South Africa’s arty eastern Karoo
Located 55km north of Graaff-Reinet along a gravel road through the Sneeuberg (Snow Mountains), the remote village of Nieu Bethesda has a spring-fed network of irrigation channels, giving it the appearance of a green oasis. The spring also inspired its biblical name, a reference to the pool of Bethesda mentioned in the Gospel of John. With its tree-lined dirt roads, whitewashed cottages and vintage signposts giving distances in miles (South Africa converted to metric in the 1970s), Nieu Bethesda is an off-the-grid destination.
The village has long had an artistic bent. For example, Athol Fugard, the internationally acclaimed Afrikaner playwright who wrote the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi and The Road to Mecca, a play about the local artist Helen Martins, found his muse in this scenic corner of the Karoo.
Nieu Bethesda owes its artistic identity to Martins, whose Owl House, a whimsically decorated cottage and sculpture garden in the village centre, is South Africa’s greatest piece of “outsider art”. The garden is a jungle of hundreds of life-sized concrete figures, painted or decorated with coloured glass and wirework. Nativity scenes, camels, Martins’ trademark owls, mermaids, pensive farmers and countless other characters silently greet visitors. Inside the house is a gloomier affair; light filters through stained-glass suns decorated with melancholy smiles, crushed glass decorates the walls and ceilings, and concrete idols stand in the shadows.
Born in Nieu Bethesda in 1897, Martins spent the 1920s travelling the country with her husband, teaching and acting. Her marriage failed and by 1928 she was back in Nieu Bethesda caring for her elderly parents, stuck in what was then a staunchly Calvinist farming village. After her father died in 1945, she began transforming her living environment into today’s artwork, eventually committing suicide in 1976 by drinking caustic soda.
Given this tragic biography, it is possible to see the Owl House’s concrete inhabitants as the outpourings of a troubled mind. However, they are best regarded as Martins’ uplifting attempt to smile in the face of life’s blows and to fashion a timeless monument from her humble dwelling. Although the reclusive artist was originally regarded with suspicion by her conservative neighbours, her legacy has placed Nieu Bethesda on the map.
Apart from visiting the Owl House and buying a copycat owl from the nearby craft stalls, travellers can appreciate the village’s alternative spirit through its galleries; pick up a free map from the Karoo Lamb restaurant, which doubles as the village information centre. Ware On Earth sells ceramicist Charmaine Haines’s clay works inspired by medieval icons, while Frans Boekkoi’s studio displays his intricate figurines and busts. Bethesda Art Centre runs art workshops and sells wonderful quilts that are made by the local community and decorated with colourful Karoo characters and stories. Albert Redelinghuys, who specialises in landscapes and whose work can also be seen at Cape Town’s Everard Read gallery, paints realistic and evocative Karoo scenes with hazy plains and endless skies. You will also see stalls run by craftspeople from the township area, Pienaarsig, selling such creations as wire sculptures and decorative bead-studded felt balls.
The village holds events throughout the year featuring art exhibitions, music and theatre, including the annual Nieu Bethesda Festival, which takes place around South Africa’s Heritage Day (24 September).
Translux and Intercape buses connect Graaff-Reinet with Cape Town, roughly 700km southwest, and Johannesburg, 800km northeast. The nearest airports are at Port Elizabeth, 250km southeast, and George, 345km southwest; South African Airways and Kulula serve both. The nearest train station is at Cradock, 140km east, which connects to Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth on Friday and Sunday on Shosholoza Meyl trains. Avis offers car rental at the aforementioned airports and in Graaff-Reinet. There is no public transport to/from Nieu Bethesda; it may be possible to arrange a pick-up with some accommodation options. Nieu Bethesda does not have a petrol station, bank or credit card facilities.