Nieu-Bethesda is a little town about 40 minutes from Graaff-Reinet in the Sneeuberg Mountains. It is famously the home of the Owl House, a labour of love and obsession by Helen Martins.
It is also well-known as being one of the homes of the South African playwright Athol Fugard, whose Road to Mecca is based on Martin’s Owl House. The Owl House looks onto a dry river bed, which at first seems rather unremarkable, but in actual fact holds the skeletons of incredible 253-million-year-old fossils of gorgonopsians and aulacephalodons.
Rush hour in Nieu Bethesda involves the passing of the local goats and cattle, and visitors may initially wonder how they are going to fill their days after seeing the fossils and the Owl House. However, the longer one stays in the town, the more its riches become apparent - especially its friendly, unusual and special residents.
With a beautiful church and quiet, peaceful dirt roads, the town is wonderful to walk and cycle in, with lovely view points from the surrounding hills. There are also guest farms in the vicinity with bushman paintings, Anglo-Boer War graffiti, and the Compassberg is an imposing prospect for hikers. There is lots of delicious karoo lamb to be eaten, a pizzeria, a few charming coffee shops and a largish pub.
It also has plenty of accommodation ranging from backpackers and self-catering to bed-and-breakfasts. Nieu-Bethesda will wrap itself around your heart and leave you wondering wistfully if there are any local houses for sale.
Look out for
The Owl House is a story of isolation and artistic passion told in cement and coloured glass.
A guided tour can be arranged through the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, which is easy to find given the giant blow-up Godzilla outside.
Climb Compassberg. Guest farms out in the booming quiet of the Karoo will facilitate your climb.
The Village Inn – this tiny coffee shop is the oldest eating place in the village. Stop in and buy a small watercolour by Idil Sheard, who first translated some of Fugard’s plays into Afrikaans. The annual Fugard Festival held in the village in September is growing in popularity.
Beautiful arts and crafts and keepsakes, snacks drinks, lunch and supper can be bought at the Karoo Lamb restaurant.
The Bethesda Arts Centre is a creative workshop and gallery for local artists, and offers unusual accommodation in a tower, with a custom-made quilted circular bed and a gorgeous view of the town. The staff are wonderful and serve excellent, tasty meals.