A mere stone’s throw from the ‘Jewel of the Eastern Free State’ – the picturesque Clarens in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains – the Surrender Hill Pass ensures a scenic drive. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa explores.
This beautiful pass, situated midway between Clarens and Fouriesburg in the Eastern Free State, is well-known and much-loved by motorists and motorcyclists alike. The road surface is excellent, the corners are cambered correctly, and the views over the entire length of the pass, particularly near the summit, are breathtaking. For history buffs – this is the location of one of the defining moments of the Anglo-Boer War when Bloemfontein was formally surrendered… hence the name.
The pass lies on the tarred R711, connecting the small towns of Fouriesburg and Clarens. To approach the pass from the south, travel from Fouriesburg in an easterly direction, where it starts exactly 15.6km from the intersection of the R26 and the R711. When approaching from the north, travel from Clarens in a southerly direction (the pass starts 6.4km from the intersection of the R712 and the R711).
If travelling from north to south, the road gradually ascends at an average gradient of 1:20 through a series of gentle S-bends until the summit is reached after 6.7km. At this point, the road begins a shallow right-hand turn to the west, flattens out for a few hundred metres, and then follows a gentle left-hand curve as the road begins a short descent. From here, you should watch out for the small signboards that indicate the Surrender Hill memorial site, situated on the righthand side of the road. There is a small parking area, from where a short walk will take you to the small sandstone plinth that marks this historic location.
After leaving the site, continue in a southwesterly direction through a long shallow U-bend, taking you back into a southerly heading. For the entire length of this bend, you will have magnificent views over the Caledon River valley to your left, and into the Kingdom of Lesotho, which is on the far side of the river. There are two places along the road where it is safe to stop and take photographs. The lookout points are followed by two more U-bends, first to the right and then to the left, to take you back towards the south, at which point the actual descent begins.
Surrender Hill was the site of one of the defining moments of the Anglo-Boer War, and a small commemorative site is situated on the pass.
“The Formal Surrender of Bloemfontein”, 1900. Bloemfontein, founded as a British outpost by Major Henry Douglas Warden and capital of the Orange Free State, surrendered to the British on 13 March 1900. Photo from South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. IV by Louis Creswicke.
After a few hundred metres, you will notice a gravel road leading off to your left, which, if taken, will allow you to travel down into the Caledon River valley itself. This is the location of the start of the Old Mill Drift 4×4 Trail (and yes – you require a 4×4 to take on this route!). After this intersection, the road turns right in a westerly direction and continues to descend at an average gradient of 1:11 until the end of the pass is reached after another 2.1km. On this final part of the descent, a beautiful vista of sandstone formations, farmlands, grasslands and rivers will open up before you. Continue along the R711 for 15km to reach Fouriesburg.
During June and July of 1900 – at the height of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) – British forces had closed off the many passes leading into the Brandwater Basin, at the centre of which the town of Fouriesburg lies. After a number of battles and skirmishes, the Boers – including the bulk of the Orange Free State fighting force under President Martinus Steyn and General Christiaan de Wet – had retreated to what they considered to be an ideal resting place. The two leaders soon realised that they had made a serious mistake and after appointing General Marthinus Prinsloo as commander-inchief, they managed to escape, together with 2 600 men, over Slabbert’s Nek on the night of 15 July. However, some 5 000 men, women and children were still trapped in the basin. The British forces continued to tighten the noose during the latter part of July, and sporadic fighting occurred in many places as the Boers endeavoured to find an escape route. The British field artillery continually bombarded the Boers, leading to heavy losses. At 17:00 on 29 July, General Prinsloo sent a message to Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter that he was prepared to surrender unconditionally.
The formal surrender took place on the morning of 30 July 1900 on a long, high, almost flat-topped hill called Slaapkranz (today called Surrender Hill in commemoration of this event). Some time passed between the formal surrender and the actual capture of all the Boers, as many of them had hidden away in the caves and alleys of the basin and the surrounding mountains.
There are varying accounts of the total number of persons that were captured, but according to most records, this included 4 314 men, along with 2 800 head of cattle, 4 000 sheep, and between 5 000 to 6 000 horses. The Boers were forced to pile up all their weapons and guns, including about two million rounds of ammunition, which were then set on fire. It is said that the fire continued to burn for several days, leaving behind a patch of scorched earth which still exists today, more than 100 years after the event. A small sandstone plinth and memorial plaque now mark the spot where the surrender took place.
GPS START: S28.560696 E28.403879
GPS SUMMIT: S28.608047 E28.390096
GPS END: S28.640110 E28.349409
AVE GRADIENT: 1:63
MAX GRADIENT: 1:10
ELEVATION START: 1 703m
ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 908m
ELEVATION END: 1 736m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 205m
DIRECTION – TRAVEL: South
TIME REQUIRED: 9 minutes
SPEED LIMIT: 100km/hour
SURFACE: Tar (R711)
Escape to Clarens
Established in 1912 and named after the town of Clarens in Switzerland, where President Paul Kruger spent his last days in exile, the scenic small Eastern Free State town is only 300km from Jozi. This, coupled with the vast array of activities on offer, makes it an ideal weekend escape for city slickers.
A short 15-minute drive from the heart of Clarens, the magnificent Golden Gate Highlands National Park is cradled in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. It is a must-see for any visitor to the area, nature lover or not. For those in search of culture, head to the Basotho Cultural Village which promises to take you for a walk down the pathway of time. It is here where the lifestyle and architecture of the South Sotho is accurately depicted, from the sixteenth century to the dramatically colourful present. Most recently, the Dinosaur Interpretive Centre opened its doors in the park, after four years of construction.
