Eastern Free State Cultural Background The most reliable piece of advice I could give to any first time visitor to the Eastern Free State Highlands is this:  Be prepared to be surprised! The name “Free State” to most South Africans incites a joyless image of a relentless tarmac ribbon stretching away into a hazy expanse of elusive horizons.  But don’t be fooled!  Our national roads were not laid out with cultural, historical or scenic meanders in mind.  Once you move away from the main arterial routes, the Free State begins to reveal some of its well kept secrets. Something many first time visitors remark on is how prevalent English is in this area.  This is in part due to Clarens having burgeoned in the last decade or two because of a population influx from commercial centres like Gauteng. This has introduced a cosmopolitan culture to the area, a hint of urban sophistication, dispelling any sense of “Vrystaat dorpie-ness”. Our picture today shows a small parade of poplars beside the approach to a river crossing.  Lombardy Poplars – an English introduction to our valleys.  These poplars (Populus nigra var. italica) originate in northern Italy and, way back in the mid seventeen hundreds, were introduced to England as ornamental trees, becoming popular in English parks and gardens. The British, historically, tended to adapt their new environments to their traditional British lifestyles.   Around the world the evidence lives on in colonial homesteads graced with imported Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian furnishings.  Even in wartime, their gentlemen officers took the comforts of their living rooms onto the battlefield, the purpose-made campaign furniture providing a setting fit for British chivalry amid the turmoil of combat. The English country garden was also transported far and wide, and these lovely poplars, as well as the weeping willows that line our water courses, were given root by early British settlers in our Eastern Free State valleys.  A questioning look perhaps passes over the faces of some who do not much associate the Free State with English speakers! On the contrary, the Free State and Britain have had a long association.  It was a Scot, Colonel Robert Gordon, who named the Orange River after the Dutch Prince William V of Orange (an ally of Britain) during the late eighteenth century. In 1848, amid the early conflict between the Boers, Basutos and Griquas, Sir Harry Smith (after whom the town Harrismith is named) initiated the proclamation of British sovereignty over the area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, and the region became known as the Orange River Sovereignty. Surprise surprise An odd turn of events in 1852 resulted in the Orange River Sovereignty being short lived.  A referendum was held to determine the mood of the Boers in regard to British “rule” in the area.  British authorities were completely taken by surprise when the referendum delivered overwhelming support for the established British Sovereignty in the area. This was not what the Colonial Office in London had expected and arrangements had already been made to hand over the area to the Boers for self-governance.  This went ahead, despite support for British governance, and the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State was established, in 1854. Relations with Britain continued amicably, and in London the Free State became known as the “model republic”, a “country” where peoples of various origins, Dutch, English, Basuto, Griquas and others, had evolved into a relatively harmonious society.  Even the diamond debacle around 1870 didn’t derail good relations, despite Britain’s shady manoeuvres to annex the diamond fields in Kimberley, which were at that time within Free State territory. The Free State President’s restraint was prudent during this shrewd revision of the political boundary at Kimberley, devised on the drawing boards of London’s Whitehall.  He astutely avoided the inevitable backlash that would have resulted from any attempted obstruction of the diamond fields’ migration on paper to the British Cape Colony. Around this time, and as a result of border disputes between the Free State Boers and the Basutos, Britain gave protectorate status to Basutoland and the new Basuto stronghold became a British Crown Colony in 1884, resulting in an increased English presence and influence both within its borders and beyond, deep into the Eastern Free State farmlands. A seditious bust-up between the Free State Boer and the Brit came in 1899.  War was declared and the Free State threw its weight behind President Kruger and went into battle against Britain.  This was hardly a surprise.  There were still some hackles raised in certain quarters over the diamond affair; now the British eye was on the reef’s gold. After more than a century of provocation by Britain – after generations of compromise and reluctant cooperation by the Boers, after repeated migrations ever deeper into the interior to escape British decree – the hinterland Boer had had enough. Britain’s illusions of an easy victory were quickly shattered.  