Route 26 is one route you’ll hear next to nothing about. And given the number of potholes on the road, it isn’t entirely surprising. But forewarned is forearmed, and the route is no less beautiful for the gaping holes.
Aside from the advice that an off-road vehicle might be a good idea, although not essential as we managed in a sedan give-or-take a couple of rather big bumps, Route 26 starts just outside Rouxville in the Free State, and hugs the Lesotho border all the way up to Villiers just south of Qalabotjiha, where it joins the N3.
We travelled Route 26, which is also part of the not much publicised Maloti Route* (this isn’t a misspelling, despite its obvious connection to the Maluti Mountains) all the way to Fouriesburg, where we then turned onto the R711 to Clarens. The drive winds through and past the towns of Zastron, Vanstadensrus, Wepener, Hobhouse, Ladybrand, Clocolan, and Ficksburg – gorgeous towns of the Eastern Free State that are a joy to explore in your own time. Whilst we ended up taking the better part of eight hours to get from Rouxville to Clarens, you can do it faster.
To describe this part of the country as beautiful doesn’t do it justice. The vividly blue skies accompanied by uninterrupted, undulating hills and wide open fields the colour of chaffed wheat, the horizon intermittently dotted with windpumps, is strangely satisfying it is so gracefully pleasing.
Our time on the route was particularly pretty as veritable fields of cosmos had erupted as a result of a fair amount of rain in the Free State. Wherever you looked these little pink, white and purple flowers were testament to nature’s surreptitious power to conquer the landscape, no matter man’s intention. In particular it flourished in the spaces between and on the circumference of farmers’ fields, and in the distance resulted in pretty patchwork like quilts of colour.
Zastron was a welcome surprise. It’s a very pretty village set at the foot of the Aasvoëlberg virtually on the border with Lesotho, which means many of the people living here commute on a daily basis, and perhaps explains the ‘flourishing’ town – there were no fewer than three banks in evidence (after exploring a number of Free State towns one begins to rank them according to the number of banks that have taken up residence, to give one an idea of the town’s status).
The mountains in the near distance, the pretty houses, the sandstone hills into which the town is tucked, and the odd B&B, make Zastron a definite stopover possibility. The Eye of Zastron, a nine metre wide hole in the sandstone ridge overlooking town, is one of a number of outdoor activities that have made the town popular. It helps that it, like Rouxville, is also on the more prominent N6 route, making it accessible.
Wepener, due north of Zastron, is a smaller town with an impressive sandstone church and town hall, although parts of this lovely building had obviously suffered fire damage and were yet to be repaired – a sad sight. The town claims to have the finest beef and mutton and serves essentially as a farming community dorp. If you want to stay here, the original house of Lord Fraser (his father started Frasers Limited in Lesotho and he was involved in the development of Johannesburg) lies in the town, gorgeously renovated as a guest house.
We drove past, rather than through, Hobhouse and Ladybrand and pressed on to Ficksburg, stopping just outside the little town of Clocolan at The Cabin, a pretty farm stall that served as something of a watering hole, given that nothing remotely similar is available on the route up until now (other than an obviously vacant ‘padkaffee’ outside Wepener). Sleepy hollow Clocolan might be, but The Cabin was humming.
The farm stall and deli is jam packed with homemade products, handmade gifts, décor items and functional art pieces that are made from locally sourced materials, so expect to find pieces made from rusted wire, recycled wood, glass and sandstone. Their breakfasts are famous, and their hot chocolate, served in enormous mugs, is first rate. There is a large play area for children on the lawn, they accept credit and debit cards, and offer accommodation if you need it.
Ficksburg is gorgeous. It hugs the Imperani Mountain and lies on the banks of the Caledon River, the setting alone a reason to live here. Famous for its annual November cherry festival and asparagus and deciduous fruit crops, the community is pretty large and by all accounts cosmopolitan, whilst sandstone buildings, homes and churches jostle with informal traders and more modern buildings. Near the grain elevators on the north end of town visitors can goggle at steam trains on view.
Fouriesburg has that ‘stay here for a weekend and get to unwind and chill’ feeling. It’s not far from Clarens and perhaps there is a spillover effect which accounts for my assumption that this is the haven of artists and out-of-towners where a smattering of coffee shops, a number of accommodation options, and Jenlee’s Country Shop, on the Lesotho border post side, across from town, weave a tale of weekend stays and satisfied visitors.
Properties here haven’t reached the farcical proportions of those for sale in Clarens, and whilst the town is still to reach its full potential, its wonderful to find a less-commercialised escape.
It was a day’s drive filled with dreamy landscapes, effortless photo moments, fields of cosmos and pretty little towns that provided hours of exploratory potential. A route well worth taking, is the R26.
*The Maloti Drakensberg Route spans the mountainous border between South Africa and Lesotho, incorporating some of the most beautiful, unspoilt and scenic parts of the Eastern Cape, Eastern Free State and the Drakensberg.
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