Day Drives around the Eastern Free State.
The Eastern Free State is one of South Africa’s most beautiful regions with an average altitude of 1950m above sea level. The area encompassing Clarens, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and Bethlehem forms the Highlands Route and is surrounded by stunning mountain ranges. The Rooiberge encompass the village of Clarens, while further towards the southeast are Lesotho’s Maluti mountains in shades of purple and blue. Sandstone cliffs abound, reflecting red and golden hues at different times of the day, and are a feature of the area.
Expect four distinct seasons, each bringing its own magic to the scenery. Sometimes all four seasons can happen in one day so it is advisable to keep an extra layer of warm clothing in your car when you explore the area.
The growth of the local tourism industry has seen a proliferation of guest houses, restaurants and retail outlets. Adventure companies offer everything from gentle strolls around the village to abseiling the sandstone cliffs, and white water rafting on the As (Ash) River. There is a busy calendar of annual events such as the Clarens Craft Beer Festival (February), Lush Music Festival (Easter) and the Cherry Festival (November), and it is well worthwhile following some of the local tourism social media sites for details of what is happening.
For those who prefer the comfort of their vehicles there are numerous day drives that take will lead you through breathtaking scenery, historical landmarks and fascinating roadside attractions. Here we explore the three main routes leading from Clarens, the major tourist hub of the area.
Please remember that speed limits are 100kph in the area and to be aware of wandering cattle and livestock.
ROUTE 1: Clarens to Bethlehem (R712)
As you leave Clarens heading toward Bethlehem you will see Titanic Rock on your left hand side, standing like a sentinel guarding the village entrance. The name was proposed by a lady visitor to the area in 1912, the same year as the Titanic sank and the village was founded.
Look out for the signboard to the Clarens Safari Game Farm, who offer daily game drives and viewing of numerous species of buck, Zebra and Ostrich. The farm has many caves that served as hiding places for women and children during the Anglo Boer War. For MTB fans there is a 13km MTB route from the top of a mountain back to Clarens. Bookings are essential.
The Ash River Outfall is 8km on the left along the Bethlehem road. The Highlands Lesotho Water Project – an ambitious (still ongoing) project transfers water from Lesotho’s Katse Dam to the Vaal river in South Africa. This project necessitated the construction of the Trans Caledon Tunnel: an underground tunnel which carries water from Lesotho, under the Maluti Mountains and Clarens, to a weir known as the Ash River outfall. One can only marvel at this engineering feat as you see the water gushing out of the tunnel and into a series of weirs. The sheer size of the tunnel is well illustrated by the commemorative segment of tunnel which has been erected on the site.
Sol Plaatje Dam / Saulspoort Dam: This earth-fill type dam located at the confluence of the Ash and Liebenbergsvlei Rivers as you approach Bethlehem, was established in 1968 and serves mainly for municipal and domestic water supply. The reservoir receives water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project via the Ash River. Originally known as Saulspoort Dam, it was officially renamed on 1 April 2005 after a bus disaster which took place there in the early hours of 1 May 2003, when 51 passengers, en route to a Workers Day rally, were drowned. 41 of the workers were employees of the Sol Plaatje Municipality (Kimberley).
After exploring Bethlehem head back toward Clarens on the R712
ROUTE 2: Clarens to Golden Gate National Park / Basotho Cultural Village (R712)
As you turn right from Clarens onto the R712 you will pass the entrance to the Clarens Golf Estate on the left. Paraffin Kop, the easily identified rounded hill on your right is so named because residents of yore claimed to be able to detect a paraffin odour emanating from the hill at certain times.
On your right hand side you will see the turn-off to both Bokpoort and Rebellie Adventure farms which offer a host of adventure activities and are especially known for their horse riding trails..
Kiara Lodge, on the right, is a popular time-share resort. Their restaurant The Trout & Mallard is a worthwhile treat. Take a hike up to Dassie Rock to view the Bushman artwork.
