The Highest Country in the World – Exploring Clarens

Like many South African towns, this lovely Californian style open plan town had originally been for whites only.  The servants and workers, the black community, had been crammed together in a little township down the hill.  Despite the breakdown of Apartheid, it is the black population who are predominantly poorer than the whites, and still the divisions where people have to live remain.  From our deck that evening, we could see the lights coming on in the villas around us, and people relaxing in large open plan houses watching TV, drinking , having parties.  While, from down the hill, the smoke rose from the hundreds of open cooking fires, the chickens clucked or crowed, the children cried or screamed.  That was not the only contrast, there was one between the sterility of suburban streets and the sounds of chatter, laughter and even singing that showed a stronger sense of shared community down the hill.

I can’t lie in when on holiday – I do not want to waste any of the time doing things I could easily do at home, so next morning I was up early and making myself a coffee.  The others too were early risers and we discussed our plans for the day.  We needn’t be back in Maseru till late afternoon but not worth chancing driving on Lesotho’s roads in the dark.  I might take a chance on the big wide empty roads on this side of the border, but in Lesotho you never knew which chicken, goat, pothole, kid, bus would jump out at you at any moment.

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Sunrise as good as sunset

Becky was after some pampering and had had a Clarens’ masseur recommended to her by a friend in Maseru.  She set up an appointment for mid morning.  We had a couple of hours to kill so we all agreed to treat ourselves to a lazy brunch.

We walked into town – barely a half kilometre away.  The centre town was set out grid iron style with low density plots all around, almost all single storey.  The wide roads with equally wide verges were shaded with pines and jacaranda trees.  Clarens had become an escape for wealthy Johannesburgians and Pretorians.  They would hack down here on a Friday evening and spend the weekend either soaking up the numerous antique shops and cafes, or getting involved with some extreme sport or other.  In the centre, the Main Street opened up into a wide grassy square dotted with manicured shrubs.  If you have ever been to one of those Northern Californian small towns  this was a mirror image;’ bohemian in a way, very neat and tidy, people living easily and laid back.  This was not the image of the Free State that I had.  I saw it as a rather strict community, Lutheran at its heart, and living a simple life that was of its own making and not swayed by outside influences.  But here in Clarens was the most remarkable resort town; definitely something for everyone.

We settled down in the garden of a cafe, a pergola covered in climbing roses and bougainvillea giving us a dappled shade, but with enough sun shining through to make us smile, and we ordered the major brunch experience. Loads of juice and cantaloupe, Eggs Benedict and toast and croissants with fresh butter and jams, all washed down with copious freshly ground coffee.  Considering some of my African breakfasts (cold beans, white bread straight from the loaf), this was enlighteningly sophisticated.

Becky, with a little trepidation, made here excuses to leave for her massage.  Christine and I took a leisurely stroll round town, soaking up the atmosphere and bathing  in the intense sunlight.  When we met up again with Becky, we saw a different woman.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone so relaxed.  She said she had been pummelled and pushed and slapped, but the effect had reorganised her body into the right shape, and placed a massive grin on her face.  It was a bit of a pity there were no more slots in the masseur’s schedule for Christine and I to get the same experience.

The Highest Country in the World – A touristy example of Basotho life

A few kilometres further on we turned off the main road and visited the Basotho Cultural Village.  While a highly sanitized representation of a Basotho settlement, it offers an insight into the rich architecture, crafts and everyday living of the people.  The huts are well made and washed in dark ochres, purples and oranges strongly decorated with white and black diamonds , swirls or crosses.  Some were just stone, others covered in adobe, still more studded with intricate stone mosaics on the walls.  Inside were pristine artefacts of your average Basotho household, the pots, wooden mortar and pestle, the long wooden spoons, the knives, the mats, the hats.  Yes, there was that iconic conical shape once more.

I looked eastwards and consulted the map – I saw mountains to the south east that I realised were the ones at the back of the Royal Natal Park.  I had last been in this area some twenty years earlier when I had holidayed in South Africa with my friend Kirsty.  Funny when you have been travelling long enough that you start joining up the dots, seeing an old historical memory for real again but from a different angle.

We had to drive back the same way, but that was no hardship.  More game in the shape of impala and waterbuck were now out grazing in the late afternoon sun, and the colours in the buttresses were more vivid in the lowering sunlight.  It was hard to tear yourself away from this environment.

Fortunately we did not need to tear ourselves too far away.  As we reached our villa, Clarens was now in the shadow of a mountain to the west, but the valley we had just returned along was glowing in all the sun’s glory to the east.  We cracked open a bottle of wine and watched the sunlight play on the scene, a marvellous slow motion disco of yellow, red and purple.  We then settled down to make some dinner and flopped about feeling relaxed.  It had been a long but fantastic day.

The Highest Country in the World – Past the Golden Gate

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.

The Highest Country in the World – Becky

The other times I was not in a hotel, but was invited to stay with one of the project officers.  Becky Banton had been working in Lesotho when I first visited, but had not been recruited by Sentebale.  Originally from the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, she had volunteered with the US Peace Corps and built up an impressive CV of immersion projects in Lesotho.  It was her job to pull off this Letsema project.  Progress, like in so many similar projects in development, was slow but she was diplomatic and a great respecter of Lesotho culture and norms which helped grease the wheels.  She was also a big mama, a large lady, and I think, despite being white, that also gained her a lot of respect from many people who interacted with her. To be honest, it was more her fluent Sesotho, the main language in Lesotho, and her mannerisms and approaches to getting work done that was so impressive.

She had almost free reign on a large villa style house in the back suburbs of Maseru.  It had big rooms, a deck out back and a fair sized garden shaded by jacaranda and other trees.  Her only requirement was that if her boss said, she had to share it with project visitors.  This was not a problem as Becky and I hit it off pretty well from the first day.  The more I showed how the Excel spreadsheets I was creating and the Google Earth mapping I was doing could help her visualise her results she started to be really enthusiastic.  I remember one time I showed her how the spreadsheet was manipulating all the information from the different agencies she was logging, and turning it into some kind of code.  I would copy all this code and paste it in to the legend of Google Earth, and all the points would appear in the right places on the map, with symbols and labels telling you the details about who the organisation are, where they are, websites and what they do.  Becky would say “that is magic” as I seemed to throw the gobbledygook from the clipboard  onto Google Earth.  I taught her how it worked and she and I kept up a dialogue on how to refine it both throughout the visits and subsequently.

Becky was a great host at her house (she was happy cooking for me as she was vegetarian and didn’t want me poisoning her with meat) and we sat and drank a few beers and learnt about each other’s past history.  All my trips to Lesotho were quick week long visits, and this last one was no different.  I had one weekend where time was my own, and Becky proposed that we did something together.  One option was to head up into the mountains and base ourselves in one of her favourite villages.  The second was to travel over the border into South Africa and spend some time in a lovely little town called Clarens.  Both were appealing for different reasons; the first because it would expose me to village life in Lesotho and make me see some of the more mountainous countryside that Lesotho is renowned for.  The second would give the opportunity for more of a road trip and be in a place that was more for pampering than for raw experience.

In the end the decision was made for us.  A friend of Becky’s was in need of a pamper, and had access to a house in Clarens.  I hired a vehicle from one of the rental companies that operated out of the big hotels, and we were set.