Nieu-Bethesda, Old Spirit

In 1854 American Daniel Halladay invented the multi-bladed windpump. His invention turned inhospitable regions of the world into hospitable ones and in the case of the Karoo, into a rusty region of romantic windmilled sunsets. Aah Danny, thank you boet. But it’s another American, Mr Willis Carrier, who deserves our thanks more than any other because it was his genius who invented the first air conditioner, which we can all safely assume was the Oupagrootjie of our car’s most convenient asset when driving through the Karoo – the beloved AC.


It certainly served me well this past December – thanks Willis – and allowed for a comfortable tourist experience of what adamantly remains the most spiritual, character-filled and quite frankly (in this writer’s always correct opinion) most beautiful region in South Africa. And that says a lot. This is South Africa, after all.



If you don’t have AC, finding an oasis like this is life-changing. Meiringspoort, just near Oudtshoorn.



The Karoo’s semi-desert scrub starts relatively soon after leaving Cape Town. The Cape Mountains steadily dissolve into its plateaus and via route 62 and an amount of still-to-be-counted curio towns and windmills later, you eventually find yourself in Oudtshoorn. It was Stop 1 on our Karoo adventure that offered a much anticipated and deafening kuier with the family.


For the linguists who care, the Afrikaans spoken here is frighteningly quick and brutal. ‘Ek’ is pronounced ‘Ik’ and between the shouts of its speakers, you can appreciate 300 years of its tongue-twisting evolution. Like the Karoo, the Afrikaners here are as tough as nails. Makes sense. Our nomadic ancestors, the Trekboers, roamed the Karoo throughout 17 and 1800s and did so without the convenience of AC and the twist of bottled water. All they had was Moer Koffie. And let me tell you, if Moer Koffie doesn’t make your genes tougher, it’s probably because its smashed them and ground-up them up in your cells’ soggy cytoplasm.



Some biology for you just in case.




But it wasn’t Oudtshoorn that was our destination, it was Nieu-Bethesda, so we trekked further still to find the little bugger and eventually did, somewhere yonder about the hills near Graaff-Reinet, off a road that exists for no other reason than to connect the little place to the Africa around it, which incidentally is an Africa 100 years ahead of it in time. Yip. That’s Nieu-Bethesda.


Now, there isn’t much that my words can do to describe Nieu-Bethesda because nothing I write here will give it justice but, as you’ve taken the effort to read this far, I’ll tell you what I can:


The town is haunted. But in a good way. It’s creepy as hell too but in the most uncreepy way imaginable. It’s a twilight zone of curiosities and past worlds – little restaurants and lonely book shops are squeezed between shells of dead cars and rusty windmills. In its forest, horses appear and disappear through the thick foliage in slow and majestic fairy-tale trots just like the ones you dreamed about when you were a little girl.



I was never once a little girl but you get what I mean.



The Owl House, which is its oddest and most extraordinary attraction in Nieu-Bethesda is deeply moving, but disturbing too in a refreshingly unsettling way. The place is the house-turned-museum of artist-come-visionary-come-weirdo Helen Martins who, when we eventually left, I strangely missed. It’s sad that I will never get to meet her in real life but I suppose it’s romantic too: At least at her extraordinary Owl House I got to scratch through her fantastic-shaped and vividly-coloured brain and I am a better human for it.



Temple of Colour. Owl House.



The human condition. Owl House.



Helen’s backyard. Coloured glass, wire and cement bring her fascinating vision together.



The brains of the ancient Karoo are also there in Nieu-Bethesda, fossilized in bone at the river bed and are reachable by fossil tour. It’s brilliant. Do it.  And then, when you’re done, stroll in the heat to the craft beer brewery and back and look for a fantastic little pub called PUB. Alcohol flows at PUB like you would expect it to and after countless beers and conversation with travelers just like us, I fell in love with PUB just like I did with everything else there. Like the restaurant in the post office, and the dungeon at Bruno’s, and that afternoon drinking box wine on the stoep. What a truly amazing place.



Bietjie doos wyn vir die boytjies.



Our night at PUB was the windmill on top of an astonishing Karoo excursion. Truly. I have said it many times before: The Karoo is not enjoyed enough. It is too often just the lonely space between your house and your holiday. But if you dare to take three more days to try something new, to try a bit of the extraordinary Karoo too, you will be pleasantly surprised at what is on offer. Because remember, there are many beaches and many mountains the world over, but there is only one Karoo. Our Karoo. So trek it like a Trekboer – met Moer Koffie and all! And if you’re looking for a place to start or finish, Nieu-Bethesda is just the pozzie.




Miss you PUB. See you soon.

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