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YYour Clarens adventure starts when you meet your guides in this picturesque Free State town and artists’ haven, before driving 12km out into the country to begin the day’s rafting down the Ash River (or a half day, if you prefer).
Although white-water rafting can be quite extreme, have no fear, as there are ‘rapids and rafting for everyone’, says Ollie Esplin, owner of Clarens Xtreme, which has been taking visitors down the river since 2005.
‘Even if you have never done white-water rafting before, you can do it, and you don’t need to be fit,’ he says. ‘It's a young river and therefore it’s a narrow river, where the current is pushing you the whole time, making it easy to navigate the 6- to 8-person rafts we use.’
Going down this 18km stretch of the Ash River will take you about a day (or a half-day on the 9km option). The river has Grade 3 and 4 rapids, including Car Wash, Fish Pond and Big Surprise (because the river makes a 90-degree bend and then, surprise, there’s a waterfall).
Some rafting companies in Clarens accommodate children on calmer parts of the river. Esplin’s company takes those under the age of 10 out of the raft for the rapids, and they then walk or drive to the next section of the river, where they can hop on once again.
In winter (May to August), the ride is called the Polar Bear Challenge, because the water gets icy. But don’t worry, you’ll be given a wetsuit to help you out.
You don’t have to get into the water to enjoy an adventure, though. Clarens is adjacent to the scenic Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Famed for its golden sandstone sentinels, this Free State park is a great choice for families who enjoy wide-open spaces. It’s located in the foothills of Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains (the Sesotho name for the Drakensberg) and is renowned for its extraordinary landscape featuring caves and shelters.
Here you can explore the mountainous terrain, so get your boots on for some spectacular hikes. Try hiking up the Brandwag Buttress, or Ribokkop, the highest point in the park, or you could spend the night in the wilderness on the 2-day, 1-night Rhebok Hiking Trail.
While you’re there, you can also visit the Vulture Restaurant, explore the area on horseback, hop on a mountain bike or go on a game drive. But whatever you do, don’t forget to take the time to stop and enjoy the park’s amazing panoramic views.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)58 256 1260
Cell: +27 (0)83 485 9654
How to get here
Clarens is about 300km from Johannesburg via the N3 and R26, in eastern Free State province.
Best time to visit
All year round, but bear in mind the river is icy in winter, hence rafting at this time is called the Polar Bear Challenge. Wetsuits are provided for this.
Around the area
Apart from hiking, horse riding, golf, tennis, mountain-biking and exploring the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park, adventurers can try paragliding, ziplining, abseiling, archery and paintball, as well as take day tours to the ‘fertility cave’, where sangomas practise their healing arts.
It’s best to drive yourself to Clarens. Tours are also available, though, and the rafting companies can let you know what shuttles and packages they offer.
Length of stay
Spend at least 2 days in Clarens, as there is so much to see and do.
What to pack
Outdoor adventure clothing, plus a hat and sunscreen, all year round. Pack clothing for warm and cold conditions, and particularly in winter (May to August), make sure you have warm undergarments.
Where to stay
Clarens is a tourist mecca, with plenty of B&Bs, guesthouses, guest farms and hotels. Some of the rafting outfits have accommodation on offer, ranging from high-end to camping.