A Photographer’s Journey Through South Africa, Part 2: Clarens, Free State

Our Bokpoort Cowboy ride in Clarens, Free State, South Africa

Our Bokpoort Cowboy ride in Clarens, Free State, South Africa

This is the second part in Laura Pedrick’s four-part photo journey through South Africa. Part 3 will be live tomorrow.

We depart early the next morning and set out for Clarens, in the Free State province, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg. We drive south on the N1, the main thruway that runs from north country all the way to Cape Town. It’s smooth, wide-open and flat, so if you’re brave enough to try left-side driving, this is a good road to take a rental. And because there isn’t a train or an airport, it’s quite frankly your only reasonable option to get to Clarens. 

Our two-hour-late day ride gave us incredible views of the Red Mountains

Our two-hour-late day ride gave us incredible views of the Red Mountains

A bit remote, Clarens is known for its breathtaking, big-sky, mountainous landscape. Part of the larger Drakensberg range, it’s an escarpment that runs along the international border between South Africa and Lesotho. There are countless hiking and mountain bike trails but perhaps the best way to take in the beauty of the colorful sand and mudstone cliffs is with a long horseback ride.

Our two-hour-late day ride gave us incredible views of the Red Mountains

Our two-hour-late day ride gave us incredible views of the Red Mountains

We show up late in the day at Bokpoort Cowboy Ranch, a fifth-generation-owned, 1,500-acre farm that specializes in horseback guided tours through the Clarens Valley. Still abuzz about a successful recapture and rescue of a stolen stallion and pregnant mare the day before, the owner and his ranchhands help saddle up our horses and we begin a two-hour rigorous ride on steep rocky trails and wide-open plains.

As the sun lowers on the horizon, each turned corner offers an even more breathtaking view of the dramatic Red Mountains. In addition to the excitement of spotting a few wildebeasts and a zebra along the way, listening to our guides recall the details of that recent rescue—bandits, dangerous night-ride border crossings into nearby Lesotho and even exchanged gunfire—pumps up the cowboy allure of our adventure .

Bokpoort is open year-round. They offer cabin accommodations and other activities like clay pigeon shooting, archery and customized game hunts on horseback. Cost of two-hour ride: R400 ($28 US).

Basotho Cultural Village invites visitors to participate in the story of the Basotho people

Basotho Cultural Village invites visitors to participate in the story of the Basotho people

Just few miles from the ranch is the entrance to Golden Gate Highland Park, a 130-square-mile grassland park, the only protected grassland habitat in the country. Its most striking features are its gold and orange sand and mudstone mountains and cliffs, formations that date back to the Triassic period.

Basotho Cultural Village in Free State

Basotho Cultural Village in Free State

Within the park is the Basotho Cultural Village, an interactive experience that tells the story of the Basotho people, the first inhabitants of the region.

Basotho woman demonstrates the process of making beer

Basotho woman demonstrates the process of making beer

Reenactors demonstrate the lifestyle and rituals of a typical village and how they have changed from the sixteenth century to the present. The entertaining and colorful 45-minute tour costs about $6 per person.

Basotho Cultural Village is a living museum that artfully and theatrically presents the history of the Basotho people

Basotho Cultural Village is a living museum that artfully and theatrically presents the history of the Basotho people

Before heading back to the town of Clarens we stop at various lookout points for vertigo-inducing selfies and then picnic in a picturesque spot that is inhabited by a colony of opportunistic lunch-snatching baboons. Our first direct encounter with South Africa’s wildlife.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park had many photo-worthy stops along the way

Golden Gate Highlands National Park had many photo-worthy stops along the way

Our picnic spot just outside the entrance to Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Notice the baboon at right, who later steals our lunch right from under our noses!

Our picnic spot just outside the entrance to Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Notice the baboon at right, who later steals our lunch right from under our noses!

The artsy little town of Clarens looks a bit like an old western movie set with the picturesque Maluti Mountains in the background.

View of Clarens and the Maluti Mountains in background. The Malutis are part of the Drakensberg range.

View of Clarens and the Maluti Mountains in background. The Malutis are part of the Drakensberg range.

Surrounding an open-space park are many charming boutiques, shops offering local arts and crafts, galleries, cafés, and a brewery.

The most popular spot in Clarens is Highland Coffee owned by Sigal Zahavi and her husband Chris Pefanis

The most popular spot in Clarens is Highland Coffee owned by Sigal Zahavi and her husband Chris Pefanis

Beer samples at Clarens Brewery

Beer samples at Clarens Brewery

As far as accommodations go, there are many cabins and guesthouses in and around Clarens as well as the Protea Hotel Clarens, a Marriott hotel, where we enjoyed a buffet dinner on our last evening in this charming, out-of-the-way place.

Beer samples at Clarens Brewery

Beer samples at Clarens Brewery

Next stop? Cape Town!

In part 3, tomorrow: Cape Town.


For more on travel to South Africa, visit southafrica.net.

Laura Pedrick

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About the Author

Laura Pedrick

Laura is a photojournalist who for most of her career has been assigned to cover New Jersey for The New York Times. Stories have included the Statehouse, political campaigns, and a wide range of hard news and features for all sections of the paper, including the Travel section. More recently she has focused on clients in the healthcare industry and education. She lives in Titusville, NJ, with her daughter and sometimes assistant, Lana. And oh yeah, has known Johnny Jet (dare she say it) since he was in diapers and is excited to be working for him as one of his latest contributors!

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