Many small towns in southern Africa are fortuitously off the main road – to let the huge trucks make their noisy gear changes and brakings beyond the residential area. We turned off the main road and headed up a steep hill – Clarens was perched on a small plateau above a couple of rivers. Our accommodation was a villa on this hillside just below the town centre, a well appointed house with a big open plan centre, and best of all, a massive deck from which we looked east down the valley. Becky and I had done a shop in the Pick’n’Pay in Maseru after picking up the car, so we pretty much dumped it all in the kitchen and headed out into the town. We had decided that we would have a quick lunch and then do a sightseeing tour of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, saving a tour of the town of Clarens till the Sunday morning.
So after a quick burger and a chance to say “Hmm this place looks good”, we set off along another good road. After several miles of farmland and forest, we reached the park entrance. The scenery had been stunning since we entered South Africa but now it took on an extra edge. Above us on either side , steep weather worn cliffs looked down on us. The colours in the sandstone ranged from washed out grey to deep orange red, with camel, khaki and yellows in between, where exposed looking like a layer cake of sponge and cream topped with the green icing of grass. The rocks were soft and eroded into marvellous shapes, caves scoured out by wind and rain, and where the top level was harder than the lower, huge stone mushrooms appeared to grow out of the valley sides.
Where exactly the “Golden Gate” is somewhat open for debate. There are several viewpoints that give you the perspective of your route passing between huge golden coloured barriers. Maybe the gate was the whole valley. At the far end of this long wide canyon the elevation drops substantially and maybe that could be the gateway. Whatever the final definition of gateway, I could see that above the natural wonders, this was a supremely important pass. Beyond the highlands of Lesotho to the south, the Rooiberge to the south east being the first manifestation of these, Golden Gate was the first sensible place to pass through to get from the Northern Cape and Free State into Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Trans Vaal. The pass and the fertile terrain rich in game was much coveted both by the British and the Boers, and the Basotho and other African tribes were keen to maintain their presence there. This meant the region was the site of many conflicts and regularly passed from hand to hand. Given we were in amongst a crumpled topography of mountains, the Brandwater Basin supplied a useful hideaway location too, which had been used to good effect in the Boer War. However, the restricted number of exits from the valley, the Golden Gate being one of them, meant you could also get trapped in the basin. Boers in the Boer War came under siege that way in 1900, and were forced to surrender. In theory the view from the top of the pass should give lookouts ample opportunity to spot activity coming up the mountainside. The nooks and crannies of this terrain, though, are often hard to discern as an inexperienced outsider. Deep streams, low ridges that are invisible amongst the grass can keep you hidden, and once in the mountains themselves the caves, rocky outcrops and screes still provide good cover despite the lack of trees.