Nieu-Bethesda accommodation at Outsiders B&B

The last couple of times I’ve been in Nieu-Bethesda I stayed with Ian and Katrien Allemann at Outsiders B&B every time. Outsiders is conveniently situated on the main road as you come into town and just about next door to the entrance of the Owl House. Everything is literally walking distance away and you can leave your car here and just explore on foot.

I stayed in the front room which is comfortable and spacious. Best is the fact that the door opens onto the front stoep and you can sit and watch the day go by with a hot coffee in winter, a cold drink in summer or a glass of wine at any time.

Breakfast in the dining room included stone ground bread from flour ground at the local historic watermill and bacon and eggs made to order by Ian. Local honey and jam, fresh fruit and a lekker cup of boeretroos (coffee) rounded it out.

Time to grab my coffee and go and sit out on the stoep to enjoy the morning sun. Hoping that it won’t be too long before I get the opportunity again.

Nieu-Bethesda’s historic Dutch Reformed Church

The historic Dutch Reformed Church is probably the biggest landmark in Nieu-Bethesda. It’s perhaps not as famous as the Owl House or interesting as the Kitching Fossil Centre, but if it comes to landmarks, it stands out in town. I’m always in awe of the fact that such a magnificent building was constructed in such a small place and like to pop around when visiting the village.

The village of Nieu Bethesda was established in 1875 on the farm Uitkijk which belonged to Barend Jacobus Pienaar. The early inhabitants of the farm were always on the lookout for wild animals and raiding Bushmen, hence the name Uitkijk, loosely translated as Lookout. The farm was located in the well-watered valley of the Gat River within the Sneeuberge.

Although Nieu Bethesda is relatively close to Graaff-Reinet, the mountainous terrain and the treacherous weather conditions with summer temperatures in the 40C and heavy snow in winter, made it difficult for the farming community in the area to travel the 8-hour journey to the mother church in Graaff-Reinet. The land was purchased from Pienaar on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church council for the price of £4000 on 8 February 1875.

In 1878 Rev. Charles Murray from Graaff-Reinet made a few suggestions regarding a name for the village and at the founders meeting said: “Laten sy dese plaats nu Bethesda noemen.” These words are reported to have been minuted incorrectly as “Laten wij het Nieuw Bethesda noemen.” In fact, during the prolonged negotiations, the name Nieu Bethesda had been used frequently – probably because of the strong fountain and its biblical reference. (John 5: 2-4.)

The imposing church building, with seating for up to 700 souls, was consecrated in 1905 at a cost of £7000. Stones for building the church, some almost 2,5m long, were obtained from the town commonage and the problem of transporting the long beams by ox wagon was solved by placing bales of straw on the wagon so that the beams protruded over the hind oxen. The magnificent church organ was commissioned for the first time in June 1914 and built by Price and Sons in Cape Town. It consists of 16 registers and more than 624 pipes. The church is still lit by gas powered chandeliers that pre-date the arrival of electricity in the village.

As I stayed less than a block away on my last visit, I took a stroll to the church after dinner to grab a picture or two. The church is lit up by spotlights which makes it look quite haunting especially seeing that the village doesn’t have any streetlights lighting up the dark surroundings.

Even though the church hasn’t had a permanent minister since the 1960’s, regular services are done by ministers from Graaff-Reinet and visitors can see the inside of the church by prior arrangement.

The roads of Nieu-Bethesda

The village of Nieu-Bethesda is located about 30 minutes north of Graaff-Reinet and literally feels like another world. It is so different from most small rural towns as there is very little development around which makes the place feel sleepy and peaceful. The road to about 4km from the outskirts of the village was tarred a couple of years ago which makes getting to it a little easier, but town itself has no tar roads, no street lights, no petrol station or ATM, only really one little supermarket and barely two hands full of houses in the town itself.

This is the main road into the village and peak hour traffic means a car has to stop for a couple of horses, goats or geese to cross the road.

One or two of the roads still have wagon stones on the corners. These were put up to stop turning ox wagons to bump into the buildings. Not that there are any ox wagons around anymore. Only a donkey cart or three.

