is advised. R350 per person for a half-day tour. 0582561260, clarensxtreme.co.za
Picnic at De Molen Farm. This nguni cattle stud is located seven kilometres from Clarens. Take your own picnic basket and sit on the banks of the Little Caledon River for free. 0582561096, demolenfarm.co.za
Drive up to the Vulture Hide inside Golden Gate National Park. It’s perched at one of the highest points in the park with incredible views over the Drakensberg. It’s your best chance to spot the bearded vulture, and black-backed jackals tend to visit too. The conservation fee is R40 per adult and R20 per child. 0582551000, sanparks.org
Cycle the slopes around the village on a mountain bike. Clarens Xtreme has negotiated access with farmers and conservancies close by and will provide a map to the very best trails ranging from 11- to 40-kilometre routes. R250 for a half-day bike rental and R350 for full day. 0582561260, clarensxtreme.co.za
Ridge Road Country House is a French-style farmhouse perched high on a sandstone ridge overlooking a stream and small dam, nine kilometres from Clarens. It’s surrounded by 28 hectares of indigenous grassland and is a perfect country escape with six bedrooms (sleeps 12). All have crisp, white 100 per cent cotton percale linen, electric blankets and wall heaters. The brand-new cottage nearby is just as trendy (sleeps six). R5500 a night for the house over weekends; weekday rates are R600 per person, minimum four people per night or R2400. wheretostay.co.za
Lexi’s Quirky Cottage is one of four accommodation options at Roodepoort Farm ‒ the views down the valley from the bath tub through enormous glass panes made this my favourite. The two-sleeper self-catering cabin is 15kilometres away from Clarens on a dirt road (fine for sedans), and there were complimentary rusks ready to be dunked. R400 per person, minimum two night’s stay. airbnb.com/rooms/8263054
Fairview Estates is the furthest from Clarens and one of my favourite farmstays in the area. Twin Towers is a converted grain silo that looks onto grazing alpacas, while Damn Caravan, a more intimate four-sleeper park home, rests beside a dam. Both have gorgeous decor and are great value at R380 per person and R350 per person respectively (minimum R1520 per night). 0823775222, fairviewestates.co.za
Highland Coffee Roastery uses a freshly roasted espresso blend (the green beans are displayed on the counter) and it costs only R14 for a filter coffee. Cake and flavoured lattes are also served. I had the delicious spicy-gingerbread latte (R22). 0582561136, highlandcoffeeroastery.co.za
Clarens Brewery offers German- style food ‒ I always order the sausage bowl (R70 for two) with an assortment of relishes and freshly baked bread (from the bakery at the bottom of town). The brewery has widened its range to include hazelnut- and vanilla-infused malt drinks (the tasters are free so sample them all to find your favourite). 0582561193, clarensbrewery.co.za
Mosaic Pizzeria is great for affordable pizza (about R75 for a large) and has good glÜhwein too. The vegetarian melanzane is R70. 0582561884
Gosto has been open for a few years and never disappoints with its tasty Portuguese food and varied wine selection. Mains are from R110. 0767928189, patchamplace.co.za
Bon Appetit Deli & Bistro lies beyond the village square opposite the sandstone church. Set in a lovely garden, it serves affordable breakfast (nothing over R60) and sells supplies such as fresh eggs, butter and cheese. 0798731318, find it on Facebook.