Rudyard Kipling, the illustrious English author, famously wrote that Britain was, in war, taught “no end of a lesson” by the Boers.  Yet, during the century that followed this most infamous of wars, which became the final nail in the Imperial coffin, British families continued to migrate to the Free State, to settle amongst their former foes, a people for whom they bore a guarded respect and a reluctant admiration. Cultural Ambassadors The Free State never relinquished its nurture of English culture and language.  The Free State’s first newspaper was the English broadsheet called The Friend, which continued until recent times.  The oldest girls’ school north of the Orange River is St Michaels Anglican School in Bloemfontein.  There have been many other fine English institutions, both educational and otherwise, around the Free State. Emily Hobhouse, the great British philanthropist and wartime campaigner, whose actions and influence brought relief and hope to so many Boers during the South African War, has the status of a national hero amongst Afrikaners.  The Free State town, Hobhouse, was named in her honour, and her ashes were brought from England after her death in 1926 to be buried at the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein. One of South Africa’s greatest philosophers and writers in the English language, Sir Laurens van de Post, an Anglicised Afrikaner and a champion of the British way of life, grew up on a Free State farm.  And, fortuitously, the author of the second most sold book in the world’s history of published fiction, JRR Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings fame, was born in the Free State. To this day numerous descendants of original English families in the Eastern Free State continue to live in the area, and English names of farms and towns remain.  Nothing could be more English sounding than Westminster! - a name which has English peerage connections, and which, in the Eastern Free State, refers to a village, a country estate, a golf course, and even a railway siding. The Eastern Free State Highlands continues to reflect the diverse character and tradition of this province.  Afrikaner, English speaker, Sotho, Zulu and mixed race folk live harmoniously alongside expats from Britain, Europe, the Americas, Asia and other African states.  Here in the Highlands we seek to defend our diversity, to celebrate our history and cultures, and to promote a harmonious and cooperative society; and perhaps we too on occasions have a sense of, or even catch a glimpse of, that “model republic
  Only 20k from Clarens, The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is well known for its scenic beauty and interesting geology as well as its wildlife and birds. Click here to see the full list of mammals found in the park. Click here to see the list of birds found in the park  Click here to see the list of plants found in the park Self-drive: (Maps available at the Information Centre opposite Glen Reenen Rest Camp). The R712 connecting Harrismith to Clarens passes through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.   The route winds its way through Lichens Pass (2041m) past interesting sandstone rock formations.    The Golden Gate is aptly named, and makes for a scenic drive, especially in the late afternoon when the setting sun shows off the sandstone colours at their most vibrant. There are two loop roads off the R712 which are worth exploring:    The Blesbok Loop  (6.7km) features the Zuluhoek lookout point and Generaalskop view point.   The Oribi Loop (4.2km) offers views of the Drakensberg, and a stopping point at the Vulture Feeding hide.    For more information  See Self Drive route Clarens to Vulture Feeding Site. Activities: Hiking Choice of various hikes ranging from a 45 minute walk to the 2 day Rhebok Hiking Trail.  To read more about the hikes available in the Golden Gate National Park visit our Hiking page.  You will also find excellent descriptions of the unguided hikes written by Falko Buschke The Solitary Ecologist. Horseriding Golden gate offers 1 hour rides along a scenic trail within the park. Riders are escorted by a guide.   Morning (9h00, and 10h30) and afternoons (14h00). To book phone:  (058) 255 0951. Swimming There is a natural swimming pool near the Van Reenen’s Camp site.  (Ask at the information office.) Mountain Biking Cycle from Clarens and then take the Blesbok and Oribi Loops.  Tar all the way. (Click here for more information on Mountain Biking in the Clarens area) Basotho Cultural Village While you are in the park you should visit the Basotho Cultural Village.   Click here to find out more. Tours: The following companies offer tours in The Golden Gate Highlands National Park Maluti Tours Tour of Golden Gate (half day) which takes in parts of The Golden Gate Highlands National Park which are not open to the general public.   