Nieu Bethesda has no petrol, bank or credit card facilities. It barely has a supermarket, it’s main road is not called Main Street, but Martin Street, and the drive down into the valley that contains the little village is dominated by the striking Compassberg, the highest peak in the Sneeuberge.
The best thing about Nieu Bethesda is that it’s miles from any major city. This is not your typical weekend ‘escape’ venue. Hence it remains an arty, quiet little village with a hint of the esoteric, undisturbed by the insistent occupation of second-homers that has been the plight of so many other little towns in the Free State and Western Cape, in particular.
Johan and Michael, whom we meet in the book town of Richmond some days later, are just biding their time completing a contract before heading to Nieu Bethesda to settle. They’re even moving their home industry soap business down there from Johannesburg, hiring some of the local women, and settling in a town that they’ve chosen above numerous others.
The only reason that I (and countless others) have not also settled here, is that it’s too far from anywhere else. Well, too far from Jo’burg or Cape Town. And that is possibly the reason that Nieu Bethesda remains a town that you have got to visit, at least once.
As we dip into the valley and drive past a couple of farms, the road lined with immense whispering trees, we become aware of a swarm of locusts of biblical proportions. We’re not talking a few locusts here. We’re talking thousands, if not millions. The sky is thick with them, and we’re winding up car windows faster than you can say ‘wind up the window’!
Despite this, no-one seems to care a jot. Life continues unharried. As much as I’m expecting farmers to burst out of doors to save their wheat crops, there is absolutely no reaction, other than from the birds, who think it’s Christmas. But there aren’t enough birds to deal with this influx.
André Cilliers – who not only manages to brew his own beer, make his own organic goats’ cheeses, roast his own organic coffee, produce his own venison salami, and run a deli – barely bats an eye when I quizz him about the locusts.
‘Oh yes, he says dismissively, whilst settling our tantalising cheese platter onto the wooden table before us, ‘they appear every two or three years, but in even greater numbers than this morning.’ I’m about to ask him a further question, but he’s off to tempt someone else to his undeniably good cheese.
André’s Two Goat’s Deli, where we find ourselves late afternoon, on the other side of the dry Gats River in a part of Nieu Bethesda as yet unexplored, is a find. But word gets out. As the guy I encountered from Johannesburg in the Obesa Nursery in Graaff-Reinet just the day before insisted, between cell phone calls and photographs, this particular establishment is where it’s happening.
The heat and the languid atmosphere of Nieu Bethesda make it very easy simply to trawl from one restaurant to another. We’ve already brunched at the Melting Pot, run on the front porch of Belinda du Toit’s family home. Belinda and her two children also live here, sell books and art, run the monthly village market, and wear really bright hats.
Or at least Belinda does. She greets us warmly but rather insistently commands that we order pancakes, something, surprisingly, none of us is up to. Our omelettes deprive her of the last of her eggs, and the delivery for ice-cream and milk is still on its way, but the lunch time stream continues unabated, as the house is in a prime spot just across from the Owl House.
Alice, who insists on being called Bella (evidently there is some confusion, as her brother Josh calls her Alice, but she wants to be called Bella, at least for today), Belinda’s three-year old daughter, accompanies us on a walk to Helen Martin’s Museum – we’ve already visited the Owl House on a former visit – without so much as a ‘by your leave’; totally confident without her mother. Small town life is obviously very good for self-esteem.
We spend ages collecting the seeds of a flower we’d like to see grow in our garden back in Cape Town, just outside the museum, and before we know it an hour or two have disappeared, and we haven’t begun to explore. Which is when we head across to the Two Goats Deli. Coffee is in order.
André hasn’t got time to talk. His home-brewed beer is stored in two ancient silver fridges – the kind of fridge your grandmother might still have on the porch that you open by pulling the cylindrical handle out towards you. Only André has inserted a tap on one side that allows him to pour it draught style.
He pops next door, when I ask him for some cheese, and cuts us off a wedge or two and gently wraps it in some glad wrap. I stick my head inside the cold room briefly.
There doesn’t appear to be much to the operation, but André seems to have the time and resilience of at least two people – the goats are milked twice a day to produce the range of chèvre, foudjou, feta, caprino, Gouda and cheddar that we sample on the wooden boards, together with bread, salami and various mouth-watering accompaniments he also makes at the Deli.
Oh, and the place reeks of coffee, it’s simply heavenly.
The sun is beginning to set when we finally leave, having walked the wide, quiet sand roads through the neighbourhood, imagining what it might be like…
Other things you should know about Nieu Bethesda
- There is an annual Fugard Festival on heritage day weekend – music, theatre, shows and exhibitions (several of Fugard’s plays were written in Nieu Bethesda where he found inspiration)
- The town, which has been around since 1878, was originally called Nu Bethesda, but the name was misspelt as Nieu Bethesda
- The village market takes place on the first Saturday of every month between 10am and 2pm at the Melting Pot
- The Festival of Lights is another annual event on 31 December – a parade around the village followed by local foods and dancing at the Bethesda Arts Centre
- Roughly 1000 people live in Nieu Bethesda – 60 or so in the village, and 900 in the townshi
- The Owl House
- Bethesda Art Centre
- Contessa Art Gallery
- Frans Boekkooi Sculpture Studio and Gallery
- Kitching Fossil Centre
- Women’s Co-Op
- The cemetery (graves date back hundreds of years)
- Antie Evelyn se Eetplek
- The Tower Restaurant
- Two Goats Deli and Brewery
- The Melting Pot
- Karoo Lamb
- Nieu-Bethesda Attractions
- Nieu Bethesda Accommodation
- Karoo Heartland Accommodation
- Accommodation South Africa