There was also the matter of the Subaru. The Forester had been part of the team since February but was yet to see any action on the open road. With that in mind the plans were quickly made.
Before we got going on the gravel we first had stop for some maintenance. The Subraru was missing the two rubber plugs sealing the spare tyre compartment. A few strips of duct tape helped to keep the dust from getting sucked in.
We eventually returned to tarmac and crossed the Vaal River into the Freestate at Villiers. Unlike the highway, our alternative route cut right across town and crosses the river via a single lane bridge regulated by a traffic light.
The town of Villiers was quiet on this Saturday morning. We noticed that it seemed somewhat less dilapidated than many of other small South African towns we’ve encountered in recent years. The roads were pockmarked with potholes as one would expect, but there was no obvious evidence of raw sewage leaking into the street.
In the town of Frankfort we had a late breakfast at an establishment called K-opikofi. Not the cheapest, but the omelettes were good and the service friendly.
Back on the road we decided not to take to the direct route to Clarens via Bethlehem. Instead we headed for Kestell via the R57. Once on our way to a hiking trip in the Drakensberg we spent two nights at a backpackers in this charming little town. I suspect that this might be what Clarens would have been like today if the developers had never gotten hold of it. Still, the poor cousin has not been completely spared humiliation. On the edge of town someone built a gaudy palace of kitsch. A real blight on the Freestate landscape. I hope you are proud asshole…
We passed Kestell without stopping. A few kilometres past the town a gravel road heads off into the hills, eventually meeting up with the road that leads through the Golden Gate National park. This park has long been a favourite of ours, and we have often talked about camping in the caravan park here.
Next up we headed straight for the Clarens Brewery. It was Saturday and crowded but we found a spot at a high table in a corner and after some effort also got the attention of a waiter. When he came around for a second round we were informed that by ‘sampling’ a pint of each one of their six different beers we would qualify for a complimentary keying.
It wasn’t snow, but it was beer. Besides, the Subaru needed a new key ring. By then we had moved to a different table and we made ourselves comfortable.
It was late afternoon and the sun was dying when we left with our new key rings and started to make plans for the evening.
As we were enjoying our last round a crowd of rowdy young men arrived dragging along a bridegroom to be. We were in no mood for this kind of nonsense so we finished up quickly and settled the bill.
We didn’t feel like spending more time in restaurants or bars so we bought some food from the local supermarket and some extra ‘refreshments’ from Dr Ank’s pharmacy. The supermarket didn’t stock anything that even remotely resembled real meat, so we settled for braai broodjies.
Back at the backpackers we discovered, to our horror, that the bachelor party from the brewery were staying at the same establishment. Even as they were still trickling in from town there was a rising din of loud-mouthed idiocy that promised to last most of the night.
A group of young European and North American tourists arrived, evidently in a state of mild panic about finding a place to stay for the night. Seeing that there were roughly eight of them, and we had eight beds available the negotiations were simple.
In an instant we were magically transported to the campsite at Golden Gate. The same one we had so longingly eyed earlier in the day.
It was bloody freezing and the firewood we bought at the Chinese supermarket turned out to be of the same standard as their meat. We spent a large part of the night gathering firewood in the dark just to grill a few braai broodjies. The wine was also colder than any red wine should ever be. Still we were glad to be there and not back in Clarens.
The next morning our whole world was covered in a layer of frost. This was not quite the snow we had come looking for but it was magical none the less.
In Harrismith we stopped for the inevitable breakfast at the Wimpy. It was here that the Subaru first started acting up. Making the tight to turn at low speed to park the car gave an ominously shudder. Helpless on a Sunday morning, and still suspecting that it may have been due to an open passenger door we had our breakfast first. When we started off again we couldn’t hear the noise so we decided to go on.
Just outside Harrismith we left the highway again, this time for the R722. It was an inspired choice. Running through the village of Verkykerskop and joining the R34 at Memel this stretch of gravel was truly a pleasant surprise. It was the end of winter and the veld was dry. We are absolutely sure that after a wet summer this area would be even lovelier.
Not bad for something we thought up on a Friday afternoon.