The old Dutch Reformed Church in town was consecrated in 1905 and stands out among the surrounding buildings.

One of the main intersections in town. Dead quiet on the busiest of times.

The road in front of the Nieu Karoo Country Restaurant was pretty busy as we walked past to the river bed on our fossil tour. Found out a little later that there was live music by a fairly well-known band on.

The main road through Nieu-Bethesda. Before crossing you look left, look right, look left again, stop in the middle to take a photo, walk back to get another angle, then across to where you are going and when you come back a little later perhaps one car would have come past.

Not really much use for cars in town…

Nieu-Bethesda and its roads are best explored on foot

The road out of town past the Tot Hier Toe Padstal.

Graaff-Reinet – a gem discovered

Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo Heartland is often referred to as the Gem of the Karoo.  Spending a long weekend in the town just again proved to me that this gem isn’t one buried deep under ground somewhere but rather has been unearthed and is mesmerizing those that get to visit it.  Located in a horseshoe created by the Sundays River and totally surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is situated about three hours north of Port Elizabeth and the perfect long weekend destination or at least a must stop for those on their way from the interior to the coast.

Coming in from the south you pass through typical Karoo Heartland landscape on your way to Graaff-Reinet.  Wide open spaces, mountains in the distance, windpompe, Angora goats in the fields – big sky country at its best.  Arriving in Graaff-Reinet you immediately know you are in something bigger than a one horse town where the horse is dead.  There are more shops than most Karoo towns, more people, more cars and there definitely isn’t a tumbleweed blowing down main road on a Saturday afternoon.  In fact, you know you are in Graaff-Reinet when you get to the top of the main drag and find yourself facing the very impressive Groot Kerk, completed in 1887 and designed based on the Salisbury Cathedral in England.
If I’m going to a place I like to know what I’m going to do but also keep enough time aside to explore and discover the things not included in my plans.  This trip was no different.  Arriving early Friday afternoon we headed straight to Camdeboo Cottages where we were booked in for the weekend, unpacked our stuff and kicked off our shoes.  If it was up to the KidZ we would have stayed right there for the whole afternoon for them to watch tv (Chaos Boy) and hit the swimming pool (Miggie).  Unfortunately for them, we had other ideas.  Having planned a walk through town for Saturday and a visit to the Camdeboo National Park on Sunday, I browsed through the Graaff-Reinet visitor guide to see what we could still do on the Friday and came up with the Obesa Cactus Garden. 

I’ve been to Graaff-Reinet a few times but have never had the chance to visit Obesa.  Word has reached my ears of how big the cacti are but seeing truly is believing.  Owner Johan popped his head around the corner when we arrived, probably to make sure we didn’t speak in an American accent – referencing a sign at the gate making it clear he doesn’t support Donald Trump – and pointed us towards the path through the garden.  Obesa is nothing like my little cactus garden at home.  They have over 7000 species of plants in the garden and nursery, raise about 35 000 plants every year and stock well over 2 million.  Seriously impressive.  Even more impressive is the size of some of the cacti along the path through the garden.  The garden was started in 1970 with some of the cacti literally dwarfing us as we walked past. No kidding.   
Saturday morning after a quick breakfast it was time to put on the walking shoes and explore Graaff-Reinet’s historic heart on foot.  The best spot to park your car is right in front of the tourism office where you can grab a map of the town along with any additional information you think you may need.  The tourism office is located inside the Old Library Museum which Chaos Boy really enjoyed as they have a very good collection of fossils on display.  In addition to a number of museums and Groot Kerk, other historic attractions worth visiting include a number of other churches, the Drostdy Hotel, Victoria Hall – the town’s City Hall – and the angel statue War Memorial.  In actual fact, Graaff-Reinet has more than 220 heritage buildings, more than any other town in South Africa.  Best of all, most of them are all within walking distance from each other. 

Our first stop though was at the antique shop next to the tourism office.  Not to browse or buy antiques but rather to see what is said to be the oldest cake in South Africa. Yes, you heard me right.  The oldest cake in the country.  The cake was baked in 1902 (making it only four years younger than the oldest cake in the world) for a 50th wedding anniversary and is on display on a mantelpiece along with some original photos.  The KidZ weren’t really impressed and just wanted to know if you can still eat it, before wandering away again. 

