Everything I got up to in Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape.
About 50km from Graaff-Reinet lies the little town of Nieu Bethesda. In the heart of the Great Karoo and far away from most places. Surrounded by the breathtaking Sneeuberg Mountains, the town is overlooked by the ever-faithful watcher, Compassberg, the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape, and is lined on either side by lush, rolling hills.
Many people assume that it started as a mission station, like many other Karoo villages. When in fact, it was started by a determined group of people (mostly farmers) who lived in the area and wanted a church closer than the one in Graaff-Reinet which was over seven hours away in the 1870’s (these days it takes just over half an hour).
In February 1875, a petition group of 169 men met the church council of Graaff-Reinet. However, only in 1878 did Graaff-Reinet agree to the petitions of the Nieu Bethesda people to start their own town. The often-misspelled name is of biblical origin (John 5:2–4) and means "place of flowing water”, thanks to the eternal spring that bubbles on the plateau just above Nieu Bethesda. Its water flows downhill through the village’s network of furrows, one of the last working furrow systems still operating daily.
By 1880, the church found it too difficult to run the village, handed it over to a municipal admin team, and it attained municipal status in 1886. The village slowly declined over the years that followed, contributing factors like improved transport, the Depression, and the isolated location all played a role.
Then, in the late 1980’s, internationally acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard’s play ‘The Road to Mecca’ put the village back on the map. Based on the creative life of Helen Martins, Fugard’s play drew international attention. Visitors started trickling into the remote corner of the Karoo; some of them even bought property and stayed. It was the last village in South Africa to get electricity, in 1991, and it still doesn’t have a gas station or an A.T.M.
These days, most people still visit solely for the (in-) famous Owl House, but I came to find there's a whole lot more to do in Nieu Bethesda. One of those villages where the streets remain untarred, and the Karoo-locals greet visitors like friends.
WHERE TO STAY
Upon checking in at The Bethesda Guest House, set in the heart of the village, you’ll notice the bright, expansive stoep facing the rose garden on Martin Street and the beautiful willow tree in the garden. Natural wooden floors lead to the spacious interior and charming en-suite rooms with its custom designed and sourced furniture and textiles. Large windows, high ceilings and solid walls provide the best Karoo-comfort luxury.
The story of the guest house began in February of 2019, when Ludolf and Carla Smit bought a property with the aim to relocate to the platteland. The few months that followed saw them frequenting auctions and markets, researching linen and amenities, planning gas and grey water systems, stocking up on coffee beans (ethically-sourced, as I was specifically told) and tiles and then finally, relocating from Johannesburg to the quiet Karoo to live their dream.
I stayed in the “North” Room, a spacious double room equipped with a drinks cabinet, a coffee capsule device, and a dreamy en-suite bathroom with a Victorian bath, walk in shower, as well as two basins. The room opens onto outdoor seating. All rooms are individually decorated, expressing Karoo-classics and open out onto the garden. Comfort and detail are of the utmost importance to The Bethesda team, with extra length king size beds, crisp white percale linen and towels, high quality amenities and robes and slippers.
Included in your stay: a full English breakfast daily, tea & filter coffee amenities and rusks, Wi-Fi, daily housekeeping, and secure parking. They also offer some extras that I absolutely loved, like full access to their collection of books to savour on the stoep or in the lounge, fitness equipment available to use (gym mats, light free weights, foam roller, yoga support blocks), access to the tennis courts directly across the road at the Nieu Bethesda Sports Club (they have racquets and balls at hand), as well as two mountain bikes with helmets to explore the village and surrounds.
Find them here: 317 Martin Street, Nieu-Bethesda, 6286
There’s also a gorgeous option for those who prefer to camp, in town and walking distance to all of the attractions.
Zonnenstrahl Caravan and Camping is a highly recommended spot in Nieu Bethesda. There are eight different sites to choose from and each camping site has access to power points, braai facilities and water points. The area is fully lawned and there are plenty of shady areas for hot, summer days. The communal ablution facilities have two separate toilets and two separate showers. The ablutions are simple but they are kept spotless and the site is cleaned daily 7 days a week, the whole year round.
A bit further out of town, on a working sheep farm, you’ll find Granora Guest Farm. They offer 6 sites with electricity and 6 sites without. There’s a shared ablution with hot water, braai facilities and a swimming pool.
The first Bushman paintings were discovered in 1996 by the sons of the farmer, Louis and Renier. Since then, they’ve come across 5 shelters with paintings and many more without paintings but with evidence that the caves were inhabited, as there were still old Bushman tools found there. Wits university came out to confirm and they are all registered.
On the guided walk you’ll learn all about the rock art as well as further information of these early Karoo inhabitants’ culture and beliefs.
Henry, better known as Punky, the local guide, told me about the farm and how things are managed as you pass by the lucerne lands, but his real interest is in medicinal plants. He was taught by his grandfather, a Bushman descendant, what plants can be used for. I found it fascinating hearing about the different uses for everything from the Snow Bush, to the Agave, and the rather comical Bobbejaan Bybel (Baboon Bible).
Book one of the walks here: Granora Activities
What To Do
The Owl House
I think it goes without saying that The Owl House & Museum should be on the top of this list, however, I have to admit it wasn’t the highlight of my time in Nieu Bethesda. Still worth a visit nonetheless. Built by Helen Martins and maintained as a museum after her death in 1976.