Lots of opportunity to photograph game and birds. A visit to the Basotho Cultural Village included. Contact details Clarens Xtreme Tours of the Golden Gate Hilghlands National Park and the Basotho Cultural Village.   Contact details Sethuthuthu Tours Game drive  (4×4 game viewing vehicle) through what used to be the Qua Qua National Park (which now forms part of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.)  A chance to explore one of the last untamed wilderness areas in the Free State. Lots of plains game to be seen.  Contact details  Further reading:   Golden Gate National Park (Article by Mary Walker) Golden Gate National Park Geology:  (Sanparks website) Life Lines: Layers of the Past in Stone   (Article Supplied by: Nikki Tilley – media@malotidrakensbergroute.com)Historical incidence of the larger mammals in the Free State Province and Lesotho (Clarens News) Exploring the Golden Gate with Maluti Tours (Clarens News)
  Yes - you can go skiing in South Africa.  And since Afriski is only a 2 hour drive away (but allow some extra time to get through the border post), Clarens is the perfect base for an awesome skiing holiday. Afriski winter season runs from 6th June to 31 August, and there is a regular shuttle service which runs from Clarens to Afriski.  (See our skiing and snow boarding page.)   Driving in Lesotho: Before you leave: Ensure that you have a valid passport in order to enter Lesotho.   SADC , British, American, and EU citizens do not require a visa but children under the age of 18 need to have a copy of their unabridged birth certificate.     Should you not be carrying a passport from one of these countries please check with the Lesotho embassy. http://www.foreign.gov.ls/services/default.php   Please note that all children under the age of 18 must have an unabridged birth certficate. Ensure you carry a valid driver's licence. Only South African, Swaziland, Botswana or International Drivers licences are acceptable. Ensure that your car's licence disc is up to date and that your car is equipped with two warning triangles. Fire extinguishers are not a legal requirement, but since these have been asked for in the past, we recommend you have one in the car. It is a good idea to have a copy of your car's registration papers with you, to avoid delays at road blocks which check for vehicle theft. Check the weather. Under normal conditions a 4x4 is not needed to get to the resort; although the mountain pass to the resort is steep any car above a 1.4l engine will make it up the pass. This however can all change in the event of natural snowfalls ! Visit the Afriski website for the latest weather, road conditions and snow reports. Roads are generally always cleared and salted immediately by the Letseng Diamond mine as soon as it has stopped snowing. In the event of heavy snow it is best to use a 4x4 vehicle equipped with snow chains. Pack warm clothing, blankets, as well as some food and water, in case of a breakdown.  Parts of Lesotho have no cell-phone signal, so it is best to be prepared for any eventuality. You should also pack the following items to use on the slopes:  -  Appropriate clothing:  Warm socks; thermal underwear; warm shoes with good tread and a second pair of shoes in case your first pair get wet; ski pants (waterproof) to use on the slopes; beanie and scarf.  - Sunglasses or goggles.  You need to protect your eyes rather than run the risk of snow blindness.  - Sunscreen and lip balm.   Just because it's cold does not mean you won't get sunburnt It is not necessary to have ski-ing equipment.  You can hire everything you need at the resort. Cash and Credit cards.  The Lesotho currency comprises of one Loti (plural Maloti) which is divided into 100 lisente (singular sente). The currency is linked to the South African Rand which is also accepted. Mastercard, American Express, Visa and diners club are accepted in the main centres and in most lodges and hotels. Fuel purchases require cash. Banks open at 09h00 and close at 13h00 weekdays and at 11h00 on Saturdays. NB.  You are not allowed to take alcohol into Lesotho.   En route: The border post at Caledonspoort is open from 6h00 to 22h00, every day of the week. A 50 km/h speed limit applies in urban areas while 80 km/h is a maximum speed that can be maintained on all other roads. Check your fuel guage when you get to Butha Buthe.  There is no fuel available at the resort, so make sure you have enough fuel to get there and back. Police road blocks are a common occurrence in Lesotho and there is often a police road block on the outskirts of Butha Buthe on the way to the resort. The roadblocks usually consist of 2 opposing stop signs approx. 100m apart, with the police somewhere in the middle.  Stop at the Stop sign and wait until a police officer waves you through to the middle. (Even if there doesn't appear to be a policeman in sight, stop and wait:  one will eventually appear.) Stop again when you reach the policeman. Please drive cautiously once in Lesotho, the roads are narrow and there are many sheep, donkeys and often also children walking along the road. In particular please be aware of POTHOLES that form during the high rainfall periods in summer.  On getting back: Don't delay your trip home past 15h00.   It is best to avoid driving in Lesotho after dark - much better to leave early and be sure you're back in Clarens in time for dinner.   How to get there: Take the R711 towards Fouriesburg Turn left opposite the entrance to Fouriesburg Clear the border post at Caledonspoort Turn left at Butha Butha (Watch for signs to Afriski) Travel another 75 k to Afriski   &n
