The smell of glistening raindrops splotching onto quiet dirt roads. The picture of late afternoon sunrays finding their way through the clouds. The sound of horse hooves clattering past at 10pm and the sense of peace as you listen to the sound of silence. Travel experiences engraved into your memory are usually intwined with the senses and Nieu-Bethesda is filled with smells, sounds, sights, tastes and textures that will remind you of its slow life for many years to come.
Small towns like Nieu-Bethesda are often dubbed as dead. Silent. Silence doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on in Nieu-Bethesda, though. This town – which has a way of conserving the past while living for the future – knows and invests in the value of a slow life. It’s a slow life that lures many travellers to the humble heart of town, where dirt roads, water furrows and fresh air make them switch gears to pause. Many visit for a day or two, only to realise that a day or two is not enough. We also fell into that trap. We still wanted to spend time at Dust Covers, a quaint little bookstore that sells rare and collectable books and brilliant reads. We wanted to take a stroll down to the popular footbridge and walk through the poplars while gazing at grazing sheep. We wanted to spend more time at the fascinating Owl House and we wanted to head out to Ganora to go on one of their Bushman rock art and fossil excursions. Our time in Nieu-Bethesda was too short.
We explored Nieu-Bethesda’s splendour in October, catching the last of the season’s pear blossom beauty. Trees with pearly white flowers welcomed us all along Martin Street as we entered town. The blossoms were subtly scattered all over town too – in a small vase in the guesthouse bathroom; next to a cake stand stacked with fresh, homemade biscuits hiding under a glass bell dome. In addition to the Owl House’s cement owls, the pear blossoms clearly also form an integral part of the essence of spring in Nieu-Bethesda. It seems like this is a town that needs to be experienced in all seasons. Spring might bring blossoms, but in winter, the dirt roads are covered in snow and in summer, this Karoo town and its surrounds spring to life with glorious greens and golds. And then, autumn comes with humungous pumpkins and the annual Pump-Palooza Pumpkin Festival, an event worth adding to your travel calendar.
See and Do in Nieu-Bethesda
At the foot of the Sneeuberge (Snow Mountains), Nieu-Bethesda is one of those towns where you need to immerse yourself in its beauty, its culture and its people. It is a photographic wonderland with hints of nostalgia everywhere and you won’t get the full experience if you don’t go out to explore. So much of yesterday has been carefully conserved in this little town – something certainly worth taking a 40km detour for. Here are some of the things worth doing and seeing:
• Helen Martins’ Museum and Owl House:
It is Martins’ story, which inspired the South African playwright, Athol Fugard, to write The Road to Mecca, that initially put Nieu-Bethesda on the map.
• The ‘Grootkerk’.
If you find yourself in town on a Sunday, attend this beautifully built, historic Dutch Reformed Church, still romantically lit by gas chandeliers.
• Kitching’s Fossil Exploration Centre.
James Kitching grew up in Nieu-Bethesda and became renowned globally for his work in palaeontology. In 1970 he was the first person to collect and identify a specimen of a Karoo therapsid in Antarctica, eventually demonstrating that Antarctica and Southern Africa were once connected.
• Bushman Heritage Museum.
The /Xam Bushmen of South Africa became extinct during the Bushmen genocide in the 18th and 19th centuries, but their mythology survived. Their rich vision can be experienced at the Bushman Heritage Museum, located in Muller Street.
• The water mill and the town’s vintage water furrows.
There are not many towns in South Africa where locals get to direct water into their gardens from old water furrows. Nieu-Bethesda’s water comes from a spring located above the village and you can see the old water mill that dates back to 1860 close to the footbridge.
• The Bethesda Arts Centre of the First People.
Here you’ll find exhibited works from various artists working with clay, glass and wood, with tapestries that illustrate /Xam mythology that forms an important part of the centre.
• The Tower Café.
It is a popular café not only for its food, but also for its fairy tale tower.
• Views from the Compassberg.
Being the highest free-standing peak in the Eastern Cape, the Compassberg poses some spectacular views. It is located on private land, so call the owners before you take the 1-hour drive to the starting point. (Brenda and Alf James: 087 150 4922)
Wits University has registered five shelters with Bushman paintings at Ganora Guest Farm. In addition, as part of a 45-minute tour, you’ll be shown engravings made by a farmer’s young son who hid in one of the shelters on the farm for three months during the Anglo-Boer War. You can also go on a fossil safari and Ganora has its own little fossil museum which houses mainly the finds that they have made on the farm since 1996.
