Half the pleasure of visiting Clarens is the journey there and back – travelling among the green hills of the Midlands, along the edge of the Berg and through the Golden Gate National Park. It’s all the more enjoyable on a motorbike because, as everyone knows, out there on two wheels you’re more closely connected to your environment than you would be in a car.
Regrettably, I can’t recommend the R74 unless you use a vehicle with off-road capabilities. Although that route, through the Oliviershoek Pass and alongside the Sterkfontein Dam, is the more scenic alternative to the N3 toll road, the Free State stretch from the top of the pass to the junction with the R714 is a shambles of abandoned road works – more than 20km of potholes and loose gravel, without any traffic control. It’s a disgrace.
Luckily we were on a Kawasaki Versys 1000, courtesy of East Coast Motorcycles, Umhlanga Ridge, which is made to deal with that sort of thing. Though I had had little experience of off-road riding, I just switched the power to the lower setting to minimise the chances of spinning and slipping, kept moving through the loose stuff, and avoided use of the front brake. It was dead easy really. In fact, my wife, Cathie, remarked that, overall, it was the most comfortable bike trip she had ever done.
Our two-night stay was at the Maluti Mountain Lodge (bed and breakfast R350-R420 per person per night, dinner a la carte). It’s biker-friendly with panoramic views and a lively bar. Servings are generous, so you might want to sharpen your appetite with a hike up a mountain path, or an amble down to the village and a browse around the shops where there’s plenty in the way of art, antiques and collectables, clothing, leather goods, and bric-a-brac. You’re not likely to find bargains, but you might be tempted by the original or unusual.
For lunch, try the Clarens Brewery – superb ale (R22.50 for 500ml) and cider (R15 for 340ml) on tap, and a cheese or German sausage platter for around R35 (single). It seemed to be the busiest place in town.
By the way, the Clarens Craft Beer Festival will take place on February 22 and 23. On offer will be 50 brews from around the country as well as food and entertainment for the family. There will also be a food and beer pairing evening.
The Grouse & Claret pub is also popular. There is some interesting motorcycling memorabilia on the walls, including a big framed picture of a young Marlon Brando and other members of the cast of The Wild Ones.
Mounted on a stone plinth on the village green are some cutters of a boring machine that was used in a tunnel of the Lesotho Highlands water scheme. If you choose to visit the Katse Dam (in which case you will need to produce a passport) you will be rewarded with yet more magnificent scenery.
The dam is within fairly easy reach via Caledonspoort, although there is the slight inconvenience of border control and a R30 toll on the Lesotho side. The revenue obviously isn’t used for maintaining the road – certainly not that one. It is tarred and in reasonable shape, but watch out for holes here and there, and any painted lines have long since faded away.
Also, if you’re not using GPS, make sure you don’t miss the turn-off to the left as you enter Leribe – the signpost is missing. No, you don’t get much for your R30, but if you feel done down, fill up. We found petrol in Lesotho to be cheaper by about R2 a litre.
According to my arithmetic, the Versys averaged 20.6km to the litre on our round trip of 1 100km – up hill and down dale, two up, with the spacious top box (47 litres) and side panniers (35 litres each) packed to capacity, and I wasn’t always easy on the throttle.
If You Go...
Plenty of useful information about Clarens can be found at www.clarens.co.za.
Find out all about the Clarens Craft Beer Festival at www.clarensbeerfestival.co.za.
For information about the Clarens Brewery go to
www.clarensbrewery.co.za or www.facebook.com/clarensbrewery. You can buy tickets for the beer festival on the brewery website or at www.webtickets.co.za.
Entry to the Golden Gate National Park is free. For more information see www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/, or www.nature-reserve.co.za/free-state-golden-gate-highlands-preserve.html.
Kawasaki Versys 1000 (new): R125 995 (excluding pannier set). East Coast Motorcycles, 10 Meridian Drive, Umhlanga Ridge (031 566 63024). - The Mercury