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6 Reasons to Love Nieu-Bethesda (Besides the Owl House)

6 Reasons to Love Nieu-Bethesda (Besides the Owl House)

When we published an Open Letter to the Universe, listing 17 adventures that our family would love to do during 2017, we included the Owl House and Nieu-Bethesda as No. 5 – Somewhere New. Although we had heard and read so much about the Owl House, we were completely ignorant about how amazing the entire village and area is. So, here are 6 other reasons, besides the Owl House, to visit and fall in love with Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo Heartland of South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

 

  1. Verdant Valley

As we rounded the bend and drove down the steep mountain pass into the small Karoo town, we were amazed how green and lush it was. I have long dreamt of visiting Helen Martins’ famous Owl House and in my mind, I had imagined it surrounded by a flat and dusty town, not this leafy oasis tucked in-between farmlands in a fertile mountain valley.

Nieu-Bethesda is an oasis in the dry Karoo Heartland

This imposing church seemed out of place in the tiny village

  1. A Village Preserved in Time

Visiting Nieu-Bethesda is like travelling back in time. There are no tarred roads, petrol stations or ATMs.  The streets are lined with cute little cottages with colour-coded shutters and curved tin roof porches. The tech-free silence is broken only by the laughter of children playing in the street, the occasional bark of a dog and the gurgling of water in the working network of water furrows running alongside the streets. The furrows are supplied from a spring above the village and residents channel water into their gardens using little gates.

So much history on display!

The streets are lined with water furrows

  1. Live as a Local

Instead of staying in a hotel, B&B or guest house, you can stay in a regular residence in Nieu-Bethesda. The houses for rent are scattered around the village, making it feel like you are a local during your visit. We stayed at Quince & Cottage – a cute white homestead with green shutters nestled beneath a towering weeping willow tree. The door key was enormous – and clunked in the huge keyhole beneath the brass pixie doorknocker. As we walked into the creaking floor of the old home, it felt like we were stepping back in time and we were delighted with all the mod-cons straight from our grandparents era, all perfectly preserved and in full working order. You can book your own Nieu-Bethesda village house at nieu-bethesda.com.

Quince & Cottage from the front…

…and from the back

  1. Jakob se donkiekar

Parked outside the Owl House is a pair of happy and healthy looking donkeys, harnessed to a cute cart – “Jakob se donkiekar tours”.  This was one of the highlights of our trip to Nieu-Bethesda. Driver Jakob gave us the run-down of how he got into the donkey cart business, explained the village dynamics, introduced us to the local residents and told us the best places to visit as his fine steeds Fellies and Karolus pulled us all around town in the colourful cart.

Fellies and Karolus having a nibble in the shade

What a way to explore the village!

  1. Fossils & San Rock art

Over 200 million years ago, pre-dinosaur sabre-toothed forerunners of mammals roamed the valleys of Nieu-Bethesda. The shale beds preserving their fossils have been exposed and the town and surrounding areas are full of bits and pieces of fossilized creatures.

We enjoyed visiting the Kitching Fossil centre in the village and also headed to Ganora Guest farm a few kilometres outside town to visit a private fossil museum. Owner JP’s fossil collection and knowledge and passion of the pre-dinosaur creatures that roamed here are incredible to behold.

We also got to check out some pristine San rock art and read some graffiti from the 1800’s.

Ganora’s JP with one of his many fossils

Such beautiful and ancient rock art at Ganora Guest Farm

  1. Pampoen Fees (Pumpkin Festival)

As we wandered the streets of Nieu-Bethesda, we noticed some really humongous pumpkins. On closer investigation, we learned that they were being carefully nurtured to vie for first prize in the highly competitive Pump Palooza Pumpkin festival. One farmer boasted that his beauty this year is a whopping 370kg! We missed the festival by a week, and unfortunately you have to wait until March/April 2018 for the next one, but the promise of “pampoen sop, pampoen bier, pampoen tert, pampoen koekies, en alles pampoen” (pumpkin soup, beer, pie, cake and everything pumpkin) sounds very appealing.

Check out this giant squash!

The owner of this giant said it was a tiddler compared to his massive entry

  1. Owl House

I could not in good conscience leave the Owl House off this list. Although we were absolutely delighted with all the other things we discovered in Nieu-Bethesda, it was the Owl House that attracted us to visit in the first place.

 

Before heading into the mad beauty of the Camel Yard sculpture garden, we watched a short introductory video on the story of Helen Martins, “Miss Helen” – a troubled and unique individual who poured her emotions into concrete and sculpted them into shapes, forms and figures, expressing her feelings through the transparent expressions of her creations and playing with light by using glass and reflective surfaces.

 

Although the kids found it a bit creepy, Ralph and I were mesmerised by the haunting magic of Miss Helen’s lifelong work. The Owl House and Camel Yard are on a tiny piece of land, but the sheer scale, creativity and talent of this strange woman’s obsession and lifelong work makes it feel enormous. We examined and enjoyed each sculpture until the kids dragged us out of there, the ache of teenage hunger dictating that it was time to move on. The Owl House surpassed our every expectation – it was an absolute privilege to enter that bizarre world of sculpture and we left feeling thoroughly enriched.

Getting into the swing of things

Street art for sale outside the Owl House

 

Our family fell in love with this picture perfect village in the heart of the Karoo. We only scratched the surface of all the things to do and experience in the area and we will definitely return for more in the future.

We would love to hear from you – have you have visited Nieu-Bethesda and what did you think of it? Do you have any suggestions on other things to do in the area that we might have missed out?

 

Yours in travel

 

 

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