Starlight, star bright…

By Michael Wentworth

For anyone seeking the glitz and glamour of a five-star holiday destination, I can only sympathize with your limited horizons.

I recently arrived in Nieu Bethesda for an extended sabbatical. I was traveling from Cape Town and with each passing kilometer the angst and stresses of urban living were gradually shed and replaced with the anticipation of settling into a new space and the excitement of starting work on my debut novel.

Between the N9 and my destination I pass through Rubidge Kloof and at the apex as the road bends I look down to my left into a lush valley where the farm De Toren lies nestled in the embrace of the surrounding mountains and an spontaneous smile spreads from my face into my soul.

I arrive on a mild autumn morning and even though it is a Friday, the streets are virtually deserted except for a couple of dogs who accompany me to The Karoo Lamb Restaurant where I meet my hosts Ian and Katrin Allemann who are also the owners of Spooky and Gump – who incidentally is appearing in court on Youth Day. They have been settled here in this sleepy little Groot Karoo dorpie for close to thirteen years. We sit on the spacious veranda of The Karoo Lamb – with a menu that includes regular specials of lamb, oxtail or venison potjie in addition to the usual fried Karoo Lamb chops, sandwiches and soups; situated diagonally across from the now famous Owl House – sipping coffee and getting to know each other before I am shown to the Aardvark’s Burrow, a spacious flatlet behind the old church hall where I will be staying for the next six months.

After a steaming shower I walk down the untarred roads of the village, lined with ancient pear trees, willows and variations of cypresses and pines that whisper a welcome as I wander contentedly with the constant accompaniment of rushing water in the Lei Water or water furrows that were built in the 1870’s and in the distance a deeper, more ominous roar of the Gats River which flows strongly after the recent rains.

The locals smile openly and greet with a willingness to stop for a welcoming chat; young men on their way to the local general dealer pass by on horseback with a wave, listening to the tinny music playing on their cell phones; and always in the background, rising majestically above everything else is the snow-capped Compassberg.That evening at Die RamStal – literally an old ram stable that has been converted into the new pub – there is a bring-and-braai with a few of the local young and old farmers, mingling with some of the resident artists and craftsmen. Naturally everyone is curious about who I am and why I am here and while some approach me and chat, others just eye me surreptitiously until they are a bit more inebriated. Soon the smell of meat on an open fire fills the air and pots of stywepap and sous are added to the equation, making me salivate ravenously while trying my best to stay focused on the conversation I am having with a fellow writer who is also a co-owner of the local book store. The Karoo lamb chops with locally made wors is a carnivore’s dream and after eating my fill, the conversation continues for a while until eventually it is time to call it a night. As I leave the cozy pub I feel the chill breeze blowing down from the mountain and as soon as I leave the comforting glow of light, I stumble along in the pitch dark until I have to stop to regain my bearings and I happen to look up. The momentary panic – a remnant of the receding urban fear – is replaced by a lingering awe at the celestial splendor visible in all of its glory and as I continue on my way I smile once again with the sound of the rushing river and birdsong accompanying my footsteps: and a lone dog, barking in the distance.

The following morning I awake early and am accompanied on my walk by Spooky and Gump who gambol along playfully, oblivious of the frost covered ground. They take me on a guided tour of their favourite haunts over the footbridge and across the river, past the old mill and the Brewery, beyond the verdant fields and farms with doleful sheep watching the dogs warily and eventually back to the Karoo Lamb where the inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee and frying bacon reminds me that I have to watch my weight here in the Groot Karoo. Just after nine I visit the Owl House and am completely mesmerized by the sad and lonely beauty of Helen Martin’s expression which was – as is so often the case with great artists – frowned upon in her lifetime but which has now become the lifeblood of this idyllic little Groot Karoo village which has successfully resisted the deceptive allure of what most would consider progress.

I need time to assimilate the experience and opt out of the fossil tour and the visit to the bookstore, choosing instead to sit quietly on my own along the river beneath the trees and ponder the enormity of such dedication. Besides I have time enough to visit all of the interesting places: the bushmen’s paintings at Ganora Guest farm owned by Jan-Peet and Hester Steynberg; the gallery at The Village Inn where they also have a sumptuous breakfast and lunch menu; the award winning sculptor Frans Boekkooi’s working studio; the Kitching Fossil Center where visitors are taken on a guided tour along the river; The Brewery and Two Goats Deli where Andre Cilliers brews a superior Sneeuberg beer and makes his own goat’s milk cheeses; and of course Dustcovers, co-owned by Victoria Nance who with her quirkish smile confesses that she is a seller of rare and collectible books and damn fine reads!

Nieu Bethesda has no Bank or ATM, no streetlights, only the one tarred road which ends four kilometers from town, and no petrol station; it has no neon lights and frills and certainly very little night life – in the conventional sense of the word – just a sky filled with stars and an abundance of old-world character and I for one feel blessed everyday that I awake in this pristine little corner of our beautiful country.

Outsiders B&B is offering two nights accommodation for a lucky couple including breakfast at the Village Inn, lunch at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli, free entry to the Owl House, a free guided fossil tour from the Kitching Fossil Center, a free Bushman painting excursion from Ganora farm and a 20% discount at Dustcovers, as well as KB Fine Arts and Frans Boekkooi’s studio.

Click here for information on how to enter the competition.