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Clarens: The gem of the Free State

14 January 2015

It’s hard to believe that the tranquil valley and surrounding mountains of Clarens were once a war zone, where burgher commandos and Basotho fought for land in 1866. Many of the farms in the area were awarded to these burghers for their bravery, and their descendants still live there. Nowadays the town is known for its arts and crafts and eateries, but there is more to Clarens – its people.

It is easy to fall in love with Clarens. Most people want to pack up their city life and move here the minute they set foot on the pavements outside the perfect little workshops, restaurants, galleries and B&Bs.

Many have done so – some to their detriment. But those who have made the transition successfully will tell you that life in Clarens is priceless… if you are prepared to work hard for it.

One of the happy people is Marlene Hopley, the local upholsterer. She’s been in Clarens for two years and her business is thriving. One of the local people she has employed is Mamsito Mashila. She is Marlene’s right hand.

“Mamsito learned the art of upholstery so quickly,” says Marlene. “She is an expert at tying trout flies, but when the fly-tying warehouse closed its doors, many like Mamsito lost their source of income.”

Marlene came to Clarens to “heal” and pick up the pieces from a previous life which had left her with nothing.

“There was a time when I had only R10, and I had to choose between bread and a tub of peanut butter. I lost everything in a business deal that went wrong. But now I have a new life here in Clarens and it is going really well – both personally and for my business.”

Helga Oosthuizen is a restaurateur and pizza maker of note. People come from afar to enjoy her pizza.

Helga and Austin, her late Great Dane, were well known to tourists. Austin would sit outside the restaurant and attract a lot of attention. People couldn’t resist taking his photograph.

Sadly, Austin passed away in May, but Helga’s friends found her a new companion –  a dog called Diesel (he comes from Sasolburg). Although he has big shoes to fill, Diesel is already attracting attention at the two restaurants where Helga now works.

Like Marlene, Helga found solace and acceptance in Clarens after losing all she had. Clarens was the perfect place to start again.

Ruth Waller was an art teacher in Benoni before moving to Clarens eight years ago. Every Wednesday she gives art lessons to local ladies who want to improve their skills.

Ruth has unearthed a lot of hidden talent. For instance, life was always getting in the way of  art for Carol Schwim. Also originally from the East Rand, Carol was always too busy with work and raising children to have time for her art, but when the family moved to Clarens her talent for painting portraits came to the fore.

Carol calls herself a kitchen painter. At night, while her husband, Mac, is busy running their restaurant, The Trout and Mallard, in the grounds of Kiara Lodge just outside the town, Carol gets creative with her palette and brushes. It’s here, among the macaroni packages and bottles of olive oil, that Carol brings her art works to life.

The Trout and Mallard is a must when you visit Clarens. It is well worth the 15km drive on the road towards Golden Gate. Duck and trout are top choices on the varied menu, which includes pizzas and comprehensive kiddies’ options. This is a family restaurant, with the toys and big screen TV in the lounge attesting to the attention given to children, while taking nothing away from the restaurant’s appeal for their parents.

The Trout and Mallard is Mac Shwim’s pride and joy. As a dentist who loves food, establishing a restaurant fulfilled a lifelong dream, although he still works at a dental practice in nearby Bethlehem once a week.

“I simply love food,” says Mac. “So six years ago I decided to open my own restaurant. We experiment with many tastes and flavours, which is why I find working with food such an adventure.”

Bergwoning, close to Kiara Lodge, is Clarens’s adventure farm. Thys Maritz is the owner and a self-proclaimed adventurer. Although he has turned his focus away from his previous business, Thys Maritz Hunting Safaris, where he specialised in hunting with dogs, there is still more than enough adventure to be had right here on his picturesque farm.

Thys has been an abseiling guide for the past 30 years. He can talk even the most petrified client into taking the plunge down a 30m cliff, and actually enjoying it.

His wife, Zita, is a sketch artist. She can sketch visitors to Bergwoning (or their coffee shop, Di Bus Stop), in 20 minutes. She is equally competent in other forms of art, and her oil paintings decorate the walls of the roadside restaurant and craft shop.

Zita’s touches are evident throughout the shop, with verses, riddles and sayings scribbled on interesting objects – some for sale and some not.

