During the recently past winter school holidays, we packed up the new Ford Kuga and headed for the hills… escaping wet Cape Town with a road trip across the country. We started out in Graaff Reinet, visiting family friends who’d recently moved there and then headed on to KwaZulu-Natal to explore the Drakensberg and Midlands – both places none of the members of our family of four had ever visited before! Road-tripping across South Africa proved to an epic experience… this is indeed a beautiful country and it’s incredible to take it all in as your wind your way through various mountain passes and navigate the potholed roads! One of the first spots we visited that was new to all of us was Nieu Bethesda, a small village lying deep in the folds of the Sneeuberg Mountains.
We headed here with our friends from Graaff Reinet one Sunday afternoon to find a tiny little coffee shop called Manna that bakes the best cakes in town, and we discovered a whole lot more to this tiny town!
Obviously our first priority was the cake – a lemon cake drenched in delicious syrup and served on beneath the shade of a bare branched blossom tree in the garden of a private home, we were lucky get a slice as the cake is only served until stocks last!
But there’s much more to Nieu Bethesda than cake!
A 30min drive from Graaff Reinet down a windy tar road, the village lies another 5km down a dirt track that doesn’t promise much, but, if you press on you’ll discover a quaint little town lying in a fertile valley and surrounded by hills, including Compassberg, the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape.
This hamlet is perhaps most well-known as the home of the Owl House – and it’s where most people head to first. We popped our noses in, but found the cement statues kinda creepy and the cold wind meant we were keen move on inside so paid a short visit to the Helen Martins museum to find out more about the creator and then moved on fairly quickly – she wasn’t a happy person so the place definitely carries an aura of sadness.
Meandering the wide dust roads, Nieu Bethesda revealed itself as a place that is all about embracing the slow and serene while soaking in the beautiful surroundings.
Our visit was during winter, when there wasn’t much greenery to be seen, but even then, the village appeared far more picturesque than I had imagined it to be (possibly because all I had seen before this visit were the grim cement statues of the Owl House!)
Next time I find myself in the area – passing through or staying a while – I’ll definitely return to Nieu Bethesda. This is the type of town that needs to be experienced in every season… expect snow in winter, pumpkin festivals in autumn, pear blossoms in spring and gorgeous greenery in summer when the fertile valley around the village springs to life.
And no matter what time of the year you visit you’ll always find welcoming locals (there’s even a honesty shop on one stoep!), fresh water thanks to the eternal spring bubbling up on the plateau nearby, clean and crisp air and night skies littered with stars!
Top 10 Things to do in Nieu Bethesda
1. Visit the Owl House
The no 1 attraction in Nieu Bethesda is the weird, wonderful and world famous Owl House created by the late Helen Martins, and her assistant Koos, in the 1950’s and made famous by Athol Fugard in “The Road to Mecca”. Watch the introductory video inside the museum (where you have to purchase your ticket), take a wander about and see how you feel about this iconic Outsider Artist spot.
2. Find Fossils
The James Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, situated next to the Owl House, is the ideal spot to to and explore more about the South Africa of 253 million years ago. The fossils feature prehistoric animals such as gorgonopsians and dicynodonts who roamed the earth 50 million years before the age of dinosaurs in an era known as the Permian Period. The area surrounding Nieu Bethesda is one of the richest fossil fields in the country so you might also be keen to take a half-hour stroll with a guide to the nearby Gats River bed to find real fossils. You can also visit Ganora Guest Farm’s Fossil Museum and go on a fossil and rock art walk there.
3. Go Walking
Climb the Compassberg, the highest free-standing peak in the Cape, walk to the spring on the plateau above the town or just follow the leivore (forrow system) around the village.
