Just three and a half hours away from Johannesburg, lies the charming little town of Clarens, in the Free State Province of South Africa. With little boutiques and adventure sports on offer, it has something for everyone and makes the perfect weekend getaway. With rolling green fields, and snaking roads bordered by majestic yellow poplars, experiencing Clarens in the fall is like stepping into another country.
Things to do
1. Get adventurous
Our plan for the weekend was to get adventurous, and go hiking, abseiling, and river rafting. There are also quad-bike adventures, horse riding, mountain biking, and a climbing wall to get your adrenalin pumping. If that’s not enough, the nearby Afriski has an office in town, from where you can catch a shuttle over the border or drive there yourself; just be sure to pack your passport as it’s located in Lesotho. During the summer months they have summer sports on the mountain as well, so be sure to check ahead and plan your trip accordingly.
2. Go shopping
Due to incessant rain during our whole trip, we were forced to come up with alternative ways to spend our time. We spent a few hours exploring the little boutiques and delicatessens in town and you could easily spend a full day wandering around the quaint streets. There are tons of art galleries that you’re free to wander around in, even if most of the works are out of your budget, like it was for us. There’s a maze of small shops selling clothes, toys, spices, crafts, and more, and half of the fun is talking to the owners about the items for sale.
There are also lots of shops selling souvenirs and trinkets, across a variety of price ranges, so there’s something for everyone. There’s also a lovely bookstore called The Bibliophile that’s great to browse through. Most of the stores don’t allow photography inside, which is strange in this day and age, but see below for some of the things you could expect to find. One of our favourite stores for food items was The Purple Onion, who stock a large variety of coffee, biscuits, Belgian and artisanal South African chocolates, spices and pasta, jams and marmalades, alongside a selection of souvenirs, alcohol, and a whole lot more.
Baris also has a lovely property, with accommodation, manicured lawns, a picturesque garden, and a little store selling delicious cheeses.
3. Visit a national park
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is an absolute must-do! It is a relatively small park, and you can drive through it for no charge, in less than an hour. However, it is so incredibly beautiful that we’d recommend that you take your time and appreciate some of the most beautiful and under-recognised sights the country has to offer. There are two smaller loops you can take within the park, both with tarred roads that are suitable for normal cars to traverse, even in rainy conditions. The park gets its name from the colours of the sandstone cliffs when the sun shines on them, and it’s easy to see why.
Even in the gloom, the beauty was evident. The stark cliffs towering over the winding road and vibrant red sandstone make for the most dramatic vistas. Take one of the loops and the rolling green fields will conjure up images of Scottish moors and Irish plains, occasionally dotted with a stray wildebeest gently grazing. This imagery may, however, have been evoked due to the grey weather when we visited, and I’d love to go back and experience it in the sunshine. There is apparently a restaurant and vulture-viewing deck on the Oribi loop, but that route was blocked when we were there. There are also hiking trails that you can take to experience the park in different light, and there are walks for every level of fitness on offer.
Before you go, make sure to check the weather and pack accordingly. The weather is also prone to quick changes so always be prepared. If rain is predicted, make sure to take sturdy rainboots, as the entire town gets muddy as hell and walking becomes a challenge on the slippery mud. A lot of the side streets in town are also dirt roads so keep that in mind if you have a vehicle with low suspension or that you don’t want to take ‘off-road’.
From Johannesburg, you can take the N1 or N3, but our preferred route is along the R59 through Vereeniging, Heilbron, and Bethlehem. On normal weekends the N3 isn’t a bad choice, but during peak periods like school holidays or long weekends, the R59 route avoids all the traffic and toll-gates that comes with all the people heading down to the coast. While most of the route is single lane, the roads are in relatively good condition and you can drive at the posted speed limit of 120km/h with ease. Bethlehem also makes a good place to stop for salaah, with the masjid located just off the main road.
What to eat
While there are tons of cute coffee shops and gourmet restaurants, there is no halaal food in town, so for Muslims your best bet is to book a self-catering apartment and bring your own food. If possible, buy all your groceries, cold drinks, etc. before you leave or stop at a supermarket in Bethlehem, as there is only one mini-market in Clarens whose prices are higher than average.
Where to stay
There are a few guesthouses in town, and after speaking to people in town, we felt terrible for booking through Safarinow instead of supporting local businesses directly. Check out Clarens Accommodation for options ranging from basic to luxury, both self-catering and hotels. If you prefer to get close to nature during your visit, check out one of the outlying properties for gorgeous views. Just a short drive out of town lies the lovely Kiara Lodge, mostly geared towards timeshare customers, or for something unique, why not book a stay at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park directly through SANParks. There are on site chalets and a hotel, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more picturesque view.
Kuriake Self-Catering Accommodation
We stayed at Kuriake Self-Catering Accommodation, about 5km out of Clarens town. Accessible off the main road to Fouriesburg, a short dirt road takes you to your home away from home. There is one main house for larger parties, and two smaller units, perfect for a couple’s get-away. We stayed in Nguni, and it was one of the most spacious rooms we’ve had the pleasure of staying in. With a large king-sized bed, a small bathroom with a shower off the small, but well-equipped kitchen, it has everything you need. Note that the entrance to the unit is a bit uneven, so if you have mobility issues, perhaps choose the main house whose entrance is accessible straight from the driveway.
The kitchen has a toaster, bar fridge, sandwich press, kettle (a little too much scale was floating in the water for us to fully trust it), a two-plate stove with a tiny oven, as well as a microwave oven and all the basic crockery, cutlery, and pots you may need. They also provide tea and coffee, dish-soap and dishcloths, but no hand-soap for the bathroom so be sure to pack your own. The shower gave us some issues- on the first day we had lovely, hot water but on the second, though the water was hot, there was only a trickle that slowly petered out to nothingness and left me with conditioner in my hair overnight! The water only came back at a normal pressure the next morning and we had no warning from the property that there wouldn’t be water.
The balcony has the most stunning views of the valley, with a gushing waterfall providing a relaxing soundtrack to your stay. It has a kettle braai as well, so be sure to bring some coal along too. Our stay was marred by constant rain so we didn’t get to enjoy a meal on the deck, but it is certainly a perfect setting.
The room is also equipped with extra blankets, a powerful air-conditioner and electric blankets, which makes it warm and cosy. Just hope for good neighbours in the main house, as the unit is underneath the house, and we were woken up early to the sound of loud footsteps and heavy objects being dragged across the stone floor on two of the three mornings of our stay. There is also a small TV with Mnet and a few DSTV channels to keep you entertained. MTN network is quite strong, Vodacom is spotty, and Telkom couldn’t pick up any signal for the duration of our stay, so bear that in mind if you need a cell phone connection. We had no cellular issues in town, but then again we used it as an opportunity to go off-grid and enjoy nature instead!