Clarens and the Free State – A lesson in poor planning.

To clarify, Clarens is not poorly planned, my trip there was. I’ll spare you the boring details but the main lesson learned is that rental cars in South Africa really, really need to be booked online ahead of time.

As a matter of fact, Clarens is a very pleasant little town, often called the “Jewel of the Eastern Free State”. It is a bit of a fake town, but I mean that in a very positive way. While the population is only 4000, there are close to 20 art galleries and enough bed and breakfasts to host the entire population twice over! It’s a very popular week-end destination for South Africans. So much so that many restaurants close for two days in the middle of the week. It was really dead when I was there, but the owner of the B&B where I was staying told me I could only stay until thursday, as the place was full after that.


The kind of funky businesses one finds all over Clarens. Note the signs; most signs in South Africa are in English – the language of convenience in this country of 11 official languages – but the Free State is the heart of Afrikaans country.


One morning I set off to hike in the Drakensberg Mountains. It’s about an hour’s drive from Clarens, through the Golden Gates Highlands  National Park, which is very beautiful itself. I did it the way any experienced mountaineer would: without a map, a guide or any idea where I was going, alone and with minimal gear should something go wrong. I know, I know…


The Drakensberg seen from a few kilometres before the end of the road (and the start of the hike).


It’s only a few hours to go up and come back down, but I must admit it is a little intimidating when you don’t know where you are going.


The first snow. And to think I came all the way to Africa from Canada for snow!


There is no way to get on the plateau without going through some sort of technical climb for the last few tens of meters. To allow hikers to get there, the authorities installed this chain ladder. Count the rungs if you must; this is a long ladder, probably the equivalent of a 4 or 5 story building. Now, let it be known that I am not a fan of heights and this was not the best part of my day.


On the plateau right next to the top of the ladder, overlooking the waterfall. Perhaps I could have gotten a better shot, but past the few tuffs of yellow grass in front is a very long drop which I chose not to explore.


A new World record: the first man to climb the Drakensberg plateau solo, without oxygen, while wearing a 2011 Reykjavik Marathon t-shirt. I do believe I was alone at the time on the plateau. Most people hike in the morning, but I wanted to catch a sunset in the Golden Gates park on the way back.


View from the summit. The little structure at the far left is the little hut where the guard lives and the car parking area.


The valley below. Hard to photograph on a hazy day, but so beautiful.

Now, more about the poor planning. Since I had no idea where I was going, I couldn’t tell when I had arrived! The trail up the mountain is not marked, but it is very easy to follow 95% of the time. However, once you get to the plateau, there is no trail. To my left was what seemed to be the highest point which could be reached, and I saw some tracks in the snow. So I went there and was rewarded with the beautiful views of the valley you just saw. However, this is not the normal goal of the hike. The idea is to walk across the plateau (behind me in the t-shirt picture), in order to get a complete view of what is called the Drakensberg Amphitheater.


I actually figured it out on the way down, but I didn’t want to go back, as it might have meant driving through the park at night. Even before sunset, I almost hit a zebra, so that was a prudent idea.


The park is very beautiful, but unfortunately, the road that crosses it is a very convenient way to get from one part of the State to another, so it sees a large volume of transiting traffic. Since there is no emergency lane on the road and people drive very fast, in most places stopping your car is not safe at all. So when you happen to spot interesting wildlife, you generally have to just keep going.


The sunset I was looking for. Honestly, not that spectacular, but a nice quiet moment in the park.

Heading to Fish River Canyon, Namibia this morning. Will update with posts on Lesotho as soon as I have a moment and internet access.


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