The Golden Gate National Park is deservedly the area's main tourist attraction. Just 15km from Clarens, it is run and administered by SANPARKS. The government bought the van Reenen family farm, Golden Gate, in 1962, and handed the land over to the National Parks Board. Between 1963 and today, the park has been increased from 4,792Ha to its present 11,630Ha and borders Qwa Qwa and Lesotho.
The drive to and through Golden Gate is tarred and, as it is an arterial route to Harrismith, there is no entrance fee to drive through the park.
Golden Gate offers a well laid-out and serviced camping and caravan site, plus chalets for visitors. There is a picnic and braai (BBQ) area for day visitors as well as a filling station, curio shop, general dealers and licensed bar, coffee shop and restaurant. Please note that no ATM facilities are available.
A short distance past the main camp site there are two loop roads into the highlands of the park (right and left). Both routes take approximately 30 minutes, are tarred and are suitable for normal family vehicles. Both loops offer spectacular views and numerous photo opportunities. About 3km along the Oribi Loop on the left hand side is the path to the lookout point for the Vulture Restaurant, where a bird hide has been erected where you can watch the Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture scavenging the carcasses that are regularly placed there.
Should you want to explore the park in depth or book conferences, accommodation hikes or horse riding you can contact Golden Gate's main office on 058 255 1000 or www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate for information.
As you travel through the Golden Gate National park in the direction of Harrismith, you will find the entrance to the Basotho Cultural Village on your right hand side after a few kilometres. This fascinating living museum offers visitors an informative insight into the Basotho culture through the years. From architecture to dress and customs, you can enjoy traditional dancing, cuisine, learn to play the board game Marabaraba and even consult the resident Sangoma.
Routes and trails you can take include The Cultural Route: an educational program aimed at cultural heritage awareness by tracing the footsteps of the first occupants through the historical sites of Qwa Qwa. This tour is offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday and takes 7 hours. The Herbal Route: Walk a wilderness trail with the village traditional healer who gives a detailed explanation of the medicinal herbs on the trail and continues to the caves to view San rock art. This guided trail is offered only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and takes 2 hours. The Museum Tour: A depiction of the architecture and life style of the Basotho people from as early as the 16th century to the present day. This tour is conducted seven days a week, and takes 45 minutes. There is a per head charge for the tours.
After leaving the village turn left to return through the Golden Gate National park to Clarens. Turning right will take you to Phuthaditjaba and Harrismith.
ROUTE 3: Clarens to Fouriesburg (R711)
The +/- 35km trip on the R711 from Clarens to Fouriesburg is, arguably, one of the most scenic roads in the area, and is considered amongst the top 10 runs for motorcyclists in the country. The road is filled with breathtaking views of sandstone outcrops and valleys that are a photographer's delight.
There are excellent examples of Bushman art on the Schaapplaats Farm. To get to Schaapplaats, turn right onto the Golden Gate Road as you exit the town, and then right (about 100m down the road) onto the Fouriesburg Road. Travel for 1.3km and then turn left on the S1028. Schaapplaats is 6km from the turnoff.
Look out for the signposts for Mushroom Rock (on the St Fort property), a fascinating example of wind erosion and one of the landmarks in the area.
Surrender Hill commemorates where Free State Boer commandos surrendered to British troops on 31st July 1900, and was proclaimed a national monument in 1986.
The history behind the site is best summed up by the inscription on the plaque erected, but unfortunately stolen, which reads: “In July 1890 a large part of the Free State armed forces were surrounded by British troops in the Brandwater Basin. Gen CR De Wet and about 2 000 men escaped over Slabbert's Nek. In the basin, Chief Comdt Marthinus Prinsloo's command and on 31 July agreed to surrender. More than 4 300 Boers laid down their arms, most of them at Surrender Hill, where the British destroyed the captured arms and ammunition. The bare patches caused by the fire and exploding ammunition serve as a reminder of one of the most serious setbacks suffered by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).”
