Beyond Nieu Bethesda’s Owl House

The floor creaks as I step into a room with walls painted in black, the light is blocked out, there is a pressing weight in the air and engraved in the cement of the doorway are the words, ‘Lion’s Den’.

With a cold shiver making its way down my spine to my feet, I step over the eeriness of the words and walk into the Camel Yard where cement-and-glass sculptures of owls, camels and people make eye contact with me.

Nieu Bethesda Owl House

I’ve seen this sight before – blue, green, brown and grey – it is not my first visit to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, but my third.

I keep coming back.

For some once is more than enough – it is not everyone’s cup of tea – but there is more to Nieu Bethesda than just the Owl House and there is also more to the Owl House than meets the eye.

With every visit I see something else, the light changes, the glass glistens differently and I get another experience, another glimpse – deeper than the previous time – into the life Helen Martins. I did not see the words, ‘Lion’s Den’ the first time and only noticed the strange figure lying next to Helen Martins’ bed that resembles a stuffed bag with one human leg protruding from it and one buck hoof, on my last visit. I did not see the thorns in Helen Martins’ sandals in the museum until I picked up my own shoes and found the soles covered in the same. I see new figures in the Camel Yard, except, it’s not new, it’s been here for years. Different flowers are blooming, different clouds are moving. I see a reflection of an outside sculpture in the mirror in the kitchen, I see the detail on the drawer’s handle as the yellow-painted sun on the ceiling beams an echo on the kettle.

I keep coming back.

I come back for the light, for the colours and the emotion. I come back for the art, the vision and the imagination. I come back for myself; to understand, to process and to live because, in the words of Helen Martins, “Dying isn’t the problem. Living is the problem. That is why we must live our lives passionately and to the full. My agony would be to “live dying” without being able to work.”

And I’ll go back again.

Nieu Bethesda

What’s going on in Nieu Bethesda besides the Owl House?

Of course there is more to Nieu Bethesda than one artist’s vision. There is more art, more people and more experiences.

Here in the tiny village of Nieu Bethesda, with a population of just over 1000, you zoom out of society and into a place left in time. It’s a place forcing you to detox from the modern bits and pieces of your life, a place forcing you to stand still and listen to the intoxicating sound of the rain, the now and the picturesque nothingness.

Here, you won’t find any credit card facilities, banks or fuel stations, but you find people and you find stories.

(Excerpt from my first post about Nieu Bethesda, click here to read.)

What to do in Nieu Bethesda?

Make your way to Karoo Lamb upon arrival and pick up a map and ask for some suggestions of what you can do in Nieu Bethesda.

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You can of course visit the Owl House, go fossil hunting, visit the Blue Cupboard honesty shop, find the rusty old car at the old church, visit the Nieu Bethesda Art Centre, go to the two-in-one post office, admire the sculptures at the studio of Frans Boekooi, shop for literature at Dustcovers Bookshop and stroll around the graveyard.

But here’s a tip: don’t plan too much. Make some time to just experience – feel – Nieu Bethesda.

Watch the stars, walk the streets, listen to the squeak of a “windpomp”, get some thorns under your shoes, watch the dust settle, make a fire, witness a sunset, spot a donkey, listen to the sound of a weeping willow in the wind, pet someone’s dog (there are many) and have a conversation with a Nieu Bethesda legend, Vellies.

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Vellies is a storyteller and I kept going back his stall in front of the Owl House where he sells “windpomp” crafts from tin and wire. He made time stand still as he talked about his years working in the Knysna Forest. He talked about the elusive elephants, his time on the road, about nature, his faith, family, health and his two dogs – Vlooi and Soekie – who follow him wherever he goes.

I kept going back for the stories, I kept going back for his infectious joy, I kept going back for the soothing background noise of his model-sized “windpompe” spinning in the wind, I kept going back for Soekie-and-Vlooi cuddles.

Watch my video on Nieu Bethesda.

Where to eat in Nieu Bethesda?

Karoo Lamb: Indulge in delicious Karoo Tapas on the stoep with freshly baked bread. They also sell a variety of gift items from books to a range of Karoo-based products.

Two Goats Brewery and Deli: If you want a locally brewed beer (or locally roasted coffee), you can’t miss this place. They also serve platters.

The Village Inn: It’s the oldest restaurant in the village, try homemade lemonade or a light meal.

Ibis Lounge: Enjoy Karoo delicacies such as lamb curry and chops with a fire place ambiance. If you make arrangements they can cater for the banters, vegans and vegetarians.

Antie Evelyn se Plek: Antie Evelyn’s restaurant also serves as a soup kitchen for the less fortunate of Nieu Bethesda and when you order the meal of the day you’ll get a salad, freshly baked bread (or roosterkoek), ginger beer, different meats and ginger pudding with custard.

I haven’t tried these restaurants before but you can also dine at the Tower Café and Bruno’s Alfresco Pizzeria (only open on selected days).

Where to sleep in Nieu Bethesda?

I stayed in a beautiful cottage named ‘Two Owls’; it had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a lovely open-plan kitchen-lounge-dining room area with a fireplace perfect for those cool winter nights.

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Head over to SA-Venues to search for accommodation in Nieu Bethesda; if you prefer camping you can set up tent at Zonnenstrahl, and for the budget-conscious traveller there is always the option of Owlhouse Backpackers which has dormitories, private rooms and also camping spots available.

Wherever you stay, you can count on two things: true Karoo hospitality and tranquility.

Keep in mind

There are no still no petrol pumps or ATMs in Nieu Bethesda. You can pay for your entrance to the Owl House and Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre (combo ticket) with a card at the Owl House. The Ibis Lounge also accepts credit cards and Snap Scan. There is a shop selling the basics but if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation and not planning to eat out for every meal, rather make a stop at a shop in Graaff-Reinet.

Here are some important dates on Nieu Bethesda’s calendar:
Village Market (first Saturday of every month).
Festival of Lights (annually, 31 December). 

If you find yourself in Nieu Bethesda during December 2017 visit Dustcovers Bookshop for the book launch of The Owl House by Anne Graaff (1 December) and enjoy a performance by Georgetown, a multi-instrumental Blue-Billy-Folk-Pop band (17 December).

Keep an eye on Nieu Bethesda’s Facebook page for events, concerts etc. There is also an annual Pump-Palooza (pumpkin festival) and a Garlic Harvest Party (November).

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This blog post was sponsored by SA-Venues, all opinions express are my own.

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