Nieu Bethesda: Fossils, Meerkats & Owls
Deep in the Karoo is a little village called Nieu Bethesda where the owl and the meerkat rule the roost.
City Folk on Safari
“So what’s up with Nieu Bethesda?”, my old chums from up-country want to know. They’re definitely not the Dullstroom Wellies nor the Clarens Crowd. They’re the Maputo Sunsetters, who know all the special little southern African hangouts far from the madding crowds.
“Nieu Bethesda. Hmm. Well, they’ve got very old bones down by the river. Meerkats on a farm nearby. Miss Helen’s Owl House. A decent bar that opens on most days. Artists. Very good Karoo lamb. A kick-butt New Year’s Eve Festival of Lanterns. Occasionally, Athol Fugard himself.”
Those 47 words are enough to get them going, I find. Within a week they’re making a wonderful nuisance of themselves at our place in Cradock and demanding we drive over the Wapadsberg Pass to visit this magical valley.
The Meerkat Mob
Ganora Farm is the HQ of the Meerkat Mob, an ever-changing gaggle of suricates that people half-rear and then bring in to Hester to take over. Baby meerkats very cute. Big meerkats (males especially) can be very bitey indeed. Believe me. I’ve been hunted down by one of the Ganora meerkats and I’d rather go shark-diving.
Ganora Guest Farm is also where JP will take you on your Stone Bones 101 tour. The first fossil you come across is in an old river bank: the lower jaw of a Gorgonopsian that lived 240 million years ago, just as cold-blooded life was started to evolve to warm, at least 50 million years before the dinosaurs.
The Owl House & Camel Yard
In the middle of this dusty little town of creaking windmills, leivoere and donkey carts is the famous Owl House and Camel Yard that draws thousands of curious visitors each year. The story of Helen Martins was first made known through the Athol Fugard play The Road To Mecca: a sad lady who worked in glass and cement, loved light and saw beer as the way to bliss.
Helen Martins, as suicidal and controversial as she was in life, is the main reason people flock to Nieu Bethesda these days. And once they spend some time wandering the streets of this village in the valley, with the ever-looming Compassberg above them, they begin to ask about real estate prices. Which, you can understand, are not exactly ever at rock-bottom levels.
Two Goats Deli
Where there once was little more to do than wander around the Owl House, drink a dismal cup of coffee and leave, Nieu Bethesda is on the hop these days – in more ways than one.
The Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli across the river from the Owl House is worth a long, lingering lunchtime. Girls like the Honey Ale, us boys like the Karoo Ale. And there’s Dark Beer for the brave. And it’s always fun drinking on the honour system by filling your own tankard at the spigot of your choice. Andre Cilliers the owner brings you a platter full of goat’s cheeses, fresh bread, pickles and kudu salami and you’re sitting on rickety seats under shady trees, lost in a delightful world of holiday spirit.
The Karoo Lamb Restaurant
For breakfasts, lunches and a place to stay, Ian and Katrin Allemann are your guys. The Allemanns have good accommodation to suit all manner of traveler, from guest house needs to self-cater to backpackers. And their newly-launched The Karoo Lamb will feed you fantastically well. There’s usually something hot and hearty, like lamb roast or venison potjie, but also a wide array of delicious food for vegetarians – pretty unusual in the Karoo, where chicken is considered a vegetable. Look out for Ian Allemann, the man with the wide-brimmed hat (and, in summer, bare feet), tending to his array of black pots on blazing fires right there in the street.
The Night Lights
Apart from a rather busy schedule of art exhibitions, musical shows and photographic weekends, the Fugard Festival in early October focuses attention on the renowned playwright, his work and his love for the Karoo. Athol Fugard still owns a little place in Nieu Bethesda and very occasionally makes it out here from his permanent home in southern California.
For me, however, the real appeal of Nieu Bethesda is evident after dark, when the lights go on. I once attended a ‘night-lighting’ of the Owl House, when Miss Helen’s home was festooned with candles and the place came alive. That was special, but the best stuff happens on New Year’s Eve, when the township kids come to the Craft Centre, make their lanterns and march through the night streets singing and cheering.
We had just arrived in the Karoo, and were thrilled to see in 2008 in the company of such wonderful spirits, as the rains came down and the candles kept their fire and Nieu Bethesda was transformed into a place of magic and fairy lights…- By Chris Marais