Nieu-Bethesda lifestyle and property guide

Private Property South Africa
Dorette De Swardt

The small Karoo town of Nieu-Bethesda offers tranquil living far off the beaten track.

About the area:

If you want to live off the beaten track without disappearing from the face of the earth entirely then Nieu-Bethesda is a pretty good bet.

With dusty streets – and only a couple of them at that – a beautiful church, a handful of restaurants and small tourist shops and, of course, the popular The Owl House, Nieu-Bethesda offers tranquil, small-town Karoo living at its best.

The town is nestled in a valley at the foot of the Sneeuberge, not too far from Graaff-Reinet, with the Compassberg, the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape, towering over the small village.

Driving down the dry pass into the green valley one enters the small town through the main road, which is also where you will find most of what you are looking for. Unless that happens to be an ATM or petrol station, in which case you’d have to drive back to Graaff-Reinet to fill and draw some cash.

The quiet streets, where tourists stroll and a handful of local children play, are lined with trees and water furrows with small home-style restaurants, cafes and art galleries popping up here and there.

Initially driven by agriculture, the town’s industry now centres on tourism and art. In the mid-1900s local artist Helen Martins – inspired by biblical text, Omar Khayyam and William Blake – founded The Owl House, which is now Nieu-Bethesda’s most popular attraction. The house and garden are filled with hundreds of Martins’s creations and the walls and ceiling colourfully decorated with fine, crushed glass. Today, The Owl House seems to be the centre of town even though, like many other Karoo towns, it was originally established as a “church town”.

Essentially a one-horse, one-church, one-bar town, it is the kind of place where residents and visitors can watch the world go by from their Karoo-house stoeps as the day eases into night and the dusty streets are lit only by the starry Karoo sky.

Athol Fugard’s house for sale

Athol Fugard, the South African writer that Time magazine considers to be “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world”, is a resident of this town. Many of his most famous works, including ‘The road to Mecca’ were written in this town. This home belonging to him is listed for sale on Private Property.

Athol Fugard's Nieu Bethesda home Athol Fugard's Nieu Bethesda home

"I came here from Pietermaritzburg for a year and it’s 22 years later and I’m still here. It’s a place that either speaks to you or it doesn’t. Apart from The Owl House and Helen Martins which was the only drawcard for people to visit here, when you’re here and you’ve seen everything and you realise how incredible it is to live so close to the earth" says resident, Louise Miller.

Things to do:

  • Journey back to the beginning of time on a palaeontological tour of Karoo fossils at the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre.

  • View fossils and bushmen cave paintings at Ganora Guest Farm outside of the village.

  • Learn more about herbal remedies while taking a guided medicinal plant walk at the farm.

  • Challenge yourself and climb Compassberg, the highest free-standing mountain in the Eastern Cape.

  • Relive your childhood and join Jacob on a Donkey Cart Tour through the village.

  • Experience authentic Karoo farm life on a working guest farm in the area.

Best in food:

  • Auntie Evelin se Eetplek: a one-of-a-kind restaurant that serves traditional food in township style.

  • The Brewery and Two Goats Deli: perfect for sundowners after a peaceful Karoo day

  • The Karoo Lamb restaurant: diagonally opposite The Owl House, you can watch “traffic” go by from this restaurant’s stoep.

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