Surveying the mountains around Clarens
You see these little spots on a map and wonder if it’s worth all the schlep of driving many, many hundreds of kilometres to visit them. But of course you only know once you’ve done it.
The place we had in mind was Clarens in the eastern Free State, conveniently close to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which is more famous for its sandstone cliffs and proximity to the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains than for the antelope and other wildlife it may boast.
We had been warned that many of this country’s roads are a disgrace. Just how bad they have become under a government that seemingly is only now learning the meaning of the word maintenance, we were still to discover.
Anyway, my wife Robyn plotted a route and booked B n Bs along the way and we set off in early April. Our first port of call was a farm a few dozen kilos north-east of Hofmeyr. We normally get our regular Karoo “fix” on another farm west of Steynsburg owned by my brother-in-law, but this was not possible this time, so we had booked a place on a farm en-route to our next port of call, Molteno, where we were to look up my wife Robyn’s uncle and aunt.
After a cup of coffee at the only place open in Hofmeyr, and with the afternoon gradually winding down, we met up with our hosts on a rather potholed gravel road. He was in a 4X4, we were in our city-friendly Toyota Yaris, which was totally unsuited to farm roads. Just how unsuited we soon discovered as he led us along a few kilos of track where the “middle-mannetjie” gave the underbelly of the car a really good working over. It was with some relief that we reached the farmhouse where we were to spend the night, the car seemingly none the worse for wear.
On a guest farm near Hofmeyr in the Karoo
Setting off on a hike on the guest farm
Next to a farm gate and are those tall plants some form of aloe, or sisal?
The house was an object lesson in how our ancestors lived before the advent of electricity – and how we might all be living soon if the powers that be fail to ensure the country has enough of the stuff to spread around in the years ahead. Anyway, this historic Karoo farmhouse was not short of candles – there was one on virtually every surface, along with a couple of paraffin lamps and several torches. Living not far away from the house was an old African farm manager and his family, and it was he who ensured we got a hot shower that night – thanks to the massive fire he got going in the “donkey”.
Yes indeed, it was our first encounter with the outside geyser, with its interesting tall pipe, like a long aerial, which every so often spewed steaming water into the air, which landed just next to the back door. So while my two sons and I tried desperately to get a braai fire going, we were treated to regular near-misses from the expelled geyser water.
Finally, however, supper was had and – after taking in a sky full of stars – we got to sleep. When you’ve had no electricity, you welcome the next morning’s sunlight with great affection – especially when it bathes a classic Karoo landscape in a warm glow.
(I forgot to mention that we did our customary walk through the veld in the earlier part of the afternoon the day we arrived, with our sons beetling up to the top of a koppie while Robyn and I took a more sedentary route along a road which ended half way up. In the north-west we got grand views of Teebus and Koffeebus, the two distinctive koppies in the area.)
Karoo mountain stream
Two white shirts denote climbers
Incredibly, the Yaris managed to again cope with the farm track on our way out, and the gravel road to Molteno was a doddle. After morning tea and a chat with Robyn’s uncle and aunt, we then drove east till we reached the immaculately surfaced N6. A short run of about 100km saw us arrive in Aliwal North just in time for a delightful light lunch at a restaurant in the main drag. It was bizarrely notalgic for me coming into Aliwal, because the last time I did so was probably back in the early 1980s, during my numerous hitch-hiked journeys between Kimberley and East London as a military conscript. The old Boer War concentration camp memorial site was just as it had been, but I think the town had grown somewhat.
Anyway, it was now time to get going, because our next stop was Ladybrand, which promised spectacular views on our right of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. At Rouxville, we left the N6 and headed east for Zastron. All went well and the scenery grew ever prettier. But it’s a long schlep up the eastern flank of Lesotho. From Zastron we made it to Wepener without too much hassle, but it was the road between there and Ladybrand which did it for us. This 70km stretch was almost more pothole than tarmac. Stop-go’s were in place at regular intervals, but we rarely saw anyone working, despite this being a Tuesday, with Good Friday still several days away. The potholes were so bad one literally had to slalom around them, picking a route and praying you didn’t hit a donga. In places there was no tar at all. They seemed to have decided to simply grade it back to gravel, which was better than holy tar, I guess.