  A short distance from the village of Clarens is the Ash River Outfall.  The word ‘outfall’ refers to water being ejected from an underground tunnel into a weir before it flows into the Ash River.  Clarens was well known during the nineties for the part it played in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, and the Ash River Outfall bears testimony to the project’s ultimate success.  A self-drive tour of this area will provide you with a fascinating couple of hours of splendid vistas as well as access to the visual legacy of this acclaimed engineering project.  In addition, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of white water rafters bouncing down the rapids.  Leave Clarens on the main tarred road north towards Bethlehem, route R712 (on some maps R711).  On the left, just before the majestic Titanic Rock, you will see the Maluti Mountain Lodge, which was the favoured “watering hole” of tired construction engineers during the nineties.  As you rise out of the valley over the Naauwpoort Nek, the Free State farmlands stretch before you, framed on the right by an imposing flank of Mount Horeb running away to the north east.  Further on are some examples of free-standing sandstone rock formations, so typical of the Eastern Free State landscape. The Ash River Outfall is about 10 kms from Clarens.  You will pass two dirt road turn-offs to the left, the second being the Zaaihoek / de Krantz turn-off, before you reach the turn-off to the Outfall, which is well signposted.  A short tarred road takes you to the car park where you can leave your car and wander about the site.  The Lesotho Highlands Water Project agreement was signed in 1986 and, after lengthy preparations, construction started in the early 1990s and continued for a large part of that decade.  An influx of engineers and construction experts from several countries around the world set up homes in and around Clarens to tackle one of the biggest civil engineering undertakings in the world at that time.  A large water-carrying tunnel, known as the Trans Caledon Tunnel, was brought under the Maluti Mountains from Lesotho's high altitude dams to the Ash River Outfall.  On the left side as you enter you can see the water flowing strongly out of the side of the hill, where the tunnel emerges into a rectangular concrete weir.  It continues to flow rapidly through and beyond several weirs, after which the Ash River itself joins it in a comparatively weak trickle.  At the Outfall site is a segment of the tunnel that has been erected as a monument to the project and several commemoration plaques are displayed.  The objective behind the whole project was to transfer excess water from  Lesotho to the water thirsty regions of Gauteng.  Left unharnessed, much of this precious water would have ended up in the Atlantic Ocean, but the new dams constructed in Lesotho, together with the Trans Caledon Tunnel, facilitate the diversion of water to South Africa’s industrial heartland by means of gravity.  The Outfall, of course, has turned a small stream into a strong fast-flowing river, and this you will see further along the drive. So, turning back along the main road towards Bethlehem, you continue for about 3 kms until you reach the turn-off to the left, the S217 dirt road.  Follow this for about a kilometre and, as the road dips into the valley, you will see the tree-lined Ash River before you.  This is a good spot to pull up, get out and walk onto the bridge. If you’re an adrenalin enthusiast you might be tempted after seeing these rapids to make a booking with one of the White Water Rafting outfits in Clarens.  A positive spin-off from the Water Project is that this part of the Ash River is consistently flowing at more or less this rate on every day of the year.  Depending on the time of day that you arrive at the bridge, you are in a prime position to watch the rafts come down over the rapids. The route continues along this road for several kilometres, affording pleasing views of the northern slopes of the Rooiberg Range ahead of you.  To the right you will notice what seems to be a shallow gorge running parallel to the road.  This is part of the Ash River tributary system coming down from the Rooiberg slopes, gradually forming one river downstream.  Keep your eyes open for various species of game on the farmlands to the left, where you could spot black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok and impala.  When the road curves to the right to head in a westerly direction, ultimately joining the main route R26 between Bethlehem and Fouriesburg, pull over and reassess your route.  