You’re so high it feels like you’re on top of Everest. And you don’t even have to hike – you can drive there.
Sorry to those who believe that to enjoy something you need to suffer. Anyway, there is a touch of suffering up here – it’s pretty chilly and you keep having to take an extra breath to compensate for being 2 200m high. That’s twice as high as Table Mountain, and even 500m above Joburg.
We’re in a SANParks log cabin in the Highlands Mountain Retreat, perched on a mountain in the Golden Gate National Park, and snow is common.
But on this golden winter afternoon there is no snow, and in the sunshine it’s warm. Now we just have to wait an hour or so for the sun to slide into the west and cast its dying rays across the peaks and valleys below us.
We’ve come to the north-eastern Free State, which curves around Lesotho, to break the road journey between Joburg and Cape Town. A friend born in the area says it’s the most beautiful part of SA, and while we Western Cape chauvinists wouldn’t go that far, it is gorgeous. In mid-winter the landscape is all pale-gold grassland, yellow poplars and sandstone bastions.
On this road trip we’ve seen dorpies – Edenburg and Clocolan among them – that are sad and forgotten. Wide roads, boarded up buildings, people sitting on pavements trying to sell a handful of withered vegetables under a vast blue-washed sky. But Clarens isn’t like this. Its streets and huge town square lined by sandstone buildings, Clarens is charming and, judging by the number of art galleries, B&Bs and restaurants, prosperous.
The area is associated with war and Paul Kruger, but not the Anglo-Boer War. In the 1860s Boers and Basotho clashed here in their desire for good farming land, and the Boers won, with the Basotho retreating into the mountains of modern-day Lesotho. In 1866 Kruger and his Transvaal commando supported the Free Staters, and five of his men were killed in Noupoort, the poort through the Rooiberge just north of Clarens. Today the road from Bethlehem comes through the poort, and the countryside suddenly changes from broad grasslands to one dominated by astonishing great sandstone cliffs and towers.
Kruger may have links to the poort, but the town came later. Clarens, which celebrates its centenary this year, was laid out eight years after his death in exile in Switzerland. The townsfolk named their new town after the Swiss village where Kruger died.
We found a B&B with a veranda with knockout views across a plain to the Rooiberge – a landscape of rose and gold that cried out for a Pierneef to paint it. As the sun sank, the view changed as first one and then another mountain caught the light then faded into shadow.
Once the sun had gone it was cold, but our little flat – two bedrooms, sitting room, kitchenette and bathroom – had a fireplace, gas and oil heater and electric blankets.
We were charmed by the town, less by the inhabitants. In a shop, people behind the counter would glance up and then down again, with none of the glad cries of welcome we’d earned by coming all this way. Our umpteenth dismissive glance, in the Clarens Brewery, prompted Tom to say: “Feel the love.” Later someone explained that we’d arrived on a Monday and left on a Tuesday, the town’s “weekend”. “We see so many people here on Saturdays and Sundays that we feel we should be left alone on Mondays and Tuesdays,” she said. They took our money, though.
We stocked up with groceries and headed to the Golden Gate National Park, 17km away. It was named by a farmer who came down a pass on to his new farm at sunset in 1878 and was awed by the glowing rock formations. But its real value is conservation of grasslands. They have identified 50 species – thatching grass, basket grass, grass whose seeds can be used for making bread and brewing beer, grazing grass, even grass that treats rheumatism.
You can stay in the Golden Gate Hotel, or in chalets at Glen Reenen, or camp. Or head up to the Highlands Mountain Retreat with its views that remind you of the Carpenters’ song: “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation…”
A winding strip road heads up and up until you have to go into first gear (you don’t need a 4x4), then the spiky silhouettes of eight log cabins appear. The view from the stoep is wonderful, red and blue mountains and valleys folding away to the horizon. Cue the Carpenters.
The cabins are built to blend in, their roofs covered in turf. Only the chimney poking through the grass betrayed that it was there. You have to take all your food but there was tea, coffee, sugar and powdered milk, a fireplace, Weber braai, wood (take matches). And there was a TV, a heating pad under the rug in the sitting room, and electric blankets.
There is lots to do in the park if you have time. Pony trekking and hiking, bowls, tennis and snooker, a rock pool at Glen Reenen, and a nine-hole golf course in Clarens.
The Boers might have defeated the Basotho, but before the Basotho came the San, who left artistic evidence of their tenure among these mountains and overhangs.
A route through these mountains was used by British and Boer soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War, Boer women and children hiding in caves to escape Kitchener’s concentration camps, and retreating Boers burned ammunition wagons near Mount Pierre so the British could not sieze them. It is said intense heat from the exploding wagons left sterile patches of land, and that you can still find bullet remnants.
There are animals: eland, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, mountain reedbuck, grey rhebuck, grey duiker, steenbok and the threatened oribi. In the early 1800s the plains teemed with game, and the English hunter and artist Sir William Cornwallis Harris said in 1836 that sometimes it seemed as if the whole landscape was one moving mass of antelope.
The park is one of the last refuges of the endangered bearded vulture – there is a “vulture restaurant” where carcasses from abattoirs are left – and they are joined by the equally endangered Cape vulture. And rare bald ibises breed in Cathedral Cave, an immense weathered sandstone rock shelter 250m long and 50m high, which you may visit only with a guide (no tours in winter).
You can be active in the park or just sit on your lofty veranda above it all, a glass of something cold at hand, watching the sun go down and humming Carpenters tunes.
l Vivien and Thomas Horler were guests of SANParks at the Highlands Mountain Retreat. - Weekend Argus