Graaff-Reinet has as much as seven museums (could be six, could be eight, but I counted seven on the Graaff-Reinet Tourism website) and we decided that to keep the KidZ’s whining to a minimum, we would only go to another one of them.  The obvious choice was Reinet House.  Reinet House is the quintessential Graaff-Reinet museum and is located inside the old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage built in 1812.  The museum houses a variety of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  In the backyard there’s also a working watermill… Ok, so it wasn’t working when we were there as they are busy restoring the machinery.  But you know what I mean.

Another very interesting feature at Reinet House is the old Black Acorn grape vine in the backyard.  Planted in 1870 by Charles Murray, it is said to be the oldest living grape vine in South Africa.  A few years ago the vine got a bad case of fungal rot and a big part of it had to be cut away, but it survived and still persists. 
Saturday afternoon we decided to compromise with the KidZ and spent some time around the tv, pool and braai area at Camdeboo Cottages.  Just to make sure everybody stayed happy and long faces are kept to a minimum.  

Sunday morning it was time to hit the outdoors and enjoy nature.  The weather was perfect, the sun out but not too warm and we headed out on the R63 past the Nqweba Dam to the Camdeboo National Park’s game viewing area.

Although the game viewing isn’t anywhere close on par to Addo, it’s still a great opportunity to spend a morning game viewing.  The alternative is to book an evening game drive with oom Buks Marais at Karoopark Guesthouse.  We opted for the self drive option though.

The park has about 19 km of gravel roads and consts of typical Karoo plains.  Other than Cape Buffalo ( x ) , which we unfortunately didn’t get to see, the park is also home to eland , black wildebeest ( ✓ ), gemsbok ( ✓ ), red hartebeest ( ✓ ), blesbok ( ✓ ) and springbok ( ✓ ).  We also got to spot some Cape mountain zebra ( ✓ ) but even though we were in the park the same time as some friends we didn’t get to see the caracal (rooikat) ( x ) they did.  The park also boasts a healthy bird list of over 240 bird species.  Unfortunately the dam level is quite low at the moment so you don’t get very close to the animals on the water’s edge while the bird hide was also not that busy on the day.  With birds that was.

The highlight (and must do) of any visit to Graaff-Reinet is the Valley of Desolation.  The best times to be there is early morning or late afternoon around sunset, and we opted for the latter of the two.  We made sure we arrived nice and early the afternoon to allow some time to do the 1,5 km Crag Lizard Trail which allows for stunning views of the rock formations, the valley and Karoo plains beyond.

The Valley of Desolation itself truly is one of the iconic Eastern Cape attractions.  The basic explanation of what the Valley of Desolation is is that it consist of dolerite pillars rising up to 120 meters from the valley below.  The rock formations were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years and stand stark against the background of the Karoo plains.  
This time of year though the sun sets behind the mountain and isn’t quite as spectacular as in summer, so after watching it from an alternative view point we headed back down towards town, just in time to see the horizon set ablize as we hit the bottom of the mountain.  The perfect end to the perfect long weekend in Graaff-Reinet.  Till next time Gem of the Karoo.  

We spent the three nights we were in Graaff-Reinet at Camdeboo Cottages and I really feel we hit the jackpot with this spot.  Camdeboo Cottages offer both a Bed and Breakfast as well as a Self Catering option with accommodation offered either in their historic cottages or en-suite bedrooms.  It’s also located very close to the centre of town with a few restaurants right around the corner and the closest supermarket only a few blocks away.

