Freewheeling through the Free State
Local travellers are acquainted with the Karoo's well-trodden Route 62, but have you heard of the Free State's Eagle Route? For space, charm, cherries and cheese head to Clarens - but also beyond!
Straddling Lesotho's circular border, views abound on the Eagle Route. Starting from Harrismith (that iconic Wimpy-breakfast halfway point between Durban and Jo'burg) the tourism circuit rambles on through the Free State's favourite towns. Clarens and Ficksburg feature, but it's the lesser-known stops that will keep spunky trippers out on the road.
Here's how to make the most of this Maloti mountainside meander.
Harrismith to Phuthaditjhaba
Before stepping off the N3, push north towards Van Reenen and visit South Africa's smallest church. The Llandaff Oratory, dubbed 'The Little Church', seats just eight and offers far better padkos than frenetic fuel stations. Munching jam-filled scones in the outdoor tea garden is far more distinguished, and you can even call ahead with the order for speedy service (058-671-0106).
Double back on the N3, shift briefly towards Bethlehem on the N5 and turn left onto the R74, which skirts the northern reaches of Sterkfontein Dam.
Witsieshoek is a community tourism project owned by the Batlokoa community of QwaQwa. At 2220 metres above sea level, the Fair Trade stay claims to be the highest lodge in the Northern Drakensberg. As such, it is unrivalled for its convenience in exploring iconic peaks, such as the Sentinel Peak Chain Ladder hike.
Worth the detour: Roughly 30km drive from Harrismith (stop for stunning views over Sterkfontein Dam on the way) is Retiefklip and the Kaalvoet Vrou statue, a monument angled to stride away from the Natal province in memory of Susanna Smit. In 1837, she declared to rather trek barefoot back over the mountains than live under British rule.
Travel Tip: Travelling with puppies? Nip over the provincial border and spend the night in Kwazulu-Natal. Located on the crown of the picturesque Oliviershoek Pass, Little Switzerland Resort sits halfway between Harrismith and Bergville on the recently resurfaced R74 tarred route. Self-catering pet-friendly units cost from R435pp.
Phuthaditjhaba to Clarens
The undisputed star of the Eastern Free State, this little village gets plenty of publicity - and for good reason. Equidistant from Durban and Johannesburg, Clarens is a seasoned mountain escape famed for its art, craft beer and village rambles. Both new and returning visitors will enjoy a visit to Noah's Cheese for tastings in authentic farm settings. (Open daily from 10am to 5pm, but closed on Tuesdays) or a guided walk to the Motouleng Cave, which is considered sacred ground in these parts (R350 per person for a half-day tour).
Check-in: Sandstone cladding contrasts the contemporary insides of Periwinkle Grove Cottages, which sit a fifteen-minute walk from the centre of Clarens. B&B R640pp
Worth the detour: The Free State's only national park is Golden Gate Highlands National Park and protects the grassland biome. Drive the transit road for free, do a day hike (entry is R59pp) or immerse fully into the landscape on the two-day Ribbok Hiking Trail. Easily tackled in a weekend away, it is excellent value for money. R225pp.
Clarens to Fouriesburg
Drive southeast of Clarens on the R711, and find Fouriesburg. Founded in 1892 and declared Capital of the Orange Free State Republic during the Boer War, today the town is better known for its easy access to Lesotho via the Caledonspoort border. Find outdoor eats at La Fromagerie at Jackal's Hill (a new tasting venue open Saturday to Monday from 10am till 4pm). If you're not all cheesed out, locals reckon Windmill Pub has the best pizza.
Don't miss: Quirky antique menagerie, Jenlee's Country Shop and Kitchen on the R71 T-junction is now also home to the new Brandwaterkom Museum. Peruse the goods of yesteryear while awaiting an order of coffee with cake. Entry costs R10pp.
Check-in: Jackal's Hill accommodation is both eco- and pocket-friendly. Hot water and electricity are solar-powered, while beds feature locally-produced feather duvets. From R450pp.
Fouriesburg to Ficksburg
Set between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg, Ionia Cherry Farm is worth a visit even without fruit on the trees. Dig into their Belgian waffles, jams and liqueur. However, if you can, time a visit to cherry season. Established in 1953, Constantia farm welcomes guests between the end of October and early December for tours. Eat your fill of cherries fresh for market or arrange a picnic in the orchard.
Check-in: Dwarfed by vast mountainous landscapes, Springwater Cottages comprise three open-plan units lined up beside each other but each with an unobscured view. For a real spoil, call ahead with a grocery list and find your fridge fully stocked on arrival. From R380pp.
Tip: Have a 4x4? The offroad trails across Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve rank highly among pros thanks to excellent guides and epic vistas.
Worth the detour: 45km from Ficksburg, those in the know skip Clarens in favour of the smaller dorpie of Rosendal. Visit the Oppidam Coffee Shop for carrot cake or Benjamin's restaurant for homemade pasta. Find them both on Facebook and peruse gorgeously affordable overnight options.
Ficksburg to Clocolan
From Ficksburg, continue on the R26 towards Clocolan. Before the turnoff into town, visit delightful roadside shopping complex, The Cabin for fresh-off-the-fire roosterkoek and plenty of other goodies, made just like Ouma used to.
Check-in: Amohela ho Spitskop is a sanctuary. Both country retreat and conservancy, there are several self-catering cottages, a sublime summer splash pool plus hiking and cycling trails to boot. From R545pp.
A version of this story first appeared in Escapes magazine.
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