Nieu-Bethesda. The name alone has always held a mystical quality for me. I can remember studying the Owl House and Helen Martins in high school art class: it seemed a place of great creativity and more than a little eeriness. Despite my fascination with this little Eastern Cape village, I have never visited Nieu-Bethesda until this year. Nieu-Bethesda has a population of under 2000 and it is watched over by the magnificent Kompasberg, the highest point in the Eastern Cape province.
We left Graaff Reinet on a rainy Sunday afternoon and drove a winding road up to Nieu-Bethesda.As we turned a bend, the world opened onto a lush valley, a little grove of trees and the oddly shaped De Toren “koppie” – it’s silent, visually appealing and, yes, definitely a bit magical. Suggestion: stop here for a photo and the obligatory and echoing “HALLLOOOO” to the valley below.
We were lucky to visit Nieu-Bethesda during a rainy period and the soundtrack to my visit was the serene sound of the rushing river and aquaducts and the gentle tap of falling rain. I dare you not to have a good night’s sleep with that as your lullaby.
Now that you’ve arrived in Nieu-Bethesda with me, here are five of my most memorable moments from my stay with Ian and Katrin at @NieuBetheda’s Die Aand Ster.
Breakfast at Karoo Lamb:
Welcome to the hub of Nieu-Bethesda: The Karoo Lamb – part booking office, part restaurant and part farm stall, hosts Ian and Katrin have a variety of accommodation options for visitors, serve up a delicious Karoo breakfast, great coffee and one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received. Travel tip: Ian is the unofficial Potjie King of Nieu-Bethesda, so you can’t go wrong eating lunch or dinner there either.
Ganora Guest Farm’s Private Fossil Tour
I’ll say this: prepare to be amazed. I like history as much as the next person, dinosaurs too, but JP’s passion for his subject is beyond description. Within minutes, I knew how these fossils were formed and from what era these fossils come – pre-dinosaur – that’s right, the fossils from Ganora Guest Farm would put Jurassic Park to shame. In fact, they are not actually dinosaurs but the fossils of “mammal-like reptiles” that lived around 280 million years ago, in a time before dinosaurs…let that sink in. JP’s collection is incredible and includes skulls, skeletons and more. It was raining on the day we visited but JP and Hester also offer a fossil walk, Bushman rock art walk, Anglo-Boer War walk and medicinal plant walk on the farm.
The Owl House
I’ve wanted to visit The Owl House for years, and it is a must-visit when in Nieu-Bethesda. Helen Martins’ home and grounds were, as per her wishes, converted into a museum on her death. Mermaids of the Karoo, pilgrims and a delightful garden of puzzling sculptures. I felt a bit guilty wandering through the house itself, like peeking into someone’s life, uninvited. But it’s a fascinating and dream-like place, with glass-studded walls, sun streaming through coloured glass and the history of one woman’s life on display. It’s an unsettling but captivating experience.
Feeding the lambs at Ganora Guest Farm
For those looking for a digital detox, a Karoo farm stay should be right up there with a tropical holiday. To connect with nature, switch off and take some of that peace back to the city with you. As we were finishing the fossil museum tour at Ganora Guest Farm, the orphan lambs, and one calf, decided it was feeding time. Hester immediately went off to get us some bottles of milk for the ultimate farm stay treat: feeding the lambs, and one calf. So much fun.
Ah Bruno…charming and gregarious, a visit to Nieu-Bethesda should include a meal at the “World Famous in Nieu-Bethesda” Brunos Pizza. Good pizza, cosy atmosphere and a marvellous host. Travel Tip: ask Bruno to take you down to his subterranean wine cellar, it’s delightfully medieval, although he claims most of the wine has already been consumed.
Stay in town at Nieu-Bethesda Accommodation or at Ganora Guest Farm. Nieu-Bethesda was established by Rev. Charles Murray, the Dutch Reformed minister in Graaff-Reinet. On seeing the beautiful valley with its fertile soil. He is reported to have said “Laten wy deze plaats nu Bethesda noemen” (Let us now call this place Bethesda), being reminiscent of the biblical pool (John 5:2). Erroneously, the village became known as Nu Bethesda (New Bethesda in English). The name was more recently officially changed to Nieu-Bethesda.