At this point there is a road turning off towards the left.  It should only be taken if your vehicle has a high clearance.  If not, you will need to return to Clarens on the route already driven, or continue to the R26 (not part of this route). The road to the left takes you for about five kilometres through pristine farmland against the backdrop of the Rooiberg.  On two occasions you cross small tributaries that form the Ash River lower down.  When you reach the tarred road at the Zaaihoek / de Krantz junction, you are back on the R712, and you turn right to return to Clarens.           Article written and researched by Mary Walker Clarens News: January 2014   Click here to Explore further 4 Further Reading Launch of Lesotho Highlands Water Proje ct- Phase 2  (Clarens News: May 2014.  Article by Mary Walker) Lesotho Highlands Water Project - Phase 2  (Clarens News: March 2014. Article by Mary Walker with  historical insight into building of Phase 1) Water - Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Clarens News: September 2013.  Background on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, with reference to the impact of this project on Clarens) Self drive: Clarens to Katse Dam  (Clarens News: March 2014.) Article by Rod and Rose Smart on their Katse experience - with tips on driving in Lesotho.) Katse Dam  (General information on Katse Dam, Tours to Katse Dam from Clarens, and the Katse Botanical Gardens.)   &n
  Click here to go to the Sightseeing/Self-Drive Routes page   Further Reading Launch of Lesotho Highlands Water Project- Phase 2  (Clarens News: May 2014.  Article by Mary Walker) Lesotho Highlands Water Project - Phase 2  (Clarens News: March 2014. Article by Mary Walker with  historical insight into building of Phase 1) Water - Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Clarens News: September 2013.  Background on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, with reference to the impact of this project on Clarens) Self Drive - Ash River Outfall Drive  (Clarens News: April 2014) Map and information. Katse Dam  (General information on Katse Dam, Tours to Katse Dam from Clarens, and the Katse Botanical Gardens.) &n
 If beauty and the vastness of nature is what you seek, the Golden Gate Vulture Restaurant, located in the Oribi Loop in the Golden Gate National Park, is just the thing for you.  The drive of 58 km’s will spoil you with tremendously beautiful views of the Rooiberg and landscapes stretching as far as the Drakensberg. Leave Clarens on the R712  towards the Golden Gate National Park.  Continue straight and allow your eyes to follow the hypnotic lines of farmfields whilst the mountains overhead carry the whispers of ancient voices straight to your heart.  If you fancy some horse riding, why not stop at Bokpoort on the way, or if you have a rumbly tummy,  lunch at The Trout & Mallard (Kiara Lodge), Cafe Moulin, Di Bus Stop, Sugar & Cinnamon, or the Golden Gate Hotel. After 19 km’s you will reach the first Gate to the National Park. Friendly staff will kindly ask for your trip details and a short wait of 2-5 min can be expected. The majestic Golden Gate mountains have lured many from far and near and it’s golden splendor will surely be engraved in your memories for many more years to come. The Wilgenhof Enviro Centre which hosts learning camps will follow shortly after and at 20 km’s into the drive, the Van Reenen Family Graveyard can be visited on the left. Not far from the nostalgic graves is the Meriteng Picnic Site. The river, horses and mountains make the site the perfect treat for one and all.  The Golden Gate Hotel will peak its head out from the mountains as you enter Lichen’s pass at 2014m above sea level. Close by one can cross the Echo rivine to enjoy the sounds and vibrations of the Echo Cave, whilst having a quick breather at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp. Here lie the offices of the park and for a mere R32 p/person, permits can be bought to enter the Oribi Loop leading to the Vultures Restaurant. The Oribi Loop will start at 26km’s into the drive from Clarens. The path to the Vulture’s Restaurant will await you after 3km’s. Be on the lookout for a path leading over the mountain and parking space on your left hand side. The short 5min walk along the path will lead you straight to the lookout point. The very neat and functional bird hide will provide hours of entertainment –given that there is fresh carcasses of course.  If you are lucky, the Cape Vulture and the endangered Bearded Vulture can be seen scavenging; a sight that will leave you breathless. Click here to go to the Sightseeing/Self-Drive Routes page  Article and research by Genevieve Blignaut       Further reading:   Golden Gate Highlands National Park Golden Gate National Park (Article by Mary Walker) Golden Gate National Park Geology:  (Sanparks website) Life Lines: Layers of the Past in Stone   (Article Supplied by: Nikki Tilley – media@malotidrakensbergroute.com)Historical incidence of the larger mammals in the Free State Province and Lesotho (Clarens News) Exploring the Golden Gate with Maluti Tours (Clarens N