“Art has always been a passion for me,” says Zita, who has had no formal art training. “I like to give people hope through what I do. Since I paint under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I give each client a scripture with their painting. I am often asked to paint people’s dreams, or to bring to life a scripture they hold dear.”

Apart from Zita’s paintings, artistic photographs by world-renowned Ian van Straaten and articles about him complete the wall décor. Ian runs photographic workshops in Clarens over weekends. Many of them are conducted on the Bergwoning farm.

Ian decided to retire from professional photography in Bloemfontein and opted for a quieter country life in Clarens where he can focus on his workshops and spend more time with his family.

Ian’s wife, Linda, is the very service orientated manager of Di Bus Stop. She takes care of all Bergwoning’s accommodation and adventure reservations, as well as Ian’s photography workshop bookings.

Kallie Zwahlen of Outrageous Adventures is in charge of white river rafting for Bergwoning guests and other adventure seeking visitors to Clarens.

Kallie fits the bill of a true Free State surfer dude. He is a real character, who speaks the most beautiful Afrikaans. Shorts, no shoes and long, beach-blond hair… that’s Kallie. All day, every day.

He came to Clarens nine years ago to do the “rafting thing” full time. “I was an accountant in Joburg and worked as a rafting guide over weekends,” says Kallie. “But I just couldn’t bear to have my children grow up in the city, so we packed up and moved here.”

Kallie says he has cut his hair only four times since he left university. “And all four times were for an interview when I was trying to finish my articles or applying for a job. I was born a bit of a hippy.”

Someone who at first appears out of place in Clarens but who has made her home here is Verne Burger, a tattoo artist from Bloemfontein. She did not expect to find herself living in this little town, but since she arrived a year ago and opened a shop, she has flourished.

“I have found the people to be as interesting and quirky as the mountains are peaceful and beautiful,” she says. “Although Clarens can be slow to welcome strangers, once you become part of the family it is very difficult to leave.”

Verne, who has 18 years’ experience as a tattoo artist, has many clients from Gauteng. They make an event of acquiring a tattoo on a visit to Clarens.

“I also fix up a lot of other tattoo artist’s mishaps,” says Verne. “Word of mouth has established me as quite a sought-after tattoo fix-me-upper.”

Andre Coetzee, the leather man, is another fix-me-upper who has made Clarens his home. “I came here 25 years ago to sing at a function. I literally went back home to get the children and the dogs,” he says.

Andre works with leather and can make or fix anything. His profession started as a hobby when he made moccasins at school, and today he makes a living out of his leather goods. His personalised motorbike seats, chaps and embossed products are sought after throughout the country. “My luggage sets are a big seller,” he says. “People who have seen them come to Clarens especially to find me, and order their own set of travelling bags.”

But not only the newcomers or outsiders have had to reinvent themselves to survive in Clarens. Greg Mousley grew up here. His great grandfather was given a farm by the Free State government as a reward for fighting in the Basotho war of 1866. Whereas in the good old days the family had 18 000 sheep on the farm, ongoing theft forced them to give up on the sheep and concentrate on cattle. Although electric fencing helps to a degree, their livelihood is still under constant threat, which turned the Mousleys’ focus to trout fishing and craft beer brewing. They built the Royal Coachman Lodge on the farm. It offers luxury, self-catering accommodation, with a deck overlooking the dam.

Greg and his father, George, began their brewing venture a few years ago and recently launched the Highland Breweries label. Although the business is still in its infancy, the Mousleys are in the process of establishing a beer tasting facility where visitors can take in the beauty of their farm while enjoying a beer and something to eat.

“Many things have changed over the years, but there have been two constants in our lives,” says George. His 1988 Toyota Hilux has clocked up 500 000km, tracking poachers, fighting fires, rescuing sheep and cattle that were injured or ill, and just travelling around the district.

“In all these years, the only thing I have changed is the gearbox. I paid R21 000 for it and was offered R35 000 just the other day.”

And, just as it should be in a traditional family, Greg also drives a Hilux – a standard 1996 model with more than 200 000km on the clock.

Greg’s two young sons, Connor and Dylan, can already drive the bakkies,  as most farm children do.

“For the daily checking of the fences and drives up the mountain to get a bird’s eye view of our farm and its surroundings, there are simply no better bakkies,” says Greg. “These two Toyotas will probably be inherited by the boys. They haven’t packed up yet, so they probably never will.”