With no streetlights to dim the stars, you will find that this is probably one of the best places for stargazing.
• Donkey carts.
There is no better way to get a colourful perspective of town than from the seat of a donkey cart!
In Nieu-Bethesda there is always something that’s cooking, and I’m not talking food only. Every year on New Year’s Eve, the streets are filled with people from all over, taking part in the Bethesda Arts Centre’s annual New Year’s Eve Festival of Lights and Lantern Parade. The festival is said to cross cultural and religious barriers in a joyous celebration. Both the build-up to the event and the event itself are worth experiencing and you can even attend a booked pre-festival lantern making workshop.
The annual Pump-Palooza is also one for the books. Here farmers and friends get together to see who have grown the biggest pumpkin.
The annual Garlic Festival at Boetie se Pub (Boetie’s Pub) is also an event not to be missed. Boetie grows garlic and once a year, locals receive some of his produce to create garlic-inspired dishes to be enjoyed at the pub. The last event’s dishes ranged from garlic snails to garlic brownies!
In 2020, the locals also launched a market day which they hope will grow into an annual event once COVID-19 has subsided. It comes with great fun, including traditional ‘boeresport’, mountain trail running, mountain biking trails, tennis, a braai and exciting kiddies’ entertainment.
A step back in time
A visit to Nieu-Bethesda is like stepping into a bygone era. Walking down the street, it’s not strange to have someone call you from Elke’s porch, inviting you to join them for mid-morning tea. Nieu-Bethesda is the type of town where you find children playing with self-made wire cars and where everyone knows everyone and everyone’s dog. Walking back to the guesthouse after dinner one evening, we even had a young man and his horse bolt past, kicking up dust and sweet, sweet memories.
Tip: Keep in mind that with it being a vintage, slow town, there are no ATMs or petrol stations in Nieu-Bethesda. So, don’t forget to fill up your tank and your wallet before you arrive.
The Bethesda Guesthouse
The guesthouse we stayed at, is owned by Ludolf and Carla Smit, who moved to Nieu-Bethesda from Johannesburg. The Bethesda Guesthouse is located across from the town’s tennis courts, on a lovely piece of land that also houses Bruno’s Pizzeria where you’ll find some of the best pizza in town. The guesthouse has a lovely willow tree, hens that roam the yard and provide eggs for breakfast and a lovely vegetable garden. The interior is tasteful, elegant and well-manicured and maintained. There is no doubt that Ludolf and Carla will make your stay as comfortable and as memorable as possible. They will even bring tea and treats to the tennis court when you’re up for a game or two.
Helen Martins’ Owl House
We had to cut our visit short, but would really like to return to learn more about the story behind Helen’s owls. According to locals, there is more to Martins’ story than what the media portrays and although her blindness made her bitter, she was also a brilliant artist. Tip: Don’t take your kids along to the Owl House when they’re tired.
Die Waenhuis Restaurant
Chris and his team serve some of the best Karoo dishes in town. We had the Bobotie and Tomato Stew respectively – both in outsized portions – and thoroughly enjoyed the porch atmosphere, overlooking a lovely courtyard with an old barn and creepers in bloom. If you’re a people watcher like I am (I believe it’s a travel curse), the restaurant’s patrons are of course also part of the experience and a drink at their vintage bar is a must.
Nieu-Karoo Country Restaurant
The minimalistic interior of this restaurant draws attention to its state-of-the-art wood-fired pizza oven – one of the reasons why Nieu Karoo’s pizzas rank so high on TripAdvisor. They also do a decent, budget-friendly breakfast and – as with most places in town – your furry friend is also welcome.
The Brewery & Two Goats Deli
Taste homebrewed beer and buy some fresh eggs and Sneeuberg Coffee here. The coffee was probably our best buy in town during our visit. That, and the Farmstall’s roosterkoek as we headed out of town.
The romance of blossoming pear trees and nostalgic dirt roads will forever be etched into my memory. If you’re ever looking for a place to slow down, take the winding road to Nieu-Bethesda.