A visit to the Fertility Caves/ Motoloung is not a normal tourist activity and it is advisable to arrange a guide. The caves are the spiritual meeting and training place of Sangomas and those who have a calling to honour their ancestral spirits. Those who make this journey are asked to respect the local culture. Turn in at the Surrender Hill turnoff and follow the dirt road until you see a gate on your right and the Heritage site sign. There is a large car park and an entrance fee. Visitors hike to Motolung , the large holkrans (overhang) meeting place. An offering of candles, mealie (maize) meal and sugar is normal and appreciated.
About 18km along the Fouriesburg road look for the S1356, a tarred road to the left which follows the Little Caledon River, the area's border between Lesotho and South Africa. The road affords a fascinating glimpse of Lesotho culture. Turn around once you reach gravel and head back up the R711.. Just before the main intersection is the S505 to the left. This is the best route to visit Queen Victoria. One of the 20 largest freestanding sandstone formations in the Free State, the good Queen is situated on the farm Lesoba. Although hard to make out from the main road, on closer inspection the profile the formation looks like the silhouette of the good lady herself!
Continuing the journey toward Fouriesburg on the R711 you will pass Oranje, the popular wedding venue. The road leads between a cliff face on your left and a large rocky outcrop on the right which the locals call Mama Lubane. Legend tells of a witch that terrorised the inhabitants of the local village under the cliff. A powerful Sangoma cast the witch into Mama Lubane and, to this day, there she is entrapped there.
Who would have thought that you can go wine tasting in the Free State? As you head toward Fouriesburg look out for the S325 and the sign for The Rose Hip Restaurant whose owners are successfully producing excellent wine from their vineyard under the label Bald Ibis.
On the same turnoff is the Arpa Adventure Farm, where the annual Cluny Animal Trust Polar Bear Plunge is held. The dam, with its row of trees submerged through the middle of it is possibly one of the most photographed dams in the Eastern Free State. The owners even built a special gate from the main road allowing photographers easy access to the main vantage points.
As you climb the hill toward Fouriesburg you will find Boulders Lodge (Off-road motorcycle academy) on the left and the local commando camp on your right.
When you see Jenlees Country Shop on your left (you won't miss it!), you will have reached Fouriesburg. Fouriesburg is a low-key agricultural village with beautiful sandstone buildings and old-world courtesy. Of particular interest are the NG Kerk which was inaugurated in 1893, the town hall, the intermediary school and the old magistrates building. Fouriesburg boasts a hotel, pubs and restaurants as well as gift shops for those important keepsakes.
From Fouriesburg you can easily access the towns of Ficksburg, home of the annual Cherry Festival, Paul Roux, Senekal and the quaint Rosendal.
An 8km drive will bring you to the Caledenspoort Border Post, the closest access point into Lesotho from Clarens, and the quickest route to AfriSki and Katse Dam, but don't forget your passports.
Head back toward Clarens along the R711. Late afternoon is treat for photographers in the whole area when the setting sun lights the sandstone and throws the rocky outcrops into sharp relief. The condition of the roads throughout South Africa are in a poor state, but bar a few pot holes, the roads of the Highlands Route are in good condition and even most gravel roads can be traveled by normal family sedan.
Whatever your interest may be, this special region will not disappoint you and once you have visited, you will be drawn back time and time again to further explore this fascinating area.
Researched and written Andrew Knapp for inclusion in the 2017 publication Clarens & Surrounds - the Ultimate Guide. The piece was designed for general tourist information, but each place and landmark mentioned can be expanded to be featured as individual articles.
Ash River Outfall - Craig Walters Sol Plaatjie Dam - Alltravels Kiara Lodge - kiaralodgeresort.co.za Brandwag - Sanparks Cape Bearded Vultures - Project Vulture
Basotho Cultural Village - IOL Rock Art - Trip Advisor Mushroom Rock - Travelground
handing over of weapons at Surrender Hill - onsboeretrotsgeskidenis.co.za
Queen Victoria - clarens.co.za Mama Lieu Bane / Arpa Dam / Signboard - Andrew Knapp
Jenlee's Country Shop - Jenlee's