The charming little town of Nieu-Bethesda is set in the fertile valley of the Sneeuberg mountains beneath Compassberg (2502m), approximately 56km from Graaff-Reinet. Rev. Charles Murray, the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet, established the village of Nieu-Bethesda. This quaint village has retained a rare historical and architectural integrity and is now popular as a retreat for artists.
Enjoy a day tour which includes an outing to the Owl House, viewings of artefacts and fossils, a visit to the Sneeuwietjie School in the Township, a sheep shearing experience and the chance to marvel at Khoi San rock paintings. Tours include lunch and can be booked at Camdeboo Cottages. Alternatively, if you wish to explore at your own leisurely pace, enquire at reception for directions.
Nieu-Bethesda also boasts with the “2 Goats Deli” where local ale is being brewed as well as various cheeses are made. It’s easy to find from the Owl House, just follow the road over the river and turn left.
There are a handful of places that serve lunch, so take your time and explore the dusty streets, visit a few artists’ studios and if there’s space in the car, buy an owl.
The Owl House
Nieu-Bethesda is home to the Owl House where Helen Martins lived. The name was given to the premises by local residents after Martins placed owl statues which she had made herself on the roof and on the veranda to guard the house. She was regarded as an eccentric woman who lived as a recluse, devoting her life to making hundreds of figures and statues from cement and glass. These are on display behind the Owl House in the area known as the Camel Yard.
To Helen Martins, her work provided an escape from her circumstances where she had suffered the loss of her third husband. Numerous symbolic meanings are attached to her work and some have even said that the house can be understood “as a personal diary" and that the sculptures she made represented and personified her dreams. When her eyesight started failing in 1976 she decided to she take her own life by drinking caustic soda.
Her assistant, Koos Malgas, worked closely with her in making all of the cement statues. He passed away recently and with it came the end of an era in Nieu-Bethesda.
In 1985 Athol Fugard produced a play called The Road to Mecca which is based on the life story of Helen Martins.