The Other Side of Clarens: Exploring the Township

There are more art galleries than bars in Clarens. At least 10 times as many.

Downtown Clarens

Seriously, I have no idea how a town this small could possibly have a reason for this many
art galleries. It is just a small town in the middle of no where, that has been built up to become a swanky tourist destination. You can walk around the whole town in a matter of 10 minutes and, if you’re like me and you don’t do art galleries, you will be limited to viewing small shops that sell cutsie wooden signs, bracelets, hugging salt and pepper shakers and oddly colorful door handles in bins. And if you get off work after 6 p.m. as we do, all of this is irrelevant. Everything, even the restaurants, will be closed. Once we tried the two bars that are (sometimes) still open after we get off work, staying home and having a beer at the hostel became a more appealing option.

This was all until we found “the location.”

What you wouldn’t know from sleepy little Clarens, is that just around the corner sprawling across the side of the hill that Clarens sits on, is a raging nightlife scene, bumping until well past 2 in the morning. Tucked behind brick walls, barbed wire fences and down narrow potholed roads, there are more than five ruckus taverns within walking distance of the empty town square.

So why didn’t any of these rocking joints make it into any of the guide books that proclaim Clarens as a must go? Why when we asked at the brewery (which closes at 4 p.m.) if there was anywhere open past 9 did they not mention any of these stops?

Because they are in the township (a.k.a location).

Briefly, for those who aren’t familiar, townships are areas that black people were relegated to during the days of apartheid in South Africa.  Today, while official segregation has ended here in the rainbow nation (a term coined for post apartheid SA), townships — designated or not — live on. With a larger footprint than the town of Clarens itself, the township sprawls over the hillsides below Clarens, filled with bustling streets, children herding sheep, chickens running everywhere and houses with tin roofs held down by rocks resting on top of the tin. There are shops, markets, a school, a soccer field and unlike Clarens, it never stops.

This is where all the guides we work with live. They call it the location, rather than the township, and they told us that this was the place to go out — not in Clarens.

The night started when Fortune (fellow guide at Clarens Xtreme) came over to our backpackers for dinner (we had to make him burritos because he had never heard of them) and then we followed his car into the location.

In the dark we seemed to be in the middle of a neighborhood when Fortune pulled into a grassy turn-out and we notice a plywood sign that said, “Hunters Pub.”

Past a wooden gate was picnic tables and music spreading from inside a crowded bar. We trailed behind Fortune as he weaved his way to the bar patron who was serving drinks from behind a metal grate, like a ticket counter. As we passed through the throngs of dancing, chatting, drinking bar-goers people stopped to stare. Granted, staring is a thing here in South Africa, it doesn’t just happen in bars where you are the only white person. As we passed they grasped Nick and I’s hands to exchange the same complicated handshake that the guides had taught us when we arrived in Clarens and a greeting that was either in a language we don’t know or just impossible to hear over the blaring dubstep.

We met up with the other guys we work with, and though Fortune had originally said we would only go out for one beer, we were soon back in our cars to drive to the next pub.

Nick and I with the a few of the guides we work with.

And then the next. Finally we find ourselves in this warehouse style bar called “Zama, Zama” (Try, Try) with a packed dance floor and sagging couches surrounding a pool table which has a que of people waiting to play. We found this strangely empty room where we sat on the cement floor and drank cheap beer until I absolutely had to go to the bathroom. The guys told me that there was a girls bathroom behind this blank door. The mens bathroom is the bushes outside, they said.

I pushed open the door to find a room about the size of a typical handicapped stall. Within the small room was about 10 girls and two half doors that patchily concealed toilets. The girls didn’t seem to be going to the bathroom, but more just chatting animatedly. They pulled me inside and swung both stall doors open. On one side there was already a girl using the toilet, so they ushered me into the other. In the short time I was peeing they opened the door two more times as if to check if someone was in there, but that was completely unnecessary being as the door didn’t block me from view in the first place. Getting up I thanked them, as if they were managing the place, and left the tiny, but incredibly lively, bathroom.

We left the bars so soon after that that I probably could have waited to pee until I got home. But hey, you won’t find bathroom experiences like that in Clarens.



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