Project Description

Getaway – 1 July 1998

by Cathy Lanz

There’s more to Nieu-Bethesda than sheep, camels and an Owl House, Cathy Lanz realised during a recent visit to the mountain-encircled hamlet in the Central Karoo.

“Meet me tomorrow evening and I will show you the promised land,” said charismatic Bruno Reolan, waving his wine glass expansively.”We’ll go up the mountain and drink a little wine,” continued our self-appointed guide. “The sunsets are magnificent: sometimes the whole sky drips amber, so close it almost burns you.”

The invitation sounded irresistible, if not for the sunsets, then certainly for Bruno’s passionate rhetoric.

That’s how, the following evening, colleague Justin Fox and I found ourselves seated at a table in the veld, toasting the setting sun over Bruno’s promised land, surrounded by chilled wine and delectables.

And as the light faded – as quickly as the Gorgonzola cheese and Parma ham – the Karoo skyline presented a dark blue jumble of variegated geological forms (underlain by the fossilised bones of prehistoric monsters).

Chilled Chardonnay and a Mediterranean picnic at sunset, hosted by a man who claims popes and prostitutes in his Italiano-Swiss heritage, was hardly the type of experience I’d expected from my Karoo sojourn. But that’s Nieu-Bethesda for you – always full of surprises. The slightly dilly, but eternally endearing, Bruno was not the first person inspired to make Biblical reference to the village of Nieu-Bethesda.

When he visited the Sneeuberg in the late 1870s, the Reverend Charles Murray, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet, was enthralled by the verdant enclave surrounded by mountains. “Laten sy dese plaats nu Bethesda noemen (Let us now name this place Bethesda),” he declared, referring to the Biblical pool that was reputed to have healing powers (John 5:2). So it was in error that the village became Nu Bethesda (New Bethesda) and later officially Nieu-Bethesda.

From the Steilkrantz road, which climbs in switchbacks from the southern end of the village, it was clear why Murray made the watery connection. Fed by both the Gats River and a perennial spring, the village is a patchwork of differing shades of green where fat sheep graze peacefully in lush lucerne.

A poplar guard of honour leads you into the village, then hands over to a line of pear trees in Martin Street. Roses fronting simple Victorian Karoo dwellings shrug off the dust as vehicles pass by. Quince hedges form the boundaries between close-knit garden plots, still fed by leiwater canals.

Had it not been for a reclusive artist with a penchant for owls and camels, Nieu-Bethesda would almost certainly have remained a run-of-the-mill (there is an old water mill there) platteland dorpie – albeit a beautiful one.

But Helen Martins and her Owl House put Nieu-Bethesda on the tourist map, particularly after Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca and subsquent film on her life played to audiences around the world.

Helen’s spirit continues to draw a trickle of city refugees, many with artistic bent. They come for peace and quiet, beauty or, as one resident said, because they didn’t fit in elsewhere. It’s this mix of eclectic characters, from Bruno to Ronnie the dassie-hunter, that makes the place so appealing.

“I’ve been greeted here more times in two days than in two years in Cape Town,” said Justin as yet another local said a smiling hello.

The pleasantries of small-town living were confirmed by Margie Hamilton of the Stokkiesdraai Country Kitchen where we’d gone for dinner. “There’s none of that averted-eyes city stuff. Here people look at you and smile when they greet,” she assured us.

Margie knows all about the cold heart of city living. She and partner Denise Hope escaped to Nieu-Bethesda a few years ago from busy work schedules in Pietermaritzburg. Now, in the candlelit interior of their country kitchen, they serve home-cooked, three-course dinners and other meals on request – but you’ll need to order in advance. Alternatively, they’ll deliver to your lodgings – and there’s sure to be Karoo mutton on the menu somewhere.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that in Nieu-Bethesda you don’t have to go looking for people; sooner or later you’ll encounter just about everybody on the street.

Oom Kaboon, alias Piet Jacobs, was one such roadside encounter. He’s lived here all his considerable life but for one absence when he fought with the South African forces in Libya during the Second World War.

“Kêrels, hier is net vroumense (Guys, there are only women here),” he exclaimed to his comrades on seeing the Arabs in their flowing galybayas. A malachite kingfisher settled on the fence nearby to eavesdrop on our conversation.

Out-of-towners, including Athol Fugard, have chanced upon this magnetic, Shangri-La village and have acquired cottage-escapes here.

And Clive Lawrence, who I met at a cross-road – literally. During his years travelling as a journalist Clive often wondered what lay beyond the national roads. One day he impulsively turned down a dirt road. “I found a house with a red roof in Nieu-Bethesda, and took early retirement,” he tells it simply.

Now he “dabbles in sculpture”, fashioning creatures from rusty bits of metal and old farm implements. Yesterday’s fork-shaped piece of scrap found in a field is now a frog on Clive’s water tank.

There’s more of Clive’s work in the can’t-miss-it pink Bethesda Craft and Coffee Shop. I loved his Bethesda Mosquito, an ingenious union of an old spade and barbed wire.

The colourful interior of the shop with its sky-blue ceiling beams and staircase which ends at a mirror, also offers quilted table cloths, waistcoats, glassware and other crafty knick-knacks – much of it made by proprietor Debbie Bruinders.

At a table inside or out, the delightful Debbie will serve you breakfast, tea, the only cappuccino between Graaff-Reinet and the Free State or a light lunch – including the very PC Ploughperson’s platter.

