We’re inadvertently spending a lot of time in the Free State lately. But after a recent trip to Clarens, I’ve come to realise it is in fact absolutely stunning. I used to frequently drive up and down the N1 to and from Grahamstown and rated the Free State as pretty much boring and flat, but I’ve amended my opinion and am greatly enjoying exploring and discovering the Eastern Free State especially.
And so, we journeyed on a much-needed long weekend break, to a little-known town called Paul Roux, to stay at a Holhoek, a hiking and backpacker vibe that is quickly becoming very popular.
Driving to Holhoek on a Rainy Friday
I intended to be the uber-hiker for the weekend but laziness prevailed. The two-day hike is designed as an 8-figure, which allows you to come back to base camp after Day 1 and chill and go back out on Day 2 for the other section. However, I ended up going about 3 km of the shorter 7 km hike on Day 2, and never even considered doing Day 1’s 13 km hike.
Tall, Dark & Handsome is King of the Mountain
It’s a beautiful spot and what I did see of the hike was amazing. Gorgeous views stretch out forever. There are free-roaming herbivores all over the place and even during my short hike, I spotted various buck as well as zebra. The others found giraffe and wildebeest too.
Majestic Vistas Abound
The hike is meant to be handicap-friendly but honestly, I can’t see how. This is something to chat about with the organisers at Jacana, maybe. Jacana seems to also currently be the only way to book for Holhoek.
The accommodation is 100% self-catering and you need to bring absolutely everything you need, as if camping. There is a fire pit, as well as a braai area that can be used from four different sides, allowing for multiple braaiis at the same time. There are 3 units. Two of them are small, with 12 bunk beds in each. The other is a massive thatch unit that holds 14 people on the ground floor and a further 18 on the top floor. However, ablutions are separate and the accommodation does not allow for any privacy. The most you get, in the case of the ground floor of the big unit, is a curtain around your bed. The kitchen space is also communal, with fridges, gas hobs and a microwave but little else.
Top Floor of the Large Rondavel Unit
We were only 8 people but were there at the same time as a very large group of about 20 people. The communal kitchen vibe had some entertaining issues as once in a while someone seemed to be under the impression that others were “taking their stuff”. In our case, we kept most of our things in our unit in a big cooler box and only kept a few things in the communal space. I think for the most part, the concept should work out because people are basically honest, but you never know. The bathrooms also have no toilet paper or soap of any kind so best you come prepared. The same goes for the kitchen – take dishwashing supplies, and pots and pans for the gas hobs for breakfasts. There is no bedding. The bathrooms are not the best in the world but as an extensive camper, I’ve seen worse.
Bottom Floor of the Large Rondavel Unit
We arrived just after it got dark on the Friday evening. The road there is mostly okay, bar one stretch of tar that’s pretty badly potholed. The last stretch to the hike site is about 15 km on gravel and is best suited to vehicles with some clearance. We did the route fairly easily in my Ossemwa (MPV) but I daresay that people with low vehicles will feel it badly, especially toward the end where the road needs a bit of maneuvering. Also, if at all possible, try not to travel there after dark. We had friends who only left JHB at 5pm and got there after 10pm.
We spent the Friday night braaiing and chilling with some beers, listening to the sounds of the night-life. It was also nice because signal is hard to come by so you have the opportunity to really just disconnect. By the time our last friends arrived, we were tucking in. However, it was extremely cold once the sun went down so should you venture forth, take warm clothes.
Day 2, we started with a lovely bacon and eggs brekkie and a very peaceful morning, as the entire group of 20 others were out on the big hike. Eventually, some of our crew headed out for a mini-hike of their own, while I hung back with our Potjie Queen, Michelle, to start the dinner. While this was in process (a potjie takes a long time), I wandered around the farm, getting to know the horses that seem to always be hanging around. They were happy to have some apple and carrot I was offering.
Getting Cosy with the Horses
When our peeps came back, we started playing some board games, which kept us busy well into the evening when we finally got to tuck into our delicious potjie dinner.
The Potjie Queen’s Magic Potjie in Process
Day 3, we all intended to get up super early to go on the 2nd hike but most of us ended up just lying in a bit. After some “leftovers” for breakfast, we finally started out on the journey. The hikes are not for the faint-hearted, having many fear-inducing ladders and ropes to scramble up and along on cliff edges. We did pretty well but had heard quite a few stories of the Day 1 hikers’ various ladder experiences, and the somewhat scary nature of the game. Therefore, for those with a fear of heights, I strongly recommend against the hikes. I think, if it’s easy for you to find your way around even off the beaten track, you could conceivably do a great hike around the area without taking the actual hiking trail, but I would recommend this only to seasoned hikers who really do not want to venture up the ladders.
Afraid of heights? Hectic ladders can be intimidating.
After a leisurely lunch of leftovers, we finally said goodbye to another glorious weekend in the Free State and headed home around 2pm, leaving us enough time to get back to Jozi before it was well and truly dark.
A great spot for families and lovers of the outdoors, I’d definitely recommend it if you’re used to camping and travelling with everything you need to make the most of it. Bathrooms could be nicer but all things considered, are not too bad. Remember that there are no single or double rooms (privacy) and you’ll be bunking with all your mates or your family. If you’re okay with that, and just keen on getting out there and doing great hiking, then go for it. If you’re a glamper or someone who needs an en-suite or nothing at all, I’d say no. Definitely travel with a vehicle that can manage the gravel route (good clearance, at the very least but a hardy vehicle is best). Take toilet paper. Take bedding. Take food and drink and cutlery and everything. Be prepared. Remember that in these areas of the Free State, evenings are cool even in February. Cost-wise, it’s a nice cheap weekend away and close enough to Jo’burg to travel through on the Friday. If you’re a good enough sized group, you can do this weekend on R800-850 pp including all groceries. Leave a bit earlier if at all possible, so as not to get there after dark, as it’s not ideal (potholes and maneuvering).
Wherever the photos feature humans, those were taken and supplied by my good friend, Yele, who braved the massive Day 1 hike while the rest of us vegetated (mostly). The Featured Image at the top is also from Yele. Thanks!
The other photos are my own.