Martins was born in 1897, at a time when Nieu Bethesda was still the busy center of a farming community. She dedicated the latter part of her life to transforming her ordinary Karoo home into a world of colour and light. She made the rooms glow luminescent green, yellow and red, the light bouncing first off mirrors, then off the crushed glass that she stuck to the walls and ceilings. (She ground it up in a coffee grinder, all that glass, and stored it in jars, one for each colour. The jars are still there today.)
It's said that the conservatives in town thought that she was a witch, and whispered about her when she stepped out into the street. So she went out less, and dedicated her time and effort into creating her own light-filled world. After she and her assistants, which in itself sparked some lifted eyebrows as her closest companion during this time was a coloured man named Koos Malgas, finished the house, they started on a sculpture garden, known as the Camel Yard. A wire-worked sign overhead reads, “This Is My World.”
She commited suicide at the age of 78, the reasons for her decision to die is something of a mystery. Every account offers a different interpretation (one of the most revealing is Sue Imrie Ross' This Is My World and the most famous is Athol Fugard's play, The Road to Mecca).
Some in the village say she was a woman further advanced than her times, some say she was scandalous, and others say fun. Stories were told involving her painting each block of a tortoise's shell a different colour, leaving quilted tortoises wandering around. Someone else said she used to have the habit of answering the door stark naked. What is certain though is that she left behind a startling and powerful vision of her world, a vision that is larger than life.
The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre
(With a dual ticket of R100 you can see both, I purchased it at the Owl House Museum’s kiosk)
Enter the centre and step even further back in time, into a world without the plants and animals we know today. Life-sized models of prehistoric animals which once lived in the Karoo and paintings by the artist Gerhard Marx illustrate a time when there were no flowers or grasses, no mammals and no birds. Humans would only arrive on scene around 250 million years later.
It’s named after James William Kitching, regarded by many as one of the world’s greatest fossil finders. James Kitching was born in Graaff-Reinet, and at a very early age he was inducted into the fundamentals of field palaeontology when he went with his father and younger brothers collecting fossils for the legendary Dr Robert Broom in the mountains around Nieu Bethesda. He found his first fossil at the age of six, the first of many new species which he was to present to science over the next seven decades and more.
The Centre also has displays on some of the latest fossil finds like Homo naledi and Australopihecus sediba. You can see a demonstration of the method that they use to extract fossils, a process called fossil preparation and take a short guided walk to the nearby fossil-bearing rocks.
The Bushmen Heritage Museum
The Bethesda Arts Centre, hosts the Bushman Heritage Museum. The artists are local people of mixed descent from the coloured community, who have gradually come to recognise and own their Bushman descent.
No-one is left alive who speaks the |Xam language, the colonial invasion resulting in an entire culture, language and identity lost. However, we do know that these indigenous people of South Africa, the Bushmen, had a deep connection to nature that was reflected in their mythology.
The centre acts as a place where these stories can be told.
Read more about the |Xam Bushmen here: https://bushmanheritagemuseum.org/the-xam-bushmen/
I spent more time here than I’d like to admit. The owner. Victoria, goes out of her way to source new and rare collectable second-hand books. So, if you’ve been on the hunt for something specific, chances are you’ll spot it here. I walked out with Eve Palmer’s Plains of Camdeboo and Hemingway’s In Africa.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Owned and run by the same Ludolf and Carla from The Bethesda Guest House, Bruno’s is situated on the property and serves the best pizzas in town. Wood fired, thin based, made with local produce and topped with fresh herbs and greens straight from their garden. Seating is provided inside the converted waenhuis (barn) and outside on the patio.
Find them here: Bruno’s At The Bethesda
The conversations I had with Tannie Idil ended up being one of the highlights from my time in Nieu-Bethesda. A tea garden and modest Karoo-style restaurant, I highly recommend sitting outside in the courtyard on a sunny day.
Oh, and try the scones. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Trust me on this.
Delicious Karoo meals by Chef Chris Lloyd. If you’re lucky you’ll get your hands on their freshly-baked bread.
A family style restaurant serving mostly Italian-inspired dishes. The pastas and salads are some of the best I’ve ever had.
Auntie Evelin se Plek
Auntie Evelyn lives in the Nieu Bethesda township area of Pienaarsig. She serves traditional food with township style. The menu is always changing, depending on what’s in season and what mood Auntie Evelyn is in. Dishes include boboties, bredies, samp-and-beans, vegetable dishes, soup and a choice of fresh bread and roosterkoek with homemade jam, a seasonal salad, and a yummy dessert. Auntie Evelyn also makes vegetarian meals.
Sneeuberg Brewery and 2Goats Deli
A visit to the Sneeuberg Brewery and the adjoining 2Goats Deli is perfect for sundowners. The brewery and deli is a one-man show and the beer and cheese served here are made by the owner. Even the coffee is roasted on site. Order a platter and an ale, and shoot the breeze while the sun makes its descent over the Sneeuberg Mountains.
The Tower Café is adjacent to the Bethesda Arts Centre, and got its name as a result of being situated within an old tower. This eatery is open for delicious breakfasts, tasty lunches and hearty dinners from Monday to Sunday. The menu is varied enough to accommodate all preferences, making this a perfect stop-over for anyone and everyone.
As thorough as this list is, there’s still a couple of spots that I missed! The best way to explore Nieu Bethesda is by simply walking (or cycling) through its dusty streets. Arguably tucked away in one of the most beautiful nooks of the Karoo, it’s a must-stop to be added to any South Africa-travellers’ list.