Clarens & The Drakensberg

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May 22nd 2015
Published: May 31st 2015
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Golden Gate Highlands National ParkGolden Gate Highlands National ParkGolden Gate Highlands National Park

Beautiful colours, stunning scenery.
The drive to Clarens from Dundee was beautiful. Apart from when we stopped at the gas station and I spilt all of my biltong on the concrete. That hurt man. That cut deep.
But anyway, the road to Clarens takes you through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park where for the first time, I was truly blown away by the scenery ahead of me. Red-clay mountains have been eroded beautifully into wonderful rock formations and below the mountains are quaint meadows and quiet streams, flanked by pretty trees whose leaves have turned reddish-brown from the changing of the seasons, matching the red of the cliffs towering above them.
It was scenery that you can’t get in New Zealand – the meadows you can find in the South Island, but you’d have to import the mountains from Arizona or the Australian outback. It is hard to think of where else you might find such stunning scenery like this. It is the best scenery I have seen in South Africa so far. Several stops were made for photographs.
We also managed to spot some boksand a wildebeest to boot.

While driving through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, I almost lost the
Living On The EdgeLiving On The EdgeLiving On The Edge

Yannick admires the view.
underside of the car. While driving through a beautiful national park where drivers are very likely to be looking up, it is just unfair to put in place huge speed bumps without warning!

Entering Clarens, the theme continued – this is definitely the prettiest town I have seen in South Africa. Packed with country retreats and cute B&Bs, Clarens is rustic and colonial in every sense of the word, made even more beautiful by the splendour of the vivid autumn colours. The surrounds of the town are breathtaking too – backed my mountains on one side, and with vast plains and meadows on the other. It felt like you were somewhere like Maine or Connecticut during the autumn.

The price for all this beauty was the night-time temperature – it was f*cking freezing. It was the coldest weather I had experienced in South Africa so far. I could see my breath for the first time since I left London five months ago! Clarens is on the high veld – 1,800 metres above sea level.
A guy we talked to in Dundee said that it would be cold – we now knew that he wasn’t kidding.
If I was
The Artist’s CafeThe Artist’s CafeThe Artist’s Cafe

This scene just about sums up Clarens – a rustic getaway with a keen art scene.
struggling with this – and I was, as the three duvets I slept with at night attest to – then I wasn’t looking forward to my next destination Lesotho, which is higher up and reportedly snowing already.

Yannick was keeping his spirits up however. His youthful optimism was refreshing to see – he would say hello and have a chat to almost everyone he would meet; he had a politeness and willingness to engage with strangers that I have lost over the years. I fear that age, experience and the pace of life in London has squeezed out my exuberance, now replaced by a guard of cynicism. Sadly, I think I have developed an acute sense of knowing if someone is going to waste my time when I meet them, and that this now unfortunately at times ,takes precedence over just being polite and courteous.

As well as visiting the pretty town of Clarens, the other reason that we came this way was to hike the Sentinel Hiking Trail.
A two hour drive away, the Sentinel was listed as one of the world’s top 10 day-hikes by National Geographic for its sweeping views over the Drakensberg. The hike
Sentinel PeakSentinel PeakSentinel Peak

The peak we were to conquer. This one is taken on my iPhone – not bad eh?
starts at 2,600m in Free State and ends at 3,200m in KwaZulu Natal - so as well as being an interstate hike, it is also just over 500m lower than Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
As well as stunning views, the hiking trail is also famous for its set of chain ladders – hikers must ascend or descend (or both!) a set of ladders down a forty metre cliff face. It was something I was just slightly nervous about.

The ascent from the road to the carpark was almost just as scary. There were a few moments that got my heart going – moments where fingers were crossed that the little Chevy Spark would make it up while we twisted and turned around all the massive boulders and loose gravel that littered the ‘road’. We needed to keep momentum to ensure we didn’t stall the car and open the possibility that we might not be able to get the car going up again from a standing start; but this was made difficult by the fact we had to go slowly to avoid ripping up the underside of the chassis.
It was a challenge, but one that Yannick relished.
Start Of The Hiking TrailStart Of The Hiking TrailStart Of The Hiking Trail

The start and the end.
If I thought that the roads I drove on around the battlefields were the worst, I was wrong – the road to the Sentinel Hiking Trail now definitely takes the prize.
Once we parked the car and paid our fee for the hike, we set off. The views from the carpark were already amazing – I couldn’t wait to see what the top had in store.

As well as being a second driver and good company, it was good to have Yannick with me because he had already done the hike a few days ago and was keen to do it again. What this meant was that he knew the route up and down the mountain and that I didn’t have to pay R600 (£33) for a guide.

It was harder going than it would normally be – hiking at altitude tends to do that to you. There was some proper climbing involved as we used all four limbs to scramble up a gully to the top of the escarpment. That was proper-tough – the lungs were really going and I had to stop several times to get my breath back.
However, it was all worth it –
On The TrailOn The TrailOn The Trail

Yannick leads the way.
the views at the top did not disappoint. I won’t bother to describe it – just look at the pictures.
I’m not great with height – I made sure I was well away from the cliff edge which was a sheer drop to your death – but I managed to put aside my fear for short while as we sat down and enjoyed our lunch with the local vultures and a stunning vista.