We stayed on one of their nine 19th century Karoo style self-catering cottages with more than enough space for us and the KidZ.  The cottages have fully equipped kitchens so we did our own thing food-wise, Chaos Boy could watching TV while Miggie and I tried to play cricket on the cobblestone courtyard behind the cottages.  That didn’t work out very well, but it does offer safe parking under carports and behind a locked gate.
As I’ve mentioned, Camdeboo Cottages also offer breakfast as well as dinner, but we opted to braai every evening at one of the braai spots next to the swimming pool.  Literally 25 meters from our cottage.  We sommer ate right there next to the pool and I just had to smile every time another guest heading to dinner walked past and sniffed the air.  Nothing like the smell of braaivleis.   Although Miggie did try out the swimming pool the weather was a tad chilly but it would be a great spot to cool down on one of those hot summer days in the Karoo.
Next time we visit Graaff-Reinet as a family I know where we’ll be booking again.   

Why have you never visited Nieu-Bethesda?

It feels like most people I speak to about travelling in the Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape have been to Graaff-Reinet, yet many didn’t venture much further to also visit Nieu-Bethesda.  Nieu-Bethesda truly is a very special village located barely 30 minutes from Graaff-Reinet and have a truly off the beaten track feeling to it.  I say off the beaten track because that is literally what it is.  No tar roads in the village, no street lights, no ATM, no petrol station and no night life other than crickets in the dark and the cow you have to swerve out for when it suddenly appears in your headlights.  What the village does have are tons of character (the good kind), history, interesting nooks and crannies, even more interesting people, good food and nostalgia that will stick to you like blackjacks to wool socks long after you have left.
I was going to do a long and detailed post about Nieu-Bethesda but decided that my pictures could easily do most of the talking.  For the rest you will have to visit the village yourself to discover.
Nieu-Bethesda, a town of Karoo landscapes, history, owls, dirt roads and (rusting in) piece

Not a tarred road or street light in sight where a traffic jam means two cars reaching an intersection at the same time perhaps twice a day
Nieu-Bethesda is one of the few places that still have leivore (farrows) with water flowing in them
The Owl House is what put Nieu-Bethesda on the map and well worth a visit
The late Helen Martins spent most of her life in the town and the latter part of it transforming her ordinary Karoo home into a place of colour and light.  Over the years she and her assistant Koos Malgas, used concrete and glass to create a multi-coloured house and fantasy garden.  In the Camel Yard visitors will find statues of owls, camels, wise men and much more and one can literally get lost In your own thoughts trying to take all of this in.  Shortly before her 79th birthday, Helen Martins committed suicide by drinking caustic soda.  It is said that at the time her eyesight was failing because of damage from ground glass and that depression was getting the better of her.  
Doesn’t matter how many times I visit the Owl House, there is always something different to discover or some new angle to photograph 
One can’t simply visit Nieu-Bethesda and not buy one of the hand made cement owls being sold outside the Owl House.  I still have the owl I bought on my first visit to the village in my garden.
The Nieu-Bethesda cemetery has graves dating back to the early days of the village with the one of Helen Martins with its cement owl headstone standing out 
The Karoo is famous for the fossils found there and Nieu-Bethesda seems to be right in the thick of things when it comes to fossil records.  The Kitching Fossil Centre in the village is well worth a visit.  The guide shows visitors how they clean the rock off the fossils and do a walking tour to the river bed to show you fossils in the rocks.
If you really want to learn more about fossils, Khoi San artifacts and rock paintings then you have to visit Ganora Guest Farm a little outside the village.  Ganora has one of the biggest private fossil collections in the country in their fossil museum and if they ever established a Jurassic Park in the Karoo then I would want to be with owner JP Steynberg as he knows everything there is to know about the prehistoric animals found in that area. 

Yes, that is the fossilised skull of a very small dinosaur

Don’t think that a tour through the Ganora Fossil Museum would be a boring affair

The Karoo Heartland is known for it’s amazing hospitality and farm stays are becoming more and more popular.  At Ganora our little group were just in time to help bottle feed the hanslammers (hand reared lambs).  Not the kind of experience that us city slickers are used to or get to do every day.  
My visit to Nieu-Bethesda was way too short, taking up only a Sunday afternoon and Monday morning before the meeting I had to attend.  Way too little to explore and experience properly.  One needs at least a weekend, arriving on the Friday afternoon and leaving on Sunday after lunch, to have a chance to get to know the town properly and visit at least a few places.  If you do want to know more, do check out this very comprehensive list of things to do in Nieu-Bethesda on the ECTOUR website. 

