The small village of Nieu Bethesda in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Karoo was once a dusty little place no one had heard of. Then it rocketed to fame on the reputation of Helen Martins’ strangely compelling Owl House and Camel Yard. But there’s much more to it than the Owl House. After making multiple visits over the past few years, here’s my pick of things to do in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo.
About 50km north of Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo heartland, Nieu Bethesda began life as a church town in 1875. Its biblical name means ‘place of flowing water’ and was the inspiration of Graaff-Reinet’s Reverend Charles Murray. Once most famous for Karoo lamb and agriculture, today it’s better known for the ‘outsider art’ of the Owl House.
It’s a small village of gravel roads, where sheep and horses are more likely to be roadblocks than other vehicles. Walk the streets to admire the many attractive old buildings, watch horses drink from the water furrows (see point 3), or go in September to see the pear trees in full white blossom. Although there are lots of activities to keep you busy, don’t miss out on some stoepsit – just sitting chilling on the verandah to watch the passing parade.
No, this is not the same as the Owl House. Visit the Helen Martins museum in Martins Street before you visit the Owl House, which is around the corner but accessed from this museum. You get tickets for the Owl House here too. Watch an introductory video about Helen and the Owl House, and browse old photos and letters. See from a collection of photos how pretty she was when she was young and get an understanding of how having what is now thought to have been undiagnosed bipolar disorder affected her. A letter to her lover Johannes Hattingh says: ‘I am in hell, the days get heavier and darker.’ She committed suicide by drinking caustic soda in 1976, but not before creating the Owl House and Camel Yard as her creative legacy.
To help you find your way around, download a map of the village here or get a copy from the tourism office at the Helen Martins Museum.
2. Experience the Owl House
Read more about the Owl House and Camel Yard
3. Explore the water mill and water furrows
4. Visit the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre
5. Explore the Art Route
Other galleries and places of interest to art lovers include Helen Martins’ Owl House and Camelyard (see point 2), the Stone Folk of Ongeluksloot (see point 14), the Infinity Gallery, Gregg Price Art Gallery, and Coert Steynberg Art Gallery.
6. Duck in to a bookshop
7. Eat at Nieu Bethesda restaurants
Stirlings @ The Ibis
For a tiny village, Nieu Bethesda has some excellent restaurants and food experiences. Top of the pops for me is a visit to Stirlings @ the Ibis Lounge for gourmet Karoo dining. Enjoy lunch or dinner inside or outside in the courtyard. There are only a few tables so it’s best to book ahead to avoid disappointment. On an earlier visit to Nieu Bethesda, we stopped with few expectations and left wishing we’d discovered this lovely place before our last day.
Chef Barbara Weitz calls herself a ‘cook’s apothecary’ and adds a bit of magic to everything she touches. She has a passion for food and for plants, and loves to share new flavours that guests may never have tasted. For instance, you may be treated to delectable flavours of unusual ingredients like African wormwood, wild mint, wood sorrel, or agave blossoms. One of our favourites was refreshing sorbet made from the fruit of the Queen of the Night cactus. ‘We just want everyone who dines with us to enjoy the space, and the love and energy we put into creating each meal,’ says Barbara.
The restaurant is open from Fridays to Mondays, and booking is highly recommended.
Barbara and husband Johan took over The Ibis in September 2017 after spending 14 years in the safari industry in Tanzania. They also offer B&B accommodation, with rooms looking out over a garden courtyard with a swimming pool.
Antie Evelyne se Eetplek
This restaurant in the settlement of Pienaarsig is in Evelyne Olifant’s front yard, with a corrugated iron roof for shade. It seats around 20 people and you might meet other South Africans or guests from overseas. Enjoy traditional boerekos like chicken pie, Karoo lamb chops, caramelised pumpkin and vetkoek in generous portions. It’s good old home cooking at an affordable price, and a chance to support a local.
Antie Evelyne has created the restaurant as a way to be self-sufficient, and though she’s getting on in years now she and her helpers still deliver a great experience you’ll remember. She also runs a free soup kitchen and does her best to keep the local kids away from alcohol, drugs and violence. Phone 083-8735526 to book ahead so she knows how many to cater for.
Diagonally opposite the Owl House is Zalig where we had fabulous crisp, thin-based wood-fired pizzas. My vegan one had beetroot and butternut with some walnut sprinkles but no cheese and looked as fabulous as it tasted. My husband had a pulled lamb pizza with minted yoghurt, which he couldn’t stop talking about. They also have about half a dozen pasta dishes, as well as curries, and Moroccan lamb tagine. There’s a pub in an old shed in the garden where they gather to show sport events. Closed on Tuesdays.