In the Free State, with interesting koppies and foreground sunflowers
More Free State scenic splendour
Ladybrand, despite our traumatised state, was a joy. Well let’s say we had booked into a superb B n B, with large bedrooms, spacious en suite bathrooms, and much birdlife in the garden. My eldest son Luke, a birder since the age of eight and now nearly 21, was quick to spot a lifer in the form of a bald ibis. That evening we supped at a fine restaurant where I ate a chunk of hake fresher and tastier than any I have had at the coast.
A field of cosmos as Lesotho is flanked
Autumn turns the poplars yellow
I think of it as a sphinx
Finally in Clarens, after a potholed journey
The central park in Clarens, with the mountain behind which we climbed
Our odyssey continued the next day as – eyes alert to the constant threat of potholes – we trundled along through Ficksburg and Fouriesburg before finally reaching our destination: Clarens. Set among mountains, with the Malutis visible to the south, it is in a way reminiscent of other mountain retreats we have visited, such as Hogsback and Katberg. But it is also something of a tourist trap, and was gearing up, we discovered, for a hectic Easter weekend. We got there just before the mad rush, but it was still very busy, with the many shops and restaurants around the central rectangular park doing a steady trade.
Starting the ascent
Time for a breather
View from the top
Clarens, with a Protea hotel dominating
A golf course takes shape
With a perfect afternoon beckoning, we visited the only tourist information place in town and picked up a pamphlet of the walks to be had across the mountain overlooking Clarens. By the way, ever wondered where the town got its name from? Evidently, it was established in 1912 and named after the town in Switzerland where the exiled Paul Kruger, president of the old Boer republic of the Transvaal, spent his last days. Anyway, today it is a modern, progressive little town and from on top of the mountain – negotiated by yours truly with some difficulty – you get a rather fine view of it, with rolling hills behind and a backdrop of ever-rising mountains.
Heading back down from the mountain next to Clarens
Early morning in Clarens, with the Malutis behind
We traversed the top of the mountain and then gradually descended on the western side, before tracing our way back along the bank of a small river to where we had parked the car near some tennis courts.
After a pleasant evening meal at a local Italian restaurant we hit the sack, intent on rising early to give us ample time to explore the next day. Again, perfect weather greeted us. One of the advantages of a large breakfast – cereal, scrambled eggs, sausage, toast, coffee – is that it tides one over until supper time.
Ever alert to the possibilities, eldest son Luke presented us with a bit of a challenge, and fortunately we were up for it. The plan was to head east to the nearby Gold Gate Highlands National Park, and then turn south to a place called Sentinel Peak, from where something known as Mont-aux-Sources would become visible.
Enter the Golden Gate wonderland
A close-up of sandstone cliffs carved by time
Almost, but not quite the iconic Golden Gate cliff
You've got to love these rock formations. This looks like a giant eagle perched on a hill
Yes, indeed, this would be my first visit to the Drakensberg proper, although I had had fleeting, distant views of the range as we rounded Lesotho. But my first sighting of the berg had been back in the winter of ’79 when, as a military conscript, the range became visible for the first time after a cold front left the peaks covered in snow. I was based in Ladysmith, which I see from my map is only about 80km from the berg.
But first our focus was on the sandstone splendours of the 340 square kilometre Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which is unlike most parks in that, although you pass through controlled entrance and exist points, the R712 road is used by normal traffic. There is no fee and no brochures are available, but they do make a note of your car registration, your name, and where you’ve come from and are heading. Inside the park are two loops, which take you high into the Rooiberge, which according to Wikipedia, are among the foothills of the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. The highest peak in the park is Ribbokkop, at 2829m.