    Leave Clarens on the R711 south, which is clearly signposted as the road to Fouriesburg.  Soon after you leave the town, you will pass a pretty valley on the left, with a small tree-lined river meandering through it.  This is the Little Caledon River, which has its source far to the east in the watershed of the Golden Gate Highlands.  The sandstone cliffs that frame the valleys in the early part of this drive flaunt typical examples of rock overhangs sculptured by many thousands of years’ weathering. After about 6 kms into the drive you will cross the Little Caledon River, which runs away to the right and snakes its way around a maze of headlands until it crosses under the road again further along the drive.  On the left you will see the turnoff to St Fort, a popular guesthouse and renowned wedding venue.  If you look back you will see the Mushroom Rock jutting above the rock shelf atop the mountain directly adjacent to St Fort.  The drive takes a gradual uphill gradient now and passes various turnoffs to guesthouses and farms. After 14 kms into the drive, look out for the Surrender Hill turnoff to the right.  Here you can get out and view a plaque erected to commemorate the surrender in 1900 of a large contingent of Boers during the Ango Boer War.  This site was originally called Slaapkranz and was declared a national monument in 1986.       At this elevated point there are views across the vast Caledon River Valley that stretches to the distant Maluti Mountains – snow-capped in winter - and Lesotho.  The Malutis and the Drakensberg together represent the largest and highest mountain range in southern Africa, originally formed through massive volcanic eruptions 180 million years ago.  The high slopes, often visible on clear days, are also southern Africa’s most significant water catchment area.  Every day, for more than a decade now, a vast volume of water from these uplands is being diverted to Gauteng by means of a tunnel under the valley before you. At the 18.5 km point, after a straight downhill stretch, two district roads from the left join the main road (separate self-drive routes will be published on these roads in due course).  The left fork winds all the way down to the Caledon River, the boundary between South Africa and Lesotho.  The right fork (S505) is a circular route, through pleasant farmlands with striking views, that eventually re-joins the Fouriesburg road further on.               Sitting here at a picnic table you will have a magnificent view to the south of long flat-topped sandstone mountains.  Standing slightly apart from one of these cliff faces is the remarkable Queen Victoria Rock, which unfortunately cannot be seen clearly from your position on the main road.  (A drive along the S505 route (signposted a short way ahead) and a visit to the Lesoba Guest Farm will afford you a perfect view of it.) To the west, on the far horizon, you will get one of your first good views of the great Witteberg Mountain Range, straddling the far end of the Brandwater Basin.  A short distance further along the road, the circular drive (S505) encountered earlier will rejoin the main road.   At about the 30 km point the Little Caledon River crosses under the road, flowing in a south westerly direction towards its confluence with the Caledon River at the Caledonspoort Border Post.  Very soon after the bridge a road turns to the right into the Rooiberg Mountains.  This is the S325 and features a host of signposts to various points of interest.  Of significance is The Rose Hip, which is the restaurant at The Rose House guesthouse facility, both with a reputation for excellence. (Take a short drive down this road and look out for the vineyard at the entrance to The Rose House.  Despite being relatively young, the vineyard is already producing excellent wine, and promises one day to make the Free State famous for its viticulture.) Directly after the turnoff is the Arpa Dam, part of an adventure farm.  The Arpa Dam is also the venue of a winter charity swim at the end of June, called the Polar Bear Plunge, where swimmers brave the very cold water to swim a sponsored distance in aid of a local charity. The last few kilometers to Fouriesburg are on a gradual incline up the slope towards the town, which is situated against a bluff of the Rooiberg Mountain Range.  To visit the town, turn right at the intersection or, alternatively, if you prefer to do the pretty drive to Caledonspoort, take the left turn.  There are places in Fouriesburg town that serve teas and lunches, to freshen up before your return journey.   Article and research by Mary Walker Clarens News: January 2014     Further reading: War in the Valley (Article by Mary Walker) Clarens - History (Extract from an Article written by Tina de Beer for Open Africa (www.openafica.org/route/Clarens-Route)   Click here to go to the Sightseeing/Self-Drive Routes page &n