After a thankfully flat walk along the plateau of the mountain, my fears of height then returned – it was time to descend the chain ladders.
To be completely honest, the chain ladder was one of the things I was most fearful of before I jumped on the plane to South Africa. I mean, when you think about a ladder dangling off a 40m cliff face with no ropes to stop you from dropping to your death – does that not freak you the f*ck out? At the same time however, I knew that I wanted to do it, that it was a challenge I needed to overcome.
My strategy for approaching such things is simply to do it and get it over with – while
Top Of The WorldTop Of The WorldTop Of The World

The view from the top of Sentinel Peak.
at the same time not trying to rush it in case I make a mistake. The ladder doesn’t drop straight down thankfully, which meant that you weren’t looking all the way down at the very start – instead it hugs the rock at a 45° angle so that you climb down over the edge without seeing how far you are up. By this stage I just concentrated on one rung at a time and kept remembering that I am a pretty fit, strong and agile person.
Before I knew it, I had done it – well, the first ladder anyway.
The second one was a little scarier and I did look down at one point and realised that I would be dead if I let go, but again I just concentrated on getting down one rung at a time, knowing that the quicker I got down there, the quicker it would be over.
And soon it was. I had done it.
I have to say though, that I am glad I climbed down it rather than up – just like it would have been harder to climb down the steep gully that we climbed up – as you knew that
The Chain LaddersThe Chain LaddersThe Chain Ladders

40 metres. No ropes, no harnesses.
the further you got the safer you were, as opposed to knowing that you’re getting higher and higher when you’re climbing up.
We had met some Scottish-Italian folk who had just climbed up the chain ladder before we climbed down – they were a bit older than us so I doubt they would have made it up or down the gully – they would have to take the chain ladder both times. I was thankful I only had to do it once, despite the fact that in the end, it wasn’t that bad.

I did wonder though, whether such a chain ladder would even be allowed in NZ or the UK, given the obsession with health and safety. The response to this question – like so many others during my time in South Africa regarding whether it is OK to do something – is; “this is Africa.”
This basically means you can do what you want, nobody is really going to bat an eyelid.
Nowhere was this attitude more in evidence than on our ride back to Clarens, where drivers seemed to just pull out, pull in, go super-slow or go super-fast whenever the mood fancied. You know, just
More From The GGHNPMore From The GGHNPMore From The GGHNP

More picture perfect scenery from the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
cut across the road, whenever you like dude. Yeah, just have a piss on the side of the road in full view of everyone.
Oh yeah, and I have never seen so many people walking along highways as I have seen here in South Africa. These people must walk literally, for miles. They are a real hazard on the road too, since driving on the hard shoulder is a regular done thing here.
But you do see some cool, funny things as well – locals singing and dancing down the road is a regular sight, a product of this carefree attitude to life.

Also entrenched in the culture here is the braai.
Clarens Inn & Backpackers had an amazing one as well. The centrepiece of the main courtyard, this massive stone chimney had enough space on its base to simultaneously hold six braais. Now that is a proper chimney. So we just had to make use of it.
The young lad working there (who we thought had a fit girlfriend – turns out said fit girlfriend was actually the girlfriend of the 60-70yr old owner!) told us on the first night, that the key to a good braai is
Picture StopPicture StopPicture Stop

When you see things like this, you just have to stop the car for a picture.
the heat and quality of the coals.
Our braai on our first night was perfect – the wood we used created some wicked coals and the smoke from them infused itself into our lamb chops and it was delicious.
The next night, I think there was a bit more moisture in the air and it was difficult getting a fire going and in turn, difficult to get the logs on fire.
We eventually managed it though the coals didn’t last very long. Having tried all night to get a fire going, I’ll be damned if I have to get another one going just to finish off the meat.
“That sausage is a little red…but you could just about eat it, right?” I asked.
“No-one has ever been harmed from red lamb have they?” asked another guest.
Well, the answer to those questions are no and yes respectively…as you will find out in the next blog post…


Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


The GullyThe Gully
The Gully

Yep, we climbed up this gully to get to the top of Sentinel Peak.
Mind The GapMind The Gap
Mind The Gap

Or else it is a long fall to your death.
River On The PlateauRiver On The Plateau
River On The Plateau

This river leads to the second highest waterfall in the world…which unfortunately was barely a trickle sliding down the cliffs.
Coming ‘Round The MountainComing ‘Round The Mountain
Coming ‘Round The Mountain

Yannick leads the way back to the carpark.
Clarens SignpostClarens Signpost
Clarens Signpost

This place is so cute/country/old school it even has a knifemaker’s shop.
Main Square, ClarensMain Square, Clarens
Main Square, Clarens

Immaculately kept.
Clarens Inn & BackpackersClarens Inn & Backpackers
Clarens Inn & Backpackers

A fine location for a hostel.

Main Street in Clarens.
From The CarFrom The Car
From The Car

Sometimes, you will come over a hill, and see something like this.

It kindly waited for us to leave before devouring our bread crusts.
Braai TimeBraai Time
Braai Time

Yannick works the awesome braai provided by Clarens Inn & Backpackers.
The Offending BraaiThe Offending Braai
The Offending Braai

Don’t be tempted – make sure your sausages are cooked.

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