4. Get Arty
Browse through local Art Galleries including Frans Boekkooi’s Sculpture Studio and Gallery where you can meet this acclaimed sculptor and see work by top Eastern Cape artists in the adjoining gallery. Nieu Ceramics Studio & Gallery is the home of acclaimed South African artist Charmaine Haines who works within the realm of figurative clay. Martin Haines produces plates and platters in a peasant pottery style. First People Artists @ the Bethesda Arts Centre features a collective of fifteen professional artists from the township community in Nieu Bethesda who have been trained at, and now work full-time at the Arts Centre, they work collaboratively in textiles, printing, and sculpture. Look out for the huge tapestries made locally.
5. Take a Donkey Cart Ride through town
Jakob’s Donkey Cart Tours is owned by Jakob van Staden who rides the most distinctive transport in the village. Leaving from the Owl House, Jacob’s guided tour includes Pienaarsig and is a highlight of any visit to Nieu Bethesda. Prior bookings essential
6. Browse the Bookshop
Dust Covers Bookshop offers a large variety of books in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. This is a rare Karoo bookshop where you’ll be amazed at the literature for sale. Everything from popular Africana to pure holiday pulp fiction has its place at Dustcovers. And if there is any book that you have been searching for, chances are, Victoria will find it for you!
7. Indulge in Karoo Cuisine
Nieu-Bethesda has a wide range of local restaurants and eateries including The Karoo Lamb where, as the name suggests, you can enjoy local Karoo lamb, venison and seasonal vegetable (located opposite the Owlhouse). Open for teas and coffee, breakfast, lunch & dinner. Antie Evelin se Plek serves traditional food with township style. Antie Evelin lives in Pienaarsig (the township area) where she operates her restaurant from home. In summer meals are served on her stoep overlooking the community sports field; in winter you sit in a brightly painted tin shack, warmed by a heater and the adjacent outdoor stove. The menu varies and could include traditional bredies, samp-and-beans, roosterkoek and lekker poeding. Bruno’s Alfresco Pizzeria Restaurant serves the best pizzas in town. The Ibis Lounge is open for meals seven days a week, from 8am to 8pm (or late), and has a diverse menu that includes lamb shank, oxtail, steak, vegetarian and burgers. Try their 26 different varieties of coffee, delicious homemade dessert, cake, pies and ice-cream. Die Waenhuis occupies a beautifully renovated trading post in the heart of Nieu Bethesda and this atmospheric venue specialises in well-executed South African dishes, such as lamb chops, burgers, chicken schnitzel and bobotie. Located next to the Bethesda Arts Centre, the Tower Restaurant is recommended by locals as a cheerful spot to enjoy tasteful dishes that use local ingredients such as Karoo lamb or chicken curry.
8. Order an Ale
Located over the bridge on the other side of town, Sneeuberg Microbrewery and 2 Goats Deli is the spot to head if you’re keen to taste locally Karoo brewed craft beer, locally made farm cheeses and hand roasted coffees. Set in a charmingly rustic farmhouse on a working dairy farm, you’ll want to try samples of the Karoo Ale, Honey Ale and Dark Beer before ordering the beer you love the best and enjoy a lazy Karoo afternoon under the trees.
9. Attend Church
Discover the historic Dutch Reformed Church which is still lit by gas chandeliers that pre-date the arrival of electricity in the town!
10. Buy a Souvenir at The Honest Shop
If you’re lucky enough to spot the sign, be sure to stop and browse the “stoep” shop at Reinet-huis. This little honest shop offers 100% natural body products, all home made in Nieu Bethesda with local beeswax and honey. The range includes: soap, shampoo, toner, shower gel, shaving bars, bee bars, natural eczema treatments, lip balm as well as beeswax furniture polish and candles. Other local Karoo products for sale include honey, olive oil, tapenade, jams, pickles. The shop operates on a self-shop basis so you take what you want and leave your payment behind in the box. A true country gem and the ideal way to support local businesses for gifts and souvenirs to take home.
Have you visited Nieu Bethesda in South Africa?
What was your favourite discovery of this tiny town??
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Images: Kathryn Rossiter