“Although everybody tends to know your business here, the community nowadays is very accepting,” Debbie said, chatting about her adopted village as she served us scones. “I think this attitude is a hangover from when there was a Buddhist retreat here in the early 1980s.”

People were less magnanimous in Miss Helen’s day, and I couldn’t help thinking that Dominee Charles Murray would have been anything but accepting of Buddhists in his Bethesda.

A Nieu-Bethesda coffee shop is hardly the place you’d expect to meet acquaintances, but then again, it’s got a magic about it that suggests maybe it is just the place to meet the unexpected. Seated at the table next to us I suddenly recognised an old university contemporary.

As it turned out, Lindi-Lou Pienaar grew up nearby on AasvoëIkrans, the picturesque farm nestling under De Toren rock formation which you pass on the way into the valley. In Nieu-Bethesda the Pienaars go back as far as the earliest grave stones in the cemetery. The village, in fact, was once a Pienaar farm.

Lindi clearly recalls Helen Martins giving them tameletjie (toffee) when, as children, they visited her at the Owl House. “We used to tell her that her house would become a museum one day,” Lindi remembered. “But her reply was always: ‘People here think it’s just a gemors (mess).'” The population of Nieu-Bethesda remains divided on the subject of ‘Miss Helen’s’ work: some say it’s true art, others say she was just a mad old woman. Either way, it’s the Owl House which draws the tourists – around 12 000 of them a year, estimates town clerk Leone Fouché.

Despite this influx, visitor facilities remain, thankfully, rather sparse in the village. There are no neon-bedecked garages, supermarkets or take-away chicken outlets with American connections.

The Nieu-Bethesda Trading Store does have a petrol pump outside, but don’t count on it having petrol. You will get anything from Boxer pipe tobacco to round, fat pumpkins, paraffin to boerewors, all of which the store has been supplying since 1893.

Now it’s the domain of long-time resident Oom Stirling Retief. “Yes,” said the khaki-clad shopkeeper, leaning thoughtfully on the counter, “Helen Martins used to get her supplies here. I remember her coming in with her hands bleeding from working with the cement and glass.” He interrupted his reverie to count out a few cent’s worth of coloured sweets for two eager-faced youngsters.

Round the corner from Oom Stirling’s is the mud-brown Pelindaba Store where I encountered Brigadier Chris Roberts barking orders from behind his counter.

The brigadier is a born-and-bred Bethesda man. Disinherited by his father for joining the police force, he spent 40 years fighting crime, then returned to the village with rank and enough money to buy out his siblings and reclaim the family farm. Now he’s blissfully happy as the feisty king of his trading castle which he runs with all the finesse of the SAP of old.

If you’re in need of any kind of information, then Egbert Gerryts is your man. I found him on the stoep of his white washed Village Inn, contemplating another new day with his poodle Riches.

The quietly spoken Egbert exchanged student counselling in Pretoria for the peace and quiet of Nieu-Bethesda a few years ago.

Now, when he’s not baking scones and serving breakfasts and teas to tourists, Egbert keeps himself busy reading and writing.

The Inn doesn’t actually offer accommodation but Egbert seems to be the contact for many of the surrounding guesthouses. He also stocks books, clothing and artworks, including replica concrete owls made by Martin’s erstwhile assistant Koos Malgas. The village seems to be a never-ending well of inspiration to those who live here. More than a handful of South Africa’s leading palaeontologists have come from the unlikely outback – and on a nearby farm is the world’s largest private fossil collection with about 100 type specimens of Karoo mammal-like reptiles.

And then there is the magnetic pull of its alluring lodestone, the Kompasberg, that for years has attracted explorers, mountaineers and, more recently, parties of hikers.

Once the village had a movie house, set up in a garage. But, I was told, there were too many fights, so it closed down. There was a dance hall too – now it is the web-and-dust-laden local museum which hasn’t opened its doors since … well, no-one can really remember.

These days the main entertainments are the tennis club (in what was once the high school) on a Saturday and church on a Sunday. Services are held weekly by a visiting dominee from Graaff-Reinet but the magnificent gas chandeliers are lit only for Christmas. The old organ is now electrified, much to the relief, I’m sure, of the unfortunate farm hand who had the dubious honour of hand pumping it – come hell or hangover.

Nieu-Bethesda might be a one-donkey town, but it does have an art gallery. The Ibis Art Centre incorporates the gallery with a workshop, studio and flat for visiting artists. Artists and filmmakers Mark Wilby and Noel Obers have initiated a number of projects to encourage art in the community and have also taken the Owl House Foundation under their wing. Mark, we discovered, is half brother of local legend Adrian Boshier whose extraordinary life is detailed in Lyall Watson’s book The Lightning Bird.

Mark was hammering together a metal creation when I visited the workshop. Classical music eased the hot, dusty Karoo afternoon as we discussed the rather contentious issue of conservation.

During my ramblings I’d heard talk of a syndicate buying up land for a huge game-farm development – a move that’s sure to change the face of the village. There have been moves to get the village declared a conservation area to prevent unscrupulous development. But on this issue, village opinion remains divided.

“Is the game-farm going ahead?” I asked Mark.

“Well,” he replied, “it all depends on what day of the week it is.”

A few days later Justin and I headed out of town on a road we shared with a horse cart and two donkeys. And as the dust rose in a cloud behind our car I wondered how much longer the village streets would remain dusty and free of neon signage. At least there will always be amber sunsets, was my final consoling thought.