It was an unlikely place for a Capetonian to spend Christmas – in a tiny town in the eastern Free State that seemed at first to be nothing more than a flyspeck on the map – but when a trip to Namibia fell through and my sister suggested Clarens, the name did ring a smallish bell
And so I boarded a plane not knowing what to expect and headed for the sandstone hills tucked away in the the foothills of the Maluti Mountains near Lesotho.
Often referred to as the jewel of the Free State, this twinkling little hamlet surpassed any notion I may have had of a little hub of nothingness where the city-weary flee to retire. It’s quaint, charismatic and picturesque, yet a surprisingly eclectic melting pot of modern and yesteryear which, combined with day trips to neighbouring towns – all within an hour or so travel by car – it’s a guaranteed family holiday with something for everyone.
South Africans collectively joke about not blinking as you pass through our small towns in case you miss them completely. The turnoff to Clarens from the R712 is no exception as there is ….. well ….. no warning at all. To the unfamiliar, a small settlement hugs the land adjoining the road to Golden Gate from Bethlehem and if you aren’t paying attention you can easily sail past.
The turnoff to Clarens
As accommodation goes, Clarens has plenty to offer. Although the local hotel is modern and right in the centre of the town (you can park your car and forget you have one until it’s time to head home), there are many holiday homes for hire all year round that capture the essence of life in Clarens, which we opted for. The plots are large with rambling gardens. Many back onto the surrounding mountains almost guaranteeing surprise visits by the local wildlife. I would wake to the sound of birds long before dawn and open the curtains as the rest of the house slumbered to take it all in. I was rewarded one morning by a large sandy hare nibbling at the lawn who bounded out of sight before I could rub the sleep from my eyes and grab my camera.
Clarens is more lush than many Free State towns and this, combined with its mild climate, stunning scenery, tranquillity and easy access from Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Durban, make it the ideal weekend getaway. The many sandstone buildings hewn from the surrounding hills, assortment of great eateries and collection of art galleries scattered throughout the village and surrounds add to the ambience and allure.
Art in the street
Those who thrive on the visual are in for a treat. The scenery aside, colours abound in the surrounding mountains. The Rooiberge encompass the hamlet, glowing coral and fiery red in the sunsets while in the distance, to the southeast, the Malutis stand sentinel over the Kingdom of Lesotho in hazy shades of puce and grey.
For those who can’t just sit back and take it all in, Clarens is also the adventure-seeker’s paradise, Name your poison – river rafting, abseiling, paintballing, hiking, rock climbing, enduro trails – and the nearby Golden Gate National Park offers a number of breath-taking hikes. The Brandwag trail is the most scenic but don’t take it on after a buffet Christmas Lunch made by the village’s notorious Phatt Chef like we did 🙂
On top of Brandwag
Brandwag from below
Golden Gate National Park
Inside Maanskerm Cave
Bushman paintings. Sadly many in the area have been defaced like this.
All in all Clarens is a treat for all the senses.
Historical Tailpiece: As with many small South African towns, Clarens began as two neighbouring farms which were divided into erven (and sold for fifty pounds each according to the records). Then in 1912 a commission named the village “Clarens” in honour of President Paul Kruger’s influence in the area. (He spent his last days in exile in Clarens in Switzerland). The establishment of the town coincided with the launching of the Titanic. Coincidentally a rock outcrop shaped like the bow of the ill-fated vessel stands sentinel at the entrance to the town.