The Hay Bale Route, Free State
Did you know?
The village of Clarens was founded in 1912 – the year that the Titanic went down.
Bloemfontein is about as laid-back as a city could be. The famous City of Roses, capital of the Free State, heart of the heartland, has all the urban trappings minus the fast pace of the metropolis.
So before our journey to the east begins, we’ll take a day in Bloemfontein, go shopping at the Loch Logan Waterfront, maybe catch a movie, see what’s on at a place like the Oliewenhout Art Gallery, stop off for an early dinner and then, if we’re feeling strong, watch a ballet performance at the Sand du Plessis Theatre.
The next morning, all packed and ready, we head up the N1 to Winburg, one of the oldest settlements in South Africa. This is where the legendary Boer general Koos de la Rey was born – he would later be one of the major players in the South African (Anglo-Boer) War.
We continue up the N1 to the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve, where we’ll go for a game drive and hopefully catch a sighting of what is said to be the world’s largest herd of black wildebeest.
Our route takes us eastwards from the reserve to Senekal, where we do a slow cruise through this stately old town and admire its sandstone architecture.
Now we’re on the N5, detouring into the village of Paul Roux, once again wondering at the wistful quiet of the place before returning to the highway to Bethlehem.
All along this route, we’ve been passing lines of stacked hay bales in the fields, back-dropped by magnificent sandstone hills and windmills.
Bethlehem has a lot of commemorative sites and museums. Being a farming community, the town tells its agricultural story well, in the form of collections of lifestyle pieces like kitchen utensils, old wagons, horse carriages and pieces of period furniture.
There is also the Basotho Stone Mound, which harks back to the early gold mining days of South Africa. The Basotho mine workers would each put a stone down at a specific place before leaving for work. At this spot they prayed to their ancestors to keep them safe. Then, when they returned, they placed another stone down to thank the ancestors. Pretty soon, there was a hill of stones.
But the best part of this journey is the 30-odd km from Bethlehem to Clarens in the late afternoon, when the soft sunlight reflects off the sandstone cliffs all around us.
We’re now driving into the ‘jewel of the eastern Free State’, the 100-year-old village of Clarens. The evening lights are on in town, the restaurants are being readied for the first sitting and the pavement cafes are heaving with action.
Down the valley you can see the western approach to the Golden Gate National Park, with the Maluti Mountains stretching to the right like jagged sentinels.
Someone has just come in from a day of trout fishing; someone else shot a great round of golf; his wife found her favourite author’s latest work at the bookshop; a happy art collector made a good purchase. And so we all sit down to a long, happy dinner in this idyllic setting after a day among the hay bales of the eastern Free State.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Mangaung/Bloemfontein Tourism Information
Tel: +27 (0)51 405 8489
Clarens Community Tourism Forum:
Tel: +27 (0)58 256 1903
Tel: +27 (0)58 256 1189
Clarens Tourism Centre
Tel: +27 (0)58 256 1542
How to get here
Your journey begins in Bloemfontein, the Free State capital on the N1.
Best time to visit
You can do this trip at any time of the year – just beware the deep winter months of June and July, when snowfalls are common in the Bethlehem – Clarens area.
Around the area
From Clarens, go on a morning drive through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Tours to do
Tours of the Eastern Free State are available – check with the Clarens info centres for details.
A self-drive journey is recommended.
What will it cost
There is accommodation in both Bloemfontein and Clarens to suit all pockets.
Length of stay
The actual journey between Bloemfontein and Clarens should take no more than one day. You might choose to spend more time at either end of the trip.
What to pack
Pack a variety of informal and semi-formal clothes. You’ll be spending time in the outdoors but you might also want to experience the night-time cultural scene in Bloemfontein.
Where to stay
Both Bloemfontein and Clarens have plenty of accommodation options – check the listed websites for details.
What to eat
Try the cosmopolitan restaurants in Bloemfontein and Clarens, and don’t forget to pack a little biltong in the car for your drive.
Both Bloemfontein and Clarens stage regular festivals – check the listed websites for events happening here during your visit.
You can buy a sandstone curio in Clarens – but make it a small one, because they’re quite heavy.