In a sparsely inhabited region of baked brown plains and cobalt skies, two neighbouring towns are blessed with a surprisingly large helping of art and culture.

The Karoo, a semi-desert covering a third of South Africa, is one of the country’s most enchanting areas. In this sparsely inhabited region of baked brown plains, rocky mountain ranges and cobalt skies, tolbos (tumbleweeds) roll down dusty roads between sheep farms the size of small European countries. A tangible sense of the past lingers in the eccentric little dorpies (towns), where family restaurants serve the Karoo’s famously succulent lamb.

Two neighbouring Karoo dorpies are blessed with a surprisingly large helping of art and culture, and are excellent stopping points on a tour of the region. Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda are located in the eastern Karoo, roughly 700km northeast of Cape Town. Although not the only towns in the desert with galleries and museums, they do offer a particularly large helping of art – and it is a pleasant surprise to find these cultural hubs in one of the Karoo’s most remote corners. 

Surrounded by the rugged topography and dolerite columns of the 19,405-hectare Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is known as the “jewel of the Karoo” for its well-preserved historic buildings. Established by the Dutch in 1786, Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth-oldest town and has been a trading centre, a frontier town, a drostdy (seat of local government), and a staging post for the Voortrekkers (pioneering Boers/Afrikaners).

On its tidy streets, cradled in a bend of the Sundays River, are more than 220 buildings designated as national monuments, many of which now house museums, galleries, guesthouses and restaurants. A fascinating mix of styles can be seen on its broad avenues: Cape Dutch, with its distinctive white gables and thatched roofs; flat-roofed Karoo cottages; and shops and houses built by British settlers in the Victorian era, featuring covered stoeps (verandas) and latticework. In the main square, the 19th-century Dutch Reformed Church, one of South Africa’s finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture, surveys the atmospheric town.

A few museums and galleries are located within five minutes’ walk of the main square, notably the Hester Rupert Art Museum, one of South Africa’s finest collections of 20th-century art. Founded by Dr Anton Rupert, a tobacco billionaire, conservationist and critic of apartheid who was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1916, the museum is housed in a beautifully restored early 19th-century mission church, with mostly expressionistic and abstract canvases by South African artists, including Irma Stern and Maud Sumner.

The Old Library Museum, 50m northwest towards the Dutch Reformed Church, is home to a broad collection, ranging from fossils found in the Karoo – including 230-million-year-old reptile skulls – to Khoe-San rock art and a display on Robert Sobukwe. The anti-apartheid struggle hero, founder of political party the Pan Africanist Congress, was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1924.

Interesting museum houses include Reinet House, a grand Cape Dutch parsonage (of the Dutch Reformed Church) with period pieces from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, including cloth dolls and clothing worn by Victorian settlers and Voortrekkers; and the adjacent Old Residency, another refined Cape Dutch house, containing historic firearms and photos of the town in the 19th Century.

Graaff-Reinet also has plenty of the surreal and fun quirks that characterise the Karoo. The Obesa Nursery is one of the world’s largest privately owned cacti and succulent nurseries, with 10 hectares of plants thriving in the arid climate. To relax among the prickles, walk Obesa’s cacti labyrinth. Walking these labyrinths – built from low-lying stones or plants, as opposed to mazes with high walls or hedges that obscure your view – supposedly triggers the creative right brain and engenders a meditative state. 

For a more musical kind of therapy, one of the town’s best restaurants, Ambience, hosts monthly musical soirees. The proprietor, Chris Bouwer, a trained opera singer who has performed across Europe, sings with local guest performers while you tuck into the house speciality of Karoo lamb shank. The restaurant also doubles as an antiques shop; everything is for sale, right down to the salt and pepper pots.

Nieu Bethesda
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.

In Graaff-Reinet, historical accommodation options include Camdeboo Cottages, comprising nine 19th-century cottages with original yellowwood floors and reed ceilings alongside modern amenities. Buiten Verwagten Guesthouse is a tranquil oasis set in a formal Victorian garden, with antique furniture and cool colour schemes in its rooms and garden suites. In Nieu Besthesda, stay in Bethesda Tower, a castellated, fairytale tower with a ground-floor cafe, or the Water Tower, a simpler option in a converted water tower. Owl House Backpackers offers pleasant self-catering accommodation in Allemann se Huisie, a garden cottage with a patio for braais (barbacues), and Aandster, a renovated Karoo house and former sculpture studio.