Nieu-Bethesda, in the Eastern Cape, is approximately 50 kilometers from Graaff Reinet and the perfect detour when road tripping through the area. With a population of only about 100 people, the small town seems stuck in a bygone era, complete with a quirky bookshop, donkey carts, and a tiny pub. Here are some highlights to enjoy when visiting this quirky little town.
Decades ago famous playwright Athol Fugard chose Nieu-Bethesda as his home and many of his famous plays, including The Road to Mecca, was inspired by the town and its people. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of things to see. The little town is best explored on foot, so take a stroll through the residential area all the way to the cemetery, where you can visit artist Helen Martins’ grave, donning an owl sculpture as a headstone. The small stores scattered through town include an “honesty store” where there is no shop attendant, and visitors are expected to leave money for the products they buy.
Dust Covers is possibly one of Nieu Bethesda’s best-kept secrets. The quaint bookshop hosts a surprisingly large variety of books, from fiction to philosophy, and beautiful coffee table finds. Most books are secondhand but are in perfect condition, and sell for a fraction of the original price. Make sure to put at least an hour aside to spend browsing and eventually buying. The owner’s pet dogs greet guests as they enter the door, making everyone feel right at home, while their cats enjoy lounging around on the shelves.
In a more secluded part of town, you’ll find the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli. Take in the landscape while tasting beer and snacking on cheese and cold meat platters. There’s even an old swing to relax on and don’t forget to buy some Karoo coffee to take home.
Helen Martins’ Owl House is one of the most famous attractions in Nieu-Bethesda. Martins created the magical Owl House and Camel Yard in the 1950s by transforming her modest house and garden using crushed glass and cement. Now run as a museum, the Owl House is often the main reason travelers veer off the main road to pay this small town a visit. A tour of the house is kicked off with a short documentary about Helen’s difficult childhood and relationship with her father, which all inspired, or rather influenced her, to create the magical yet lonely world she confined herself to.
Visiting the small town, you might be shocked to find out that making a reservation for dinner is essential. There are a few top restaurants to choose from, including Die Waenhuis. It’s one of the more spacious restaurants and the beautiful interior compliments the delicious food and bustling atmosphere. Take a seat outside and chow down on tender Karoo lamb chops and locally grown veggies. For those after something a bit more unusual, head to the old post office, which has been transformed into an eatery with an eccentric menu that changes daily.
As in most small towns, the church is at the heart of it and is worth checking out. The building still houses its original chandeliers, dating back to the early 1900s, and the pews boast beautiful wooden carvings. Entrance to the church is restricted but can be arranged. Having said this, the exterior is just as magnificent and a wander around the premises is recommended.
The town’s tiny bar is situated in a free-standing building behind the center of town and is recognized by the word “pub,” painted on the exterior wall. Inside, a large table offers seating, where patrons can sit together and enjoy a variety of drinks on the menu. The décor consists of rugby memorabilia, posters from local musicians who have performed in town, and other South African trinkets.
Apart from the obvious attractions, the town boasts plenty of plant life and the surrounds are great for hiking and bird watching. Local artists also choose Nieu-Bethesda to house their studios and artworks can be seen on display just about everywhere you look—you just need to keep your eyes peeled.