Other Nieu Bethesda restaurants
8. Go beer tasting or wine tasting
If wine is more your tipple than beer, try to plan your visit to Nieu Bethesda for May when the annual Stoep Tasting Wine Weekend takes place over two consecutive weekends. Join other wine tasters to stroll the streets from stoep to stoep and sample some of South Africa’s best wines. For more info, email email@example.com.
9. Admire the village church
10. Walk a labyrinth
11. Take a donkey cart ride around the village
Read more about our donkey cart ride
12. Wander through the cemetery
13. Go stargazing
Without street lights, the stars stand out brighter than ever in the clean, dry Karoo skies over Nieu Bethesda, so don’t forget to look up at night for some star gazing and to marvel at the brightness of the Milky Way.
14. Discover the Stone Folk
15. Ride a mountain bike
Walking the gravel roads is always a pleasure here, allowing time to notice small details. Another good way to experience the village in all its quirkiness is to take a lazy ride around on your bike, stopping here and there for shopping or coffee. If you’re more energetic (and fitter), there are mountain bike trails at Ganora Guest Farm and a circular Compassberg trail which is about 93km, with an optional extra 28km.
16. Find fossils and Bushman paintings
During your visit, you’ll see JP Steynberg’s amazing collection of fossils in the farm’s museum, all of them pre-dating the time of dinosaurs, with most of the mammal-like reptiles, from big to small, being around 250 million years old. JP and his sons have found all of these fossils on the farm over the past 25 years. He will infect you with his enthusiasm for these ‘stone bones’ and can take you on an excursion into the veld to find fossils still embedded in the rock.
Other activities on the farm include hiking, biking (see point 15), and visiting a shelter with 7000-year-old Bushman paintings, 600-year-old Khoi paintings, and some Anglo Boer War engravings.
Read more about our Ganora experience
17. Climb the Compassberg
The Compassberg is the highest free-standing peak in the Eastern Cape at 2502m and a climb to the top is popular with hikers who like a challenge. It’s on private land so the best way to get permission and directions is to WhatsApp Brenda on 082-5966475 beforehand. Don’t try phoning as there’s no signal away from the farmhouse and she’s often out. (You can also ask her about accommodation at the farm.)
The drive from Nieu Bethesda village to the farmhouse will take about an hour. The hike, classed as moderate to difficult, starts at the foot of the mountain, which is 8.5km from the farmhouse. You can drive there in a bakkie or any other high-clearance vehicle. From there the hike to the summit is about two hours, maybe longer, depending on your level of fitness. The reward is a wonderful 360-degree view of the surrounding Karoo from the top. The descent also takes about two hours.
Note: Start early and don’t attempt this hike in bad weather. It’s much colder on the mountain than in the village. Also, rain, snow and wind are not your friends.
If you’re a keen hiker, you might also be interested in the five-day, 100km Nieu Bethesda Camino, a slack-packing trail. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nieu Bethesda accommodation
If you’ve never visited Nieu Bethesda before, I’d recommend staying at least three nights, even more if you want to relax, enjoy the peace and quiet, and reap the benefits of slow travel. See some of the accommodation options available here.
Best time to visit Nieu Bethesda
Nieu Bethesda lies in a semi-arid area, where the average annual rainfall is about 130mm. May to September have the least chance of rain, while January to March are the wettest months, meaning the vegetation is at its greenest and most photogenic.
- There’s no ATM in Nieu Bethesda so bring cash and credit cards with you. Most restaurants accept credit cards.
- There’s no fuel station so fill up before your visit. The nearest towns with fuel stations are Graaff-Reinet (about 55km away), Middelburg (about 105km), and Cradock (about 140km).
- If you want to enjoy the Karoo Food Experience at Stirlings @The Ibis (see point 7), book ahead!
- Always lock your vehicle and keep valuables like laptops, phones and cameras out of sight.
- Please don’t encourage kids to beg by giving them food or money. Yes, there’s poverty in the local township but the best way of ensuring your money goes to those most in need and to food rather than drugs, is to buy food vouchers at Die Winkel general store on the corner of Muller and Hudson streets.
- There’s more than one website sharing useful Nieu Bethesda info. For more, check out these:
You may also enjoy
The Owl House Nieu-Bethesda: a world Helen Martins created
Things to do in Graaff-Reinet
Camdeboo National Park: the ultimate guide
Guide to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, Eatern Cape
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