A day in the country – travelling from Bethlehem to Paul Roux, Rosendal, Fouriesburg and back to Bethlehem
Way too often, the Free State is regarded as merely a drive-thru en route to someplace else. Golden Gate seems familiar to some, but I have found that for most South Africans the name only rings a bell. On the other hand, Clarens is quite well known among city dwellers – whether it’s for the many art galleries, adventure, shopping, or scenery. On weekends, Clarens buzzes. For many it is a destination on its own, and the fact that it is part of the Eastern Free State seems unimportant.
Apart from Clarens, the Eastern Free State has many splendours, in particular the Dihlabeng district. Bethlehem is regarded as the town of services, which might sound a little businesslike and unattractive to the visitor – or the locals, for that matter – but there is much more to it than one thinks.
From Bethlehem, the N5, a beautifully tarred road, leads to Paul Roux and beyond, and it should take you no more than 20 minutes to get there. But there is another alternative, tarred yes, but less smooth, with a couple of potholed patches here and there and some very interesting stops on the way. It starts in Bethlehem, runs north down Commissioner Street and over the historical Gideon Knobel Bridge. At the T-junction, the road turns right onto the R76 to Lindley, and a kilometre or two further there is a left turn at the S195, towards Kaallaagte [S28°12.531’ E28°17.587’].
As one passes Meets and Sensako [S28°11.845’ E28°12.987’] landscapes of green hills unfold. Stillgewacht [S28°11.635’ E28°11.263’] is a stud farm for miniature horses, and a stop there might just take a little while longer: with 60 curious, friendly, and loving little horses all asking for attention, can take a while. The farm has many stories to tell, ranging from murder to suspense and heritage. Back on the road, continuing further is the pink house – we named it Petrus’s Pink House [S28°08.615’ E28°06.385’]. This is quite an interesting stop offering good photo opportunities and a chance to chat to the residents of the stat [cluster of informal dwellings].
Travelling through this agricultural area, one soon reaches Kaallaagte [S28°08.142’ E28°01.186’] which, years ago, was quite a busy little station but now serves as a grain depot. Some of the corrugated iron buildings are fortunately still intact.
Just before Paul Roux, the road crosses the Vals rivier, which runs through to Kroonstad. The S195 enters Paul Roux from the eastern side [S28°17.404’ E27°57.305’]. Although the town seems pretty deserted, there are a general dealer (for the bare necessities), fuel and accommodation.
After exiting Paul Roux on the N5, it is about 2 km to the turn-off to Rosendal [S28°18.369’ E27°56.358’] on the S222. This gravel road is slightly corrugated and the drive is slow. Just a couple of kilometers further, the road forks left [S28°.19.780 E27°56.169’] and carries on to Rosendal. When travelling this stretch after good summer rain, the veld is lush, the cattle in fine condition, and water streams babbling – making it a pleasant drive. But the area can also be harsh and dry when the rain stays away. Although it is only 26 km from Paul Roux to Rosendal, the sight of the Koffiehuis at the entrance of the town [S28°30.198’ E27°55.915’] is always a welcoming one.
And this is not only a stop for refreshments; it involves a lot of browsing as one steps into the world of yesteryear. Next to the Koffiehuis is Meerkatkolonie, a fine art gallery belonging to Michelle Nigrini and Dahla Hulme, a sculptor.
Rosendal is virtually off the beaten track, but offers an interesting shopping experience. There are quite a number of residing artists with their own galleries. The township Mautse is on the outskirts of town, and no doubt inspired by the artists and crafters of the town, Mautse also has its own riches to show.
A couple of kilometres out of town on the R 70 to Ficksburg, there is a left turn onto a gravel road, the S385 [S28°35.346’ E27°56.042’]. Moolmanshoek is a wedding venue and game farm [S28°37.560’ E27°59.365’]. The road winds up and down valleys offering splendid views over the mountains, and the drive is especially scenic in the late afternoon.
Where the S385 crosses the S456, the left turn-off takes one on to Mt Mautse, the sacred valley of the sangoma. Not long after the turn-off, the road becomes a two-track road until it reaches the gate to Sangoma Valley. Bear in mind that Mt Mautse is known throughout the world, especially among those who practice ancestor worship, and at any time of the year there are cars parked at the gate.
From the gate, the journey continues on foot. There are shrines all over the valley, under bushes, rocks, and overhanging cliffs. The veld is dotted with clay houses with straw roofs and structures covered in plastic. Many candles are burnt here, as evidence reveals.
Pilgrims come from all over the country – and even the world. Some stay a weekend, others stay a month or a year. I guess it is safe to refer to this as a spiritual retreat. The “hospital”, is headed by Dr Monica; she is a traditional healer and has established her hospital next to a dripping fountain, the catchment area for fresh water. Her “patients” sleep in many tiny little huts that have been specially built, and during the day they venture off into the valley, some to find solitude, others to be baptized. If you want to visit the valley, be prepared to walk; it is pleasant nevertheless.
From the gate, head back onto the S385 [S28°40.774’ E28°00.221’] towards Fouriesburg, and join the R26 to Fouriesburg [S28°37.694’ E28°12.030’], where there is plentiful accommodation for an overnight stay. Alternatively, it is a mere 46 km from Fouriesburg to Bethlehem [S28°13.958’ E028°.18.389’] and The Crown Guesthouse.
Consider the following:
Roads are partially tarred, at times potholed, otherwise fairly good gravel roads. Short stretches are slightly corrugated. The turn off to Mt Mautse soon becomes a two track road, which required slow travelling and care.
Services – All towns offer fuel, food and accommodation.
Travelling time: at least a day.
Distance: ±155 km