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Issue 16
Africa Travel> Issue 16
UPDATED: June 2, 2015
Far From the Madding Crowd
The little town of Clarens is the jewel of South Africa's Free State province
By Jo Kromberg

A rock rabbit looks out at the Maluti Mountain and the main rest camp from the top of Golden Gate Highlands National Park sandstone cliffs (FRANCISCO LITTLE)

"The Free State landscape gladdens my heart, no matter what my mood. When I am here I feel that nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far as the horizons." – So said our beloved former State President Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

His words play on my mind as we drive through the wide-open Free State province fields, the blue sky has a hazy white tint to it, indicating winter in quite an advanced state. "May the good Lord be with you down every road you roam. And may sunshine and happiness surround you when you're far from home," sings Rod Steward on the radio and this mellow road trip – only 3 hours from Johannesburg - is just the tonic for the soul. We are on our way to one of the most picturesque towns in South Africa – Clarens.

As we drive through the mountains into the town in the afternoon sun, the little hamlet sits in the arm of the mountain like a beloved child. The setting is beautiful, in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in close proximity to the Golden Gate National Park and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Clarens is an artists' haven full of wonderfully quaint feel-good stuff.

The laughing and friendly Valerie meets us at the Studio 28 apartments, with keys and information and what looks drab from the outside turns into a little warm nest of very comfortable accommodation inside. Care is taken with the décor and ambience and a loft bedroom provides space for the kids.

Each self-catering apartment has its own equipped kitchenette, separate bathroom, patio and under cover parking space. And with the cold biting at your heels, they offer two heaters in each room for a cozy atmosphere.

The accommodation is fully serviced during your stay.

Gosto restaurant, a little taste of Portugal in Clarens (FRANCISCO LITTLE)

Art haven

Clarens itself is a hub of art, curio-come-confectionary shops, the best biltong, fresh cherries and simply sensational little restaurants. One of them is Gosto, a newcomer to town, barely a year old, offering authentic Portuguese cuisine. The manager Michelle and owner Carol greet us with tremendous energy and Lucky, the most wonderful waiter and person you can ever hope to meet, swiftly produces a lovely bottle of Darling Shiraz and presents us with our first course. A combination of any four of the five starters on offer, ours comprises of calamari, trinchado, giblets in red wine sauce and chorizo. It's enough for two people and mouthwateringly delicious. Next follows my partner's rib eye steak with garlic butter done to perfection and I have the clams in onion and white wine sauce. Dessert is a shared delight of raspberry, Pavlova and vanilla ice cream. The bill came to very reasonable $30 for the two of us. Excellent value for money, ambience, service and food.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

After a lovely breakfast the next morning in town, we take the road further into the mountains to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. We are booked into the Highlands Mountain retreat and after feeling as though we are the only people in the world to have ventured along the escarpment of the Free State we arrive at what feels like the most isolated mountain retreat on earth. Yodelling, Heidi, Peter and their goats would certainly not be out of place here.

The eight log cabins are nestled into the rolling foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the North Eastern Free State and simply exquisite.

The park derives its name from the brilliant shades of gold cast by the sun on the park's sandstone cliffs, especially the imposing Brandwag rock, keeping vigil over the main rest camp.

This 11600 hectares provides a home to a variety of mammals – black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell's zebra - and birds, including the rare bearded vulture (lammergeier) and the equally rare bald ibis, which breed on the ledges in the sandstone cliffs. Ribbokkop, the highest point in the park exposes a magnificent embroidery of red, yellow and purple hues as its warm shades merge with the cool mountain shadows towards evening. Perched at 2200m above sea-level, your view is jaw-dropping and the sun-drenched log cabins are unpretentious yet luxurious with sweeping views from every room. There is also a wonderful fire place inside which heats up the whole cabin in a jiffy. The crisp mountain air makes my city-weary soul relax immediately as I gaze across the overlapping mountains in a state of total bliss. At about $90 for a cabin which sleeps two, it is a steal at the price.

Four of the cabins can each accommodate a family of four (two bedrooms each en-suite), while four can each accommodate two people (one bedroom) and all are self-catering. The nearest place to shop is in Clarens, about 30 kilometres away, so make sure you bring your own provisions. For culture vultures the Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp provides a very interesting excursion. The tour provides a look back into history as you learn about the fascinating story of the Basotho people, their lifestyle, architecture and culture.

Another must-do in Clarens is the local brewery. They brew fine hand crafted beers and cider they were the first microbrewery in the Free State, established in 2006.

Their brewer, Stephan Meyer, has a passion for brewing and craft beer and has been brewing full grain, pure malt beers since 2004, with an absolute dedication to quality and craftsmanship.

There are so many things to do and see in Clarens and in our limited time it feels like we haven't even touched the tip of the proverbial ice berg. Make a point of discovering this tiny jewel of the Free State - you will not be sorry…

Things to do in Clarens:

- 4x4 trail

- Archery

- Expeditions

- Fly fishing

- Hiking

- Horse riding

- Bushman paintings

- White water rafting


Clarens Tourism:


Studio 28 accommodation:


Golden Gate National Park: http://www.sanparks.co.za/parks/golden_gate/tourism/availability.php?resort=171

Clarens Brewery:


Getting there:

There are daily flights into Johannesburg from China with Emirates and Etihad airlines. From Johannesburg the simplest way to get to Clarens is by renting a vehicle at the airport and driving the approximately three and a half hour journey yourself.

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