A visit to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape highlands

I haven’t really had the opportunity to venture into the North Eastern Cape so a first visit to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape highlands near boundary with Kwa-Zulu Natal was on the cards while en route to the Drakensberg in December.  Matatiele services the surrounding villages and farming community and gives a very good first impression.  Even though it was a long weekend and only about a week before Christmas, the town was neat and tidy, unlike some of the other towns we passed through on our way there.  Surrounded by the the Southern Drakensberg, Matatiele is a great starting or finishing point for trips into neighbouring Lesotho, especially for bikers.  

A very popular activity in the area is fly-fishing and for that Matatiele has the perfect spot. The Matatiele Mountain Lake.  This 30-hectare lake is located in the mountain above town and forms part of the Matatiele Nature Reserve which is a core protected area within the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area.    
It was up to this lake that Phillip Rawlins, owner of Resthaven Guesthouse in town, brought us while showing us around town. Wow, what a beautiful and peaceful spot.  He explained that the lake is a natural lake fed by three springs and not a dam.  It means that the water is clean and unpolluted and the perfect spot to fish for rainbow trout.  

Driving back down the pass to town this was the view of Matatiele with Lesotho off beyond the mountains on the horizon.  I wish our stay was long enough to venture over the border with Phillip (the invitation was there), but the Drakensberg was calling and our time limited.  Next time I will definitely slot in an extra day or two to visit the Mountain Kingdom.

While in Matatiele we stayed at the excellent Resthaven Guesthouse.  Resthaven is located on the main drag through town and offers 22 rooms stretched over four buildings on the property surrounded by lush green lawns.  Owners Phillip and Elrita welcomed us with open arms and typical small town hospitality was evident the whole time we were there.  Breakfasts were spot on but I can’t help but to comment on the dinners.  No fancy meals, no extensive menu, just good hearty plates of food, well prepared by Phillip and the kitchen staff.  The guesthouse is the perfect overnight spot for anybody wanting to stay over in Matatiele.

Disclosure: We stayed over in Matatiele at the invitation of the owners of Resthaven Guesthouse who I have known for many years.  They didn’t expect me to do a blog post about the town nor the guesthouse and will probably be very surprised if they get to see this.  All opinions are my own and they had no input on the content of this post. 

Hofmeyr’s pink church

Most Karoo towns have a historic church with a church tower that keeps an eye out over it.  The Karoo Heartland town of Hofmeyr is no different…  or perhaps it is.  Why? Because it has a pink church tower standing out above the town.  The Dutch Reformed Church in Hofmeyr was built in 1875 and at some stage went pink.  It definitely didn’t go pink for breast cancer awareness because it happened way before that but whatever the reason it looks very cool.

The town of Somerset East

The town of Somerset East lies in the southern Karoo Heartland at the foot of the Boschberg mountain.  Somerset East was established by Lord Charles Somerset in 1815 as an experimental farm to provide meat and fresh produce to the soldiers on the Eastern Frontier.  The site was chosen over sites in the Gamtoos Valley and Swartkops Valley.  The farm was named Somerset Farm.  Ten years after being established the project was cancelled and a new Drostdy was declared.  The town of Somerset was established with the “East” being added 30 years later to avoid confusion with Somerset West outside Cape Town.  Somerset East is home to a number of historic buildings of note while the surrounding area is great for activities like mountain biking and fly-fishing.

The church in Salem

A quick detour from the N2 between Nanaga and Grahamstown to Kenton-on-Sea took me through the village of Salem for the first time in ages last week.  I didn’t have time to explore much but I did stop for a quick photo of the front of the church while parked next to the cricket field.
 
Salem was founded by the Sephton party who formed part of the 1820 British Settlers who settled in this district.  The name comes from the bible and means “peace” with the local application referring to a reconciliation between sects.
 
The original church was built with mud blocks and thatch and was consecrated in 1824.  This was replaced by a stone structure in 1832 and it was this building that served as refuge for women and children during the Frontier Wars.