The sound of smooth jazz wakes me up from a lazy afternoon nap. There is a hush over the town, the type of quiet that can only be achieved through having a population in the low thousands. The jazz lures me to the common room of my backpackers, where a speaker mumbles the blues. In this town, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sound came from someone in the street showing off their musical talent. In a place where homes are decorated with scrap pieces of metal from long-ago machines, and where the requirement to be a citizen is to have a statue of an owl on the front porch, anything becomes expected in the small town of Nieu Bethesda.
How to prepare
Surrounded by a range of mountains and accessible through a road that suddenly diminishes from highway into dirt, Nieu Bethesda takes shelter in a small part of a semi-desert region in South Africa known as the Karoo. The town doesn’t have paved roads, an ATM, or a petrol station, so come prepared with enough cash and petrol to get you to the nearest town. There is one grocery store, creatively entitled “Die Winkel”- meaning “The Shop” in Afrikaans, the local language- which supplied us with our basic needs. However, bring your own essential food stuffs just in case.
Where to stay
There are a surprisingly large number of backpackers and bed `n breakfasts in Niue Bethesda. I stayed at the Owl House Backpackers, which was cheap and clean. It has single rooms as well as dorms, for those who prefer to save money. Just make sure to bring warm clothing and extra bedding if you go in the winter as the Karoo gets very cold at night time
What to do
Find your favorite restaurant
There is no fear of running out of food, however, because the town boasts a number of restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance of each other. However, it should be noted that in Nieu Bethesda everything is in walking distance. The town is made up of about four roads stretching one way and four stretching the other, creating a small grid on which the community thrives. Cafes and restaurants all boast the best Karoo lamb, which is famous because of its high quality. Take a wonder though the town and pick which restaurant is your favourite.
Visit the Owl House and Camel Yard
Arguably one of the most famous attractions of Nieu Bethesda is the Owl House and Camel Yard. Late artist Helen Martins filled her home with hundreds of statues that she made during her life time. The figures range from mystical women to biblical men to camels and owls. Her yard and the interior of her home gradually became home to this collection of statues, and as a result, have been turned into a museum that attracts visitors from all over the world. The Owl House and Camel Yard is open every day of the year except for the 25th December. Just outside of the Owl House you will find a market that sells carvings and statues inspired by Helen Martins as well as the surrounding landscape. Support the local artists by buying some of their amazing work.
Grab a beer at The Brewery and Two Goats
One thing that cannot be missed out on is the local brewery, The Brewery and Two Goats Deli. As the name suggests, they make their own cheese too. The brewery offers a range of ciders and beers to choose from (my personal favourite the honey ale), and platters of home-made cheese and a selection of meats to go with it. Grab a beer and a platter and enjoy the back garden, which is equipped with benches and a hammock in case of beer induced drowsiness.
Visit the pub
If you are looking for a way to end off your night, try the local pub, which sits in the back garden of one of the restaurants. The small room that makes up the pub is filled with the classic signs and ornaments, which hang precariously from the ceiling. The pub is small and cosy- which is perfect for the cold winter nights- and most of the time is filled with incredibly friendly locals. The night we were there coincided with a visiting band. The singer covers numerous songs from the 80`s while still managing to put away several beers. As a special guest, a man who sits at the bar brings out his instrument- a wooden box with a mop sticking out of it and some string joining the two. He strums away at his mop-cum-harp-cum-guitar while the band plays, harmonising perfectly with the rest of the performance. This handmade instrument is possibly an object that is the most indicative of the town spirit; a little bit quirky but beautiful in its own right.
Delve into the Dust Covers
The town is also home to Dust Covers, an amazing book store which stocks a variety or rare and collectable titles. Their wide range of books means that this is the perfect store for everyone who loves to read. The store also comes with a friendly group of cats and dogs; the perfect companions for a quiet read in the back garden. Just around the corner is an honesty shop that operates off the veranda of a house. Take a look at its wide range of second-hand clothes, ornaments and books, and if you like something, put your money in the teapot and collect the correct change. The community of Nieu Bethesda is incredibly trustworthy, and the same system operates at the pub when the bartender is not there.
How to get around
As was previously mentioned, everything in Nieu Bethesda is in walking distance of everything else. It will take less time to walk to your next destination than to get in your car and drive. Walking around the town is common, and is a great way to get to know the town and the locals. Niue Bethesda is also one the safest places in South Africa, and it is absolutely fine to walk home after a night in the pub.
The Valley of Desolation
If you have somehow seen all the sights of Nieu Bethesda, or just want to go further afield, take a day trip to the Valley of Desolation. Located in the Camdeboo National Park just outside of Graaff-Reinet, the Valley of Desolation is a must see for all those who love nature. The views of the alley are unrivaled, and there are hikes that take you along the valley for more exploring. The park costs R100 for foreign visitors, and the fee gives you a day`s access to the entire park.