Clarens: A Small Town with a Big Reputation

On our second day camping in the Drakensberg mountains in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, we woke up to an overcast sky and decided to head to Clarens for the day. Only a quick twenty minute drive from our campsite, we arrived early enough to still find a good parking spot in this bustling little tourist town.

Well-known as an artist’s retreat, Clarens has a lot of hype to live up to. It’s become one of the must-visit villages for city-dwellers in search of some fresh air, beautiful scenery and small-town hospitality. Whenever I told people we were planning on visiting, they all smiled knowingly and assured us that it would be the highlight of our trip.

And maybe that’s why we weren’t all that impressed with it. It had been talked up too much, our expectations were too high. Or perhaps we’re just uncultured hooligans who can’t appreciate a good thing when we see it. Or perhaps our timing was just a bit off, visiting at the height of holiday season when prices were surely higher and the sidewalks a little too crowded for our tastes.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved walking along the circular road that ran around the central park, the only tarred road in town, ducking in and out of art shops and exploring antique stores. I loved the crisp, fresh air and the mountains in the background. I loved that there was a windpomp right in the middle of town and that people greeted me as I walked past them in the street. But somehow, it just wasn’t quite as wonderful as everyone had made it out to be.

Yes, there were many shops with artworks on display, but they were either outrageously expensive or not the type of quality I would have expected from a town with this kind of reputation. I did almost come home with the one (barely) affordable piece that I liked, but in retrospect am very glad that my stingy side won out, because I would have been paying that impulse buy off for many months to come. In the end, we resolved to just wander from shop to shop and enjoyed the town’s ambience more than the actual art.

We were also disappointed when dining out. Perhaps we were just unlucky in our choice of restaurants, but we were underwhelmed by both breakfast and dinner, although I have a friend who can go on for hours about the delicious meal he had had in one of the many sidewalk cafés. I would advise getting recommendations before selecting your mealtime destination, or be subjected to the luck of the draw, as we were.

For me, Clarens’ best feature lies in its location. Situated right on the edge of the Drakensberg mountains, it’s ideally located for outdoor activities such as hiking, horse riding, fly fishing, clay pigeon shooting and scenic mountain drives. The area also has an interesting history relating to the Basotho war of 1865 – 1866 and the Anglo-Boer War of 1880 – 1902, and for those who like their history to date back millions of years, there is a guided tour on a farm where dinosaur bones have been found. Clarens is also a good starting point from which to visit the neighbouring mountain kingdom of Lesotho. None of which we managed to do on this trip, but I might be enticed back during warmer weather to explore the region further.

If you’re coming for a daytrip however, a morning is more than enough time to discover all that this quaint little town has to offer. Come with moderate expectations and perhaps it will pleasantly surprise you.

For more posts in the Krugersdorp – Glen Reenen Breakaway series, click here.

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