The small village of Nieu Bethesda in the 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. Here are 17 things to do in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo.
1. Visit the Helen Martins museum
No, this is not the same as the Owl House. Visit the Helen Martins museum in Martins Street before you visit the Owl House around the corner. Here you can watch an introductory video about Helen and the Owl House, and browse old photos and letters. See how pretty she was when she was young and get an understanding of how having what is now thought to be 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.
Opened to the public in 1996, Helen Martins’ Owl House is unique, an outpouring of her creative drive. Inside, walls and ceilings are painted in bright colours and patterns, all covered with glass chips that she used to grind in a coffee grinder and spray onto the paint while it was wet. There are lots of mirrors too. The Camel Yard outside is chockfull of cement and glass figures, inspired mainly by the bible, and the poetry of Omar Khayam and William Blake. They include humans, owls and camels, as well as churches and strange creatures that are half man, half beast.
Read more about the Owl House and Camel Yard
3. Explore the water mill and water furrows
Take a stroll up and down some of Nieu Bethesda’s streets and you’ll see the old leivore (water furrows) that provide water to the village. Locals direct water into their gardens and plots by using smaller gated channels. All the water comes from a spring above the village, and if you cross the bridge to the other side of the river opposite the Owl House you can still see the watermill that was built in 1860.
The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre uses info boards, models and videos to tell the story of early mammal-like reptiles in the Karoo in the Permian period 253 million years ago – way before the first dinosaurs ever walked the earth. It’s named after James Kitching, who grew up in Nieu Bethesda and later became famous because of his knack for discovering fossils. He became professor in palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand. From the centre, you can also go with a guide to see fossils still embedded in the rock of the nearby riverbed.
There’s an active art scene and you can visit various art, sculpture and pottery studios in the village. The Bethesda Arts Centre of the First People celebrates local art by showcasing the work of various artists working with clay, glass and wood, with the tapestries illustrating /Xam (a Khoisan group) mythology as a centrepoint. There’s usually someone on hand to explain the culture and beliefs that inspired them.
If you love quirky bookshops full of buried treasure, duck into Dustcovers in Hudson Street. It’s stuffed full of pre-loved books, from collectable Africana to good fiction and light reading – or, as their Facebook page puts it, ‘damn fine reads’. You might meet one of the owner’s dogs as a bonus.
Don’t miss a visit to The Ibis Lounge. Chill on the sofas and read a book with a cup of coffee, or have lunch inside or outside on the stoep. They do dinners too, but there are only a few tables so it’s best to book ahead to avoid disappointment. We stopped with few expectations and left wishing we had discovered this lovely place before our last day in Nieu Bethesda.
Our lunch was a veg quiche with salad, and possibly the best lamb burger we’ve ever had – a fat lamb patty that was all meat with no extenders in sight, served on half a traditional roosterkoek and topped with a delicious minty yoghurt sauce. Yum. Presentation was on long rectangular white plates, and everything was freshly made from locally produced, seasonal ingredients, thanks at least in part to the restaurant’s own vegetable and herb garden.
I loved Barbara’s idea of a ‘masterchef’ competition with her staff, whereby they’re encouraged to create new dishes, the best of which are tried out on the regular menu, with a profit-share from each plate sold going to the recipe’s originator. Keeping staff inspired and motivated is so important but it’s not everyone who goes the extra mile.
Barbara and husband Johan took over the Ibis Lounge in September 2017 after spending 14 years in the safari industry in Tanzania. They also offer Nieu Bethesda accommodation, with the Karoo room, the Happy room and the Amore room looking out over a garden courtyard with swimming pool.
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. 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 of to be self-sufficient. 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.
Read more about Antie Evelyne se Eetplek
Cross the river from the Owl House to find the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli. Order a sample tasting of Karoo ale, honey ale and dark beer, with a cider thrown in for good measure. Then order a glass of the one you like best. You can order toasted sarmies or – my favourite – a bread, cheese and kudu salami platter, all made by owner Andre Cilliers. There are chairs inside or under trees in the garden at the back, so the kids can entertain themselves while you enjoy a casual and relaxing hour or two. There’s freshly roasted coffee too.
Next to the Bethesda Arts Centre (see point 5) is the quirky three-storey Bethesda Tower that has accommodation at the top and a shop and café on the ground floor. I haven’t tried the food here but it deserves a second look even if only to admire the fairytale tower. Other popular restaurants in the village include the Karoo Lamb and Bruno’s Alfresco Pizzeria.
Back in the 1870s, when Graaff-Reinet was still about seven hours away by ox wagon or donkey cart, the locals decided they needed their own church. The building that was used from 1878 is now known as the Old Church Hall. The splendid ‘new’ church we see today dates back to 1905. Unless you’re there on a Sunday, you won’t get to see the inside, which has seating for about 700 and still has its original gas chandeliers from the days before electricity came to the village. It’s one of the prettier churches of the Karoo, with an elegant tower and a clock that still chimes to remind locals and visitors of the passing of time.
Chances are that if you visit the Owl House over the weekend, you might see Jakob van Staden and his donkey cart resting under a shady tree nearby, or walking along the streets of Nieu Bethesda. Climb aboard for a gentle stroll through the village as Jakob fills you in on some of the history and points of interest along the way – the old church, the new church, Compassberg mountain which looms over the village, Athol Fugard’s house. Listen to his tales of the old days, when Helen Martins was still alive, or about when his donkey cart participates in local weddings. His contact number is 072-9879831.
Read more about the donkey cart ride
13. Ride a bike
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 Compassberg trail.
A good place for your Nieu Bethesda accommodation is Ganora Guest Farm about 7km from the village. Even if you don’t stay there, you can visit for the day but you need to book this in advance, so you can be fitted in with overnight guests for the activities. Ganora’s website says it all: ‘Give us one day and we will give you 250 million years.’
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 20 years. He will infect you with his enthusiasm for these ‘stone bones’ and 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 13), and visiting a shelter with 7000-year-old Bushman paintings, 600-year-old Khoi paintings and some Anglo Boer War engravings.
Read more about the Ganora experience
15. 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. The drive from Nieu Bethesda village to the starting point of the hike will take about an hour. It’s on private land so call Brenda or Alf James on 087-1504922 beforehand to get permission and directions. The hike, classed as moderate to difficult, starts at their farmhouse and takes about 90 min to the base of the mountain, and another 90 min to the summit, depending on your level of fitness. The reward is a wonderful 360-degree view of the surrounding Karoo from the top. The descent back to the farmhouse also takes about three hours.
Note: Do not attempt this hike in bad weather – it’s much colder on the mountain than in the village, and rain, snow and wind are not your friends.
If you’re like me and have a fascination with the history that lies buried (see what I did there?) in cemeteries, go for a walk through Nieu Bethesda’s cemetery. You’ll find old and new headstones, some elaborate and others much simpler. Read stories of a month-old baby, a soldier felled in action near Nieu Bethesda during the Anglo Boer War. Some of the older graves have tombstones made from rock slabs and the oldest I found was from 1830. Apparently there’s one that goes back to 1786, though time has faded the carvings on many of the rock tombstones and lichen eaten into them, making them hard to read.
17. 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 for some star gazing and to marvel at the brightness of the Milky Way.
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