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Nieu Bethesda I — exploring the dusty magic of a tiny Karoo mountain village

Nieu Bethesda I — exploring the dusty magic of a tiny Karoo mountain village
From a hilltop in the summer, Nieu-Bethesda looks like a Bavarian village. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Nieu Bethesda, the little settlement tucked deep into the folds of the Sneeuberg Mountains, is everyone’s favourite escape hatch.

Kids ride horses along its dusty streets. Fresh water gurgles down the furrows. Someone is tuning his guitars for a one-man folk music show at a pizza venue later tonight. The Owl House is about to close for the day. Visitors emerge in a bemused state. Did they just see the greatest show of Outsider Art in the world? Or some cement insanity? 

Clutches of backpackers stroll across the Gats River causeway on a mission to find long glasses of Karoo Ale at The Brewery. They will pop in at the sculptor’s studio and maybe watch him working on one of his figures.

The guide from the fossil museum greets them as she returns with her group of palaeo-nuts. She has just shown them traces of creatures that lived here more than 250 million years ago.

Perhaps Nieu Bethesda’s real gift to us all is the sense of solitude that blankets this valley. It’s a place much beloved and lost in time.

Karoo mountain ale 

The Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli across the river from the Owl House is all about lingering lunchtimes. There’s a choice of Honey Ale, Karoo Ale and, for the hearty and the brave, Dark Beer on tap.

They bring a wooden platter laden with goat’s cheeses, fresh bread, pickles and kudu salami. You’re sitting on rickety seats under shady pepper trees, lost in a delightful world of holiday spirit.

The Brewery & Two Goats Deli in Nieu-Bethesda

Cold beer on tap at the The Brewery & Two Goats Deli in Nieu-Bethesda. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Karoo art of Nieu-Bethesda

The afternoon stretches out into long shadows, meandering conversations, another ale, another tale, another bite of cheese. All honourable intentions (which include a brisk walk from one side of the village to the other) fly out of the window in a haze of bonhomie and beer. 

Suddenly no one can remember who had the car keys.

Over at Auntie Evelyne’s 

Sometimes, you just want to sit in the shade, rest your eyes on distant Karoo mountain ridges and indulge in a decent bord kos — a full plate of hot food.

If those were your thoughts, then best make a booking and hot-foot it up the hill to Antie Evelyne se Eetplek (eating house), place an order, lean back and let the magic happen. This indomitable soul has catered for everyone, from visiting Hollanders to neighbourhood friends in Pienaarsig, the dormitory suburb of Nieu Bethesda. Evelyne Oliphant has a philosophy about success in South Africa that goes like this:

“Lift yourself up. Don’t wait for the government to sort things out for you.”

Auntie Evelyne Oliphant runs a restaurant in Pienaarsig, Nieu-Bethesda. Image: Chris Marais

Auntie Evelyne Oliphant runs a restaurant in Pienaarsig, Nieu-Bethesda. (Photo: Chris Marais)

What’s for lunch today? A slow-cooked bredie (stew), caramelised pumpkin, crispy roast potatoes, cabbage drenched in tomato smoor, and two salads for the health-conscious.

And who are these kids milling about the venerable Auntie Evelyne? Well, some of them are singers with her ensemble called Die Straat Lig Kinderjies (The Street Light Kids), while others have come to eat at her soup kitchen, which goes by the name of God Sal Voorsien Sopkombuis (God Will Provide Soup Kitchen).

They all show their love for their favourite auntie — and her food — with a lustily-sung ditty after the meal. You’re invited to chime in.

Book safari 

A search for the likes of Kesey, Kerouac, Michener, Nabokov, Green and Palmer in Nieu Bethesda would lead one to a shop called Dustcovers. And should one have a yen to meet a gaggle of bookish cats and dogs and their owner, Victoria Nance, enquire at the same address.

Victoria never dreamed her once-tiny bookshop would ever turn a serious penny. She expected online sales to see her through. She has been pleasantly surprised.

Second-hand books at Dustcovers

Second-hand books at Dustcovers often contain former owners’ things, like exotic old railway postcards. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Clock-Watchers of Nieu-Bethesda

If you’re on something of a book safari throughout the region, head down to Graaff-Reinet to see what’s in store at McNaughton’s, specialists in the Karoo. Owner David McNaughton is also one of the leading local guides.

The current boom in ‘Karooviana’ has publishers big and small bringing out everything from down-home cookbooks to pictorial coffee table items compiled by well-known photographers.

Look out for the locally produced and independently published works that one generally won’t be able to find in the mall bookshop back home.

Water nymphs of Nieu Bethesda

As you’re strolling past the Owl House on your way to lunch, check out the Karoo Mermaids at the craft stalls.

Mermaids? In the middle of a semi-desert? 

By now, one will have fully realised that the Karoo is an ancient ocean bed. But still. Mermaids?

Helen Martins brought these cement sirens to life at her Pool of Healing in the Camel Yard. However, these nymphettes were crafted more recently by enterprising locals as rather bulky souvenirs. But if there is space, they would look splendid atop a rainwater tank at home.

The culture of the Karoo Mermaid, the folklore attached to these Loreleis of the open veld, has deep San roots.

The Water Nymphs of Nieu-Bethesda outside the Owl House.

The Water Nymphs of Nieu-Bethesda outside the Owl House. (Photo: Chris Marais)

In the dry west around Williston, they speak of the Watermeid (mermaid), a beautiful woman with pitch-black hair, full lips, perfect breasts and a fishtail for legs. They also claim it’s the dreaded Waterslang (Water Snake) in disguise.

Tradition has it that when a young Nama girl approaches womanhood, she is kept in a shelter (as a hokmeisie, literally, a ‘cage girl’) for some weeks and counselled by older women. 

Then she is introduced to the Water Snake, so whenever she goes to fetch water or bathe in the river she will be safe. The Nieu Bethesda nymphs have a gentler backstory. It is said they represent the powers of women, working with water to heal the land.

Fossil country

Picture the scene: a giant dragonfly’s view, 252 million years ago. Before you, a tangle of broad meandering rivers flows to the horizon. The shallow hills and plains are green with clubmosses, ferns, horsetails and the ever-present Glossopteris trees. 

In a fold in the river, a couple of tusked Aulacephalodons rip at the tough vegetation with their beaked mouths. Nearby, a panicky Diictodon lets out warning squeaks and dives into the nearest burrow at the sight of an oncoming Gorgonopsian. It ambles towards them, a fearless killer with vicious sabre teeth, perfect for disembowelling.

The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu Bethesda.

The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu Bethesda. (Photo: Chris Marais)

This a scenario that must have unfolded scores of times on the land where the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu Bethesda stands today.  

It was a weird world on the brink of an apocalypse. Within a few thousand years, nearly all life on the Permian Earth would vanish forever, leaving isolated survivors and fossilised remains.

“This is the only place on Earth where a complete fossil record of early reptiles is preserved in a single basin, chronicling in great detail the distant evolution of mammals,” says founder of the centre, Professor Bruce Rubidge. DM

'Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo' by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected]. 

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