Eat, drink and be merry
Exploring the many restaurants in this not-so-sleepy town – and discovering your favourites – is most definitely part of the fun, but here are some of our recommendations:
• Clarens Brewery has 25 different beers, ciders, G&T premixes and juices on tap and all visitors get free tastings of their most popular products. Line your stomach with their lunch menu, which focuses on German-style sausages and pickles.
• Eat Cheese Deli stocks local and imported cheeses, excellent charcuterie, and magnificent lunch platters.
• The Courtyard Bakery makes the best lemon meringue tarts, delicious quiches, and pies. Buy pillowy Portuguese rolls and cold meat to take away or sit down for a snack and a good cuppa Joe.
• The Purple Onion is jampacked with pickles and preserves. Taste the local speciality Nastergal jam or buy handmade chocolates.
For the love of art
Known as an art mecca, Clarens has no shortage of art galleries and attracts artists in various forms – either as visitors or as residents. Some favourites include Tobias Art (now also featuring the quirky Skedêpi décor and printing business), the Blou Donki Art Gallery in the iconic Windmill Centre in the heart of the town and the Smudge Contemporary Art Gallery. If you want to release your inner artist, why not book an art retreat at The Saunter?
Shop till you drop
Bespoke chocolate? Unique home décor? Old-school gramophone players? Leather goods, toys, or boutique clothes? For those who consider shopping for tourist trinkets for those back home to be a drag, Clarens will change your mind. Whether it’s for you, loved ones or friends, you will no doubt find what you’re looking for. Here’s a selection of the best:
• The Blanket Shop started in 1946 as a general trading store, mainly supplying blankets to the region’s Sotho people. While still in the blanket business, the clientele now mainly includes tourists who are after some beautifully crafted, colourful blankets.
• The House of Woven Art has a fantastic collection of oriental rugs ‘marketed’ by Olivia, the shop cat.
• The Jacket Shop at the entrance to the town is a treasure trove. You have to scratch, but people have been known to find a second-hand Barbour or a Hugo Boss coat for R100.
• Bibliophile Bookshop is a must-visit for book lovers. Owner Debra Stewart has a good eye for unusual books and is fond of local history.
For the adrenaline junkies
If, at this point, you think Clarens may be a bit of a snooze fest – do not fear. Di Bus Stop Adventure Guest Farm (just outside of town) offers an array of activities that range from wild adventures to family-friendly fun. These include horse rides, MTB trails, quad biking, cave walks and picnics, abseiling, archery, and paintball.
For something unexpected, Clarens Xtreme offers an adventure of a lifetime – white water rafting on one of South Africa’s unknown treasures, the Ash River. The cold, fast-flowing water – coming from the Katse Dam in Lesotho – gives year-round rapids for some water fun (we would not recommend it during the cold winter months unless you’re the bravest of the brave!). Clarens Xtreme also offers ziplining, wall climbing and a bungee-trampoline, which is usually a massive hit with the little ones.
Get your 4×4 on
The 4×4 trails in Clarens offer terrain that varies between easy sandstone and rocky travails that can include loads of sand, river crossings and mud, bringing together all the elements that 4×4 enthusiasts relish. The real cherry on top is that you’ll be straining those four wheels in a valley that offers stunning scenery, running the length and breadth of this beautiful area. Some of our favourites include:
• Old Mill Drift Trail: With a length of 28.6km, this Grade 4 trail is not for the faint-hearted. You’ll head up to 2 183m above sea level over a rocky, gravel road, and you’ll be better off with a vehicle with good ground clearance and low range. If you like steep and rough, the Old Mill Drift Trail is the place to be!
• Bergwoning Trails: Only 15km from Clarens, you’ll find two 4×4 trails bordering the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The first is geared towards a family outing for those who are after a self-drive trail that’s not too rough and only takes around two hours. The other one is for those who are up for a challenge. Accompanied by a guide, you can look forward to anything from four to seven hours’ worth of rocky areas interspersed with river crossings.
• Rebellie 4×4 Trails: Also offering two different routes, ranging from a Grade 3 to a Grade 5 (and covering a total of 32km), it will take you between four to six hours to complete. The terrain is varied, consisting of rocks, mud, river crossings, sand and sandstone. The Kloof Trail is a circular route with many escape routes on the trail should you run into trouble, while the Mountain Trail is a return route with no escape.
Take a hike
Hikers will find a network of conservancy trails close to town, with the longest being a 4.5km, three-hour hike up the mountain and the shortest a 500m stroll down the stream in town. For something a bit more challenging, try the Boesmanskrans Trail on the eponymous farm near Fouriesburg. The 10km trail, which leads up a spectacular, well-watered kloof, is billed as a day hike, but you can extend it to a second day of hiking. If you’re after a breathtaking sunset looking out over the majestic mountains surrounding Clarens, head for the Maluti Viewpoint Trail (a relatively easy 30-minute walk). Alternatively, the Scilla Walking Trail (so named after the beautiful blue Scilla flowers that bloom across the sandstone cliffs from late September to November) will lead you to stunning views of the surrounding mountains yet again. This hike is a wee bit tougher and longer than the Maluti Viewpoint Trail, taking closer to an hour to complete.
When to travel
Autumn in Clarens – with the landscape morphing into rich, golden hues as the leaves change colour – is magical. It is also during this time (when schools break for the Easter holiday) that the town comes to life with pop-up markets, food stalls and shows. Winter in the Free State, particularly June and July, is freezing and may dampen any outings you had planned – but you may very well wake up to a winter wonderland of snow! If you plan on visiting Clarens as a stopover on the way to the Ficksburg Cherry Festival, plan your trip for around October/November.
Check out www.clarenssa.co.za for a comprehensive directory of accommodation options, activities, art galleries, restaurants, and shopping in and around Clarens.