Magic mushroom mountain
As we headed east, this was the view back to the iconic gate formation
Don’t be deceived. While the park is named for the sandstone cliffs found next to the Golden Gate dam (which we did not see or know about, but which I assume is near a pleasant camping site where we stopped briefly), there are several similar-looking concave sandstone cliffs as you meander through the park. And of course they look different from different angles and at various times of day. The key, obviously, is to catch them with the sun on them, preferably towards evening.
So anyway, we soaked up the views of this wonderful scenery before, after about 30km, exiting on the eastern side. Then we were in for a surprise.
During the height of apartheid, one of the homelands the Nats created in their mad rush to denude South Africa of its African people was called Qwa-Qwa, and its capital was an almost unpronounceable place called Phuthaditjaba. Anyway, it had been a long time since I had driven through a township, although one does pass along the outskirts of Port Elizabeth’s sprawling Motherwell en route to the Addo Elephant National Park. But this place was quite different to anything I had seen in this country. This was a Sotho city, run by Sothos. And it seems to work. Unlike your average township, it has a serious industry/commercial component. At least that is how it appeared from the main road which takes one through all 20km of the city of about 60 000 people. And the great thing is one didn’t feel at all threatened. The main road was in good nick, albeit that it was regularly laced with speed-reduction strips which force one to come virtually to a stop or risk damaging your vehicle. But the positive side of this is we encountered no speeding, dangerously driven taxis. Maybe it was just luck, but I found the throng of humanity walking beside the road very laid back and peaceful. We passed a football stadium which I have subsequently learnt sometimes hosts PSL matches. A flourishing outdoor market was up and running on its flanks.
The paved road towards Sentinal Peak car park. The road to the left goes to a hotel. We took the one to the right
After finally exiting this charmingly undulating town, we passed through a controlled gate (where workers were erecting a proper entrance facility), paid a small charge and headed towards Sentinel Peak along a brick-paved road which just happened, at some points, to run perilously close to fairly sheer cliff faces and at times passed under the very roofs of caves.
Our first full sighting of the majestic Drakensburg
Distant peaks shrouded in hazy mystery
The views just get better and better
Finally, the road forked, the left one evidently (a sign said so) heading to a hotel, the other going we knew not how much further in the direction of what was evidently a car park on the north-eastern flank of the famed Amphitheatre. Now we were still in that low-slung Yaris, and the gravel road would have been a doddle in something more SUVish. Eventually, we decided not to risk going any further, having reached a point where we could walk over a grassy hill and take in the impressive view of Mont-aux-Sources, with its interesting jaw-like massif. Indeed, at a point earlier on we had seen distant peaks which were outrageously toothish, some even jutting out at obtuse angles. We all agreed the Zulu word for the range was most fitting: uKhahlamba (barrier of spears).
End of the line for us. We took an amble and soaked up the view of Mont-aux-Sources
I gather that is the Amphitheatre from the side
If we had had a little more courage we might have headed on and reached the car park, from where, after a walk of a few hours, you could evidently reach some ladders which take you up the vertical cliff face and onto the summit, from which plummets SA’s highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls. Falling 947m in a series of falls, these are the second highest falls in the world.
Sometimes a picture just works. This one of my family against the backdrop at Mont-aux-Sources is such a picture, I believe
Now if only we'd continued on that road snaking off into the distance . . .
By the way, the area was named Mont-aux-Sources by French missionaries in 1835, because the range is the source of many of our rivers.
It was great to have seen the Drakensberg at such close quarters, but of course this has only whetted our appetite to explore this iconic South African natural wonder in more depth.
An overhanging cliff on the road back
The return journey to Clarens was uneventful, but we were happy to take in more views of the Golden Gate park on those two loops I spoke of earlier, both of them tarred
According to Wikipedia, there are more than 50 grass species in the Golden Gate national park, some of it fairly rare high-altitude Austro-Afro alpine grassland. The subtle pastel shades are sublime
Like a subtle watercolour
One of the incredible rock formations in the park
The Golden Gate icon, as seen on our return trip
The caravan and camping site
The camping site shop
And there it is, the famous golden gate
One member of our party, however, started feeling poorly that evening, and so it was decided that we would not, as planned, stop off at a BnB in Aliwal North on our homeward journey the next day. Instead, it was decided to make the entire trip in one day. And we’d go the long way round, via Bethlehem and Bloemfontein, in order not to again have to endure the potholed horrors we had encountered on the way up.
