Clarens - A breeze ripples through the optimistic pinks and the steadfast whites of the cosmos flowers. Deep, beyond olive, greens mark the spires of conifers while the turning leaves of the poplar trees are golden sparklers against the red sandstone cliffs in the background.
A splash of yellow at the side of the khaki road denotes a field of sunflowers. Swirling streaks of white mare’s tail clouds splash the deep blue of the sky.
It’s an Impressionist moment.
I could be Vincent van Gogh, leaning my bicycle against the barbed wire fence, sitting in the sere grass, unwrapping my block of cheese and baguette from my red-and-white checked napkin.
But, it’s 2014 and there is a Ford Kuga SUV parked at the side of the road (its metallic olive green blending sweetly with the farmland scenery)... and from the boot, we take Emmentaler cheese, garlic-doused brinjal, some spicy biltong, cracker biscuits, and home-made ciabatta bread.
We feast. On the food. And on the space, the peace and the colours. In this, the eastern part of the Free State, at this time of year, the colours come out to celebrate.
In the town of Clarens, nestled between the Rooiberge and the Maluti mountains close to the border with Lesotho, the trees are just starting their spectacular display. When the greens of summer yield slowly to the reds, purples, yellows, ochres and golds of autumn. After which, the stark harshness of winter stills, temporarily, the hedonistic shows.
Not to be outdone, the mountains and valleys have their own theatrics with which to impress jaded visitors from the city smoke.
With a glass of wine, I stand on the balcony of our unit at Ashbrook Country Lodge in Clarens, looking east, away from the sunset, which is blocked by the hills behind us.
A three-quarter moon emerges in the sky as the light fades. In the distance, the Malutis shed their greys and browns in favour of a muted pink, which bleeds into the reflected purple of the faraway sunset. And there is an amazing line where the deepening blues of the night tussle briefly with the orange remains of the day before they triumph.
The colours remind us why we love this corner of South Africa and make us ask again: why don’t we do this more often?
It’s been five years since we stayed in Clarens and, as I swing in to the town, off the R712 from Bethlehem, I hear the words of Vanessa Knowles (owner of Ashbrook) in my ears: “You’ll find it’s changed.”
Those words have disturbed me. I remember Dullstroom when I was 20-something – its dusty streets and me in love. Now it is Fourways East – 4x4s and capuccinos. I am not a fan of crowds or Joburg posers. So Dullstroom has long since been off my list of places to visit.
I am hoping the same hasn’t happened to Clarens. And the initial signs aren’t good. Plenty of SUVs/4x4s, plenty of GP plates, a smattering of bikers (from tasselled, look-at-me Harley drivers to serious wanderers aboard trans-continental BMW GS machines) and plenty of money. There are more houses, more shops, more bustle.
Still, the thing about us Gauties (and I am one of them) is that we know what we want – and we’re prepared to pay for quality. And, if you build it, we will come. Hence, you can now get some of the best coffee in South Africa at a little, corrugated iron place on the edge of the main square. And, the restaurants (judging from our 100 percent hit rate) are better than most in Joburg.
At 278 on Main we enjoy a simple, yet excellent supper, spiced with good company and conversation… and return in the morning for sublime omelettes (with salsa and cheese sauce) along with home-made orange marmalade and perfect toasted country bread. All done with a relaxed ease which many Joburg joints try hard to fake, but can’t.
Then we discover that 278 on Main also offers meals which follow the Banting-Noakes diet (if you have to ask: where have you had your head stuck for the last six months?) and will massage their menu to give you precisely what you want.
Having what you want, when you want, is incredibly relaxing.
And that is what the eastern Free State is (personified by Clarens). If you want energetic pursuits, you can run, mountain bike, quad bike, horse ride or even tackle a off-road 4x4 route. But you can also waddle from meal to meal, pausing only to spend time in the myriad shops, which offer everything from furniture to shoes to food. Clarens is also known as a hub for artists and there are galleries dotted all over town offering paintings and sculptures. And, you may also be accosted in the square by a man hawking a collection of his short stories which, he swears, won him a cum laude accolade for his master’s degree.
There are also plenty of things to do in the area. Sandstone Estates, near Ficksburg, hosts an amazing collection of antique transport artefacts including what is said to be the biggest collection of small-gauge railway rolling stock in the world – and the trains run regularly for enthusiasts from all over the world.
We managed an inspiring photo opportunity with one of the trains as it trundled on its 26km-long journey and also got a glimpse of vintage cars and a bus which accompanied the train. Truly something different.
But, for me, the appeal of the eastern Free State is the wide open space and the vistas, and the way these help ease the strains of the city. And the way to experience that is in the car. What a pity, then, that the Free State provincial administration is probably the worst in the country in terms of maintaining its revenue-generating roads in tourist areas. Many are potholed and road markings are faint or non-existent.
Still, there is no denying the rewards are worth the risks. The sky is really big in this part of the world. It is clear, too. As you breathe in the clean air, the cloak of stress floats away.
To get the best sense of the solitude, take the back, dirt, roads which dot the province. These dirt roads, although rough, are often less dangerous than their tarred equivalents, because you travel slower and there is much less (read: almost none) traffic.
Also, you can tackle most of them in a two-wheel-drive car and won’t need the AWD capability of our Kuga… so don’t be put off.
You’ll feel you’re in a different world, a different time even.
Enjoy your repast by the side of the road alongside the sunflowers – and look forward to getting back to your balcony in town where you can truly appreciate the starry, starry night…
If You Go...
l Ashbrook Country Lodge: www.ashbrook.co.za or e-mail
l 278 on Main: 082 556 5208 or www.278onmain.co.za (they also have accommodation).
l Clarens is about three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Joburg. The normal route – via Villiers and
Frankfort in the Free State – is potholed in places but repairs are being undertaken. Travel with care. Or, take the N3 toll road and turn off at Warden towards Bethlehem.
l The best time to go: all year round. Now, as the leaves are turning in autumn, it is beautiful;
as the temperatures dip even lower, it comes into its own as a winter mountain getaway.
l Although the minimum temperatures in winter go below freezing (-8°C is common) and there is snow, the days are normally mild and accommodation is well equipped to deal with the cold. - Saturday Star