It’s like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole to a wacky world where there’s no front door, walls are made of books, friendly ghosts walk the passages, and you’ll meet a character just as intriguing as the March Hare. Find out why to visit the Royal Hotel, Bethulie, Free State.
At first sight this dusty little dorp looks like it has little to offer a visitor. You might wonder what the hell you’re doing here and whether you should turn tail and run – especially when you can’t find an entrance to your accommodation at the Royal Hotel. Litter and dry leaves scuttle across the pavement and the midday heat beats down as you walk the length and breadth of the hotel’s facade. Not a door is unlocked. Eventually you’ll go round the back, through an eerily empty parking lot and hear voices through a half-open door.
I did and before long the hotel’s owner, Anthony Hocking, was beetling his bushy brows at me, smiling a Cheshire Cat welcome and gesturing me in.
Down the rabbit hole.
One step inside and all you see are narrow wood-floored passages lined with books. More books than you’ve ever seen in one place outside a library. (Probably more books than inside a lot of libraries.) This is the reason I’m here. Because I’ve heard about it. And I love books.
The tale of the Royal Hotel
Back in the 1860s the building that was to give way to the Royal Hotel was a trading store owned by JB Robinson who later made a big splash in diamonds and gold. The hotel itself was founded in the 1880s and has seen its share of well known people, like the infamous Lord Kitchener and Boer President Marthinus Steyn.
Anthony has had a home across the road since 1983 so he watched as the Royal Hotel slid into shabby dilapidation. After it was auctioned and the deal fell through he bought it for a song in 2005, not quite sure what he was going to do with it. Luckily, he soon struck a deal to fill the rooms with people manning road works in the area. That brought in some income for about 18 months. Later, a Spanish tour company expressed interest in adding the hotel to their stopover route if he’d restore it. And that’s how the Royal Hotel’s renaissance began.
The rooms are nothing fancy, but they’re clean and have all the bits and bobs you need, including a life-saving portable fan to cope with the summer heat. It’s enough for anyone who’s there chiefly for the deluge of books.
Stories, stories, stories
A collection that’s more subtle, less in-your-face than the books or vinyls is the anthology of stories that Anthony has on the tip of his tongue. He styles himself a storyteller and raconteur and can certainly spin a good yarn, whether it’s about the town’s history or his own life adventures.
Over dinner, as we sat dwarfed by books from floor to ceiling, we discovered he’s a keen Bethulie historian and a bit of an Anglo Boer War buff. He drenched us in stories of the war and of his days as a dishwasher in Montmartre or working on a ship during his university holidays. Over breakfast he told us more about ‘the war’ (which around here always refers to the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902) and about the hoax debutante ball he and some friends at Oxford threw together for a lark.
He tells a ripping ghost story too. Inset into the walls of books are a few panels where paintings hang. Four of them in one of the reception rooms are blank white spaces. Those, he insists, are portraits of ghosts, who he describes in great detail – like war correspondent Edith Dickenson whose ghost helps to keep the others upbeat. Generally, they’re a peaceful lot so there’s no need to be afraid.
Things to do in Bethulie
Obviously, experiencing the Royal Hotel’s book and vinyl collections and meeting its colourful owner are hefty reasons to stay over in Bethulie. But they’re not the only things to do in this small town. Here are some others.
1. Visit the oldest house in the Free State. Back in 1828 there was a London Missionary Society station here to convert the San, until Jean Pierre Pellissier of the Paris Missionary Society arrived in 1832. The Pellissier House museum dates back to 1834-35 and now has displays that include old furniture, photos, clothes and war relics.
3. Visit the Louw Wepener monument on a farm 10km west of Bethulie on the Springfontein road (R715). Wepener led the Free State commandos during the second Basotho War and was killed in 1865 while trying to storm Moshoeshoe’s mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu.
5. Pay homage at the Bethulie concentration camp cemetery, Kamp Kerkhof. When it was thought the Gariep Dam was going to flood the original Anglo Boer War concentration camp site, bones were exhumed and reburied on higher ground just out of town in 1966. (Later it was discovered there was too much dolerite rock where they planned to put the dam so it was built in its current position instead.) At one place in the monument it says 1737 people died here during the Anglo Boer War, in another place it says 1714. Either way, it’s a lot. At the back, under lock and key, are some of the original rough gravestones. The monument is made of austere grey stone and when we visited a blistering wind made for an appropriately grim atmosphere.
At the original site there’s also a strange blockish monument that looks like a ruin but in fact was never finished. British women funded the monument that was started in 1918 in solidarity with Boer women but the Boer women were in no mood to accept the gesture, so it was never finished.
7. At sunrise or sunset feast your eyes on the arched sandstone bridge across the Orange River. Known as the Hennie Steyn Bridge, it’s the longest road-rail bridge in South Africa. At 1.2km, it connects the Free State to the Eastern Cape.
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