After another hearty breakfast, we set off on a good road, this time, to Bethlehem. After a further 150km or so we reached the N1 at Winburg. What a joy to drive on a wide double carriageway, both ways, after paying about R50 at a toll booth for the honour. But it was also fairly hair-raising, because SA drivers totally ignore the 120km/h speed limit. I kept at this speed in the left lane and was constantly being passed by drivers doing well above that limit – even those in the slow lane!
After about another 100km to Bloem, we stopped on its outskirts at an Ultra City to wet our whistles and have a short break from driving. Then back onto the N1 again, this time toll-free, the only drawback being that we went from four lanes to, in places, one lane. Yes, one lane on our busiest national artery. Because this stretch was a mass of roadworks and stop-go’s.
It was interesting to note that where there were two lanes, the trucks were made to stop in the left lane and the cars in the right, so that when it was our turn to go, the faster vehicles were able to head off first. Quite terrifying, however, was waiting in a row of cars as massive trucks ploughed past within a few metres of you. One mistake and several dozen people would have been history.
Next stop, not Makouvlei, but Colesberg, just inside the Northern Cape. This is about 250km from Bloem, and by the time we pulled into the Ultra City on its outskirts, I was frazzled. While the rest of the family headed for the loos and shop, a young petrol attendant set about filling up my tank. I was feeling pretty groggy, and when I looked at the reading on the pump it was about R400. I couldn’t think how she could have put that much fuel in so quickly, but gave her the cash and she went to a central pay office, only to return and tell me she hadn’t in fact put any fuel in. She was a trainee and had been unable to get the pump to work. I was given my money back and had to find another pump, where finally I was able to have the tank filled, this time paying due attention to what was going on.
You may think that advice about having a good break every two to three hours while driving is not that important, but I was amazed at how well I recovered after a sandwich, cup of coffee, a couple of Panados, and a little walkabout. After about 20 minutes I was raring to go, man.
Homeward bound and yet another stop-go, this time in the Karoo
The sun sets as we wait to get on our way
One of my sons got onto his laptop and found an AA website which showed the condition of the nation’s roads. Apparently it is nightmarish, with so many roads either in a poor, potholed state, or in the process of being repaired, with manifold stop-go’s in place. And so, not unexpectedly, on the next stretch, from Colesberg south to Middelberg (about 80km), we had to stop several times at stop-go’s, this being the day before Good Friday. Fortunately, the road for the next 100-odd clicks to Cradock, as the sun sank in the west, was good. At one point we even felt so relaxed that we appreciated the luminous beauty of a Karoo sunset as we navigated a pass en route to Cradock, which we entered after nightfall.
We were still about 250km from home. Foolishly, I hadn’t had our dips adjusted on the Yaris, not thinking we’d be travelling the open roads in the dark. So while full beam was fine, the lights dipped too much, meaning I didn’t have much vision ahead on this setting. I made a plan. After picking up a bite to eat and some more petrol, we set off. I soon latched onto a fast-moving (about 120km/h) truck without much of a load, and basically followed it all the way back to PE. But boy was there a lot of traffic. And we had a few narrow escapes, like the time I narrowly missed a group of people milling on the side of the road as we went past Cookhouse.
Even the last stretch into PE was no fun. Our brilliant municipality has ensured there is great street lighting as you head past the new Coega development, but after crossing the Swartkops River at Bluewater Bay we were suddenly on the open road again, with all the street lights out. Maybe it was a cost-saving exercise, but it does little for PE’s image.
About 13 hours after setting out from Clarens, having covered well over 1000km, we finally arrived home at about 10pm, exhausted.
But we had seen some marvellous sights.
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