Whether staying in modest quarters or €500-a-night glitz, it is always the initial little things the hosts do that leave a lasting impression of hospitality. Although there are also some grand entrances that can melt a traveller into being instantly receptive when checking in.
With the latter in mind, and because I had travelled the road to Nieu Bethesda (NB) on a previous occasion I could barely contain my excitement as we drove through pretty spectacular scenery for 18.5 km. I wanted Shelley-ann to take it all in and share my love of the place. There was a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing going on from her (which was most gratifying) and a fair number of "just wait"s from yours truly. Because the best was yet to come.
And then: BOOF, we round the bend into the paradigm shift below. The promise of arriving in a very special place. We stopped the car to take it all in. The excitement when we resumed our journey was palpable.
Of course, in my excitement to get to NB that morning I had neglected to ring ahead as requested to provide an ETA. We rocked up rather early, too, found the house, the Oude Pastorie, and regarded it with approval. Wasn't that difficult as it was the first house in the town proper. But it was deserted. I rang the the number I had been provided with and got hold of Carla (Smit). She explained she was looking after the house for the owner and was apologetic that she would need a short while to get back to her own house where she would welcome us. Carla's house was a couple of 100 metres up the road and pretty splendid. She invited us into her guest lounge and gave us the most comprehensive welcome to Nieu Bethesda imaginable. While she ran through the delights of the town on a map, adding some of her own embellishments, it occurred to us that we would need to stay for 4 weeks rather than 4 nights to get the full experience.
When I had been to NB almost exactly five years previously the town had seemed to be the personal domain of a gentleman named Ian Alleman. A lot had happened in the intervening period and now the tall, striking Carla was she-who-had-to-be-obeyed (in the nicest possible way). Breakfast was to be at her and Ludolf's Pizzeria, Bruno's. There's more to follow about Bruno a little later on.
Our accommodation was a short walk away in a converted wagon house (waenhuis) at Die Oude Pastorie. We unloaded our car and then Shan went outside to torment the local tortoise. On this occasion he was just wandering around our capacious garden minding his own business but during the following days he developed a romantic interest in a demure female. She must've welcomed his advances because tortoise coupling is pretty clumsy and involves complicated plumbing. My wife seemed determined to observe this process and did report some grunting on the part of the male, which suggests the couple weren't averse to a bit of voyeurism.
Top row L to R: Our wagon house sparkles luxuriantly in the sun; being part of the Oude Pastorie complex with a huge garden at our disposal; the bath was also huge and met with Shan's approval. Middle row L to R: Every superior property in NB seemed to have a pool converted from an old water tank; This was not the sleeping accommodation but a selection of sun beds depending on how much sun or shade you preferred while lounging by the pool; el Tortosio eyeing Shan suspiciously while chewing on a frond and practising his approach for the next few days. Bottom: there is almost always some sort of passeggiata going on on the roads leading to the centre. We could only believe that this was encouraged by the peaceful setting created by the unmade roads.
Carla had recommended a restaurant and we wandered over from our waenhuis, encountering the evening strollers en route to the superb Die Waenhuis. There must have been a few wagons in NB back in the day.
As was the way in this town, people were gregarious and after dinner conversation with other diners was all but obligatory. We met Fred, his wife and her Viennese mother who was having a whale of a time in the Cape. As is the way with most evening meals in rural South Africa, restaurants close quite early. Shan and I hadn't travelled too far that day that we didn't fancy a dop1 before turning in.
"I was here five years ago and there was an amazing bar called the Ramstal but it seems to have closed?" I queried Fred conversationally.
"Oh yes," he replied. "Boetie ran the bar there and the good news is he's got his own place across the road from the Ramstal now."
Top row L to R: Five years ago the pub beckons in the early evening; inside the Ramstal is functional but caters to your every need. Bottom row L to R: Now a very much closed The Venue???; But, hey, who cares when Boetie Bester is there to welcome you across the road.
Emotional few days
In the previous episode I mentioned that we were in for an emotional few days and now the time had come for two more insights following on from Oliver Schreiner's. The morning after being reintroduced to Boetie we strolled up to Bruno's (Carla and Ludorf's) for breakfast and contemplated our morning. For those readers who've not yet encountered Helen Martins and the Owl House you would have to be hard of heart not to be moved by your first visit. and your second, and your third.
This was my second visit and I had the privilege of seeing it through someone else's eyes. A person with a parallel but different emotion set honed by many years working as a professional counsellor. There is the art and the story behind it that ended when Ms Martins took her own life by drinking caustic soda and dying three days later. I have many many photographs of the Owl House, her home for the vast majority of her life and now a museum to her art. Each one tells a story. I'm going to pick out a few and maybe you can add your own conclusions to the followers and academics who have largely avoided any definitive judgement on what set her life on the course it followed2.
It is difficult not to draw conclusions from the vignette depicted in the second picture in this series. Perhaps there is something in the photo of the stylish clothes and shoes in the closet, contradicting later portraits of the artist as almost a hermit.
So, two homages to two extraordinary white women who left their indelible but very different marks on South African history. And now we were going to cap it with The Bushman Heritage Museum.
When Richard and I first visited the museum five years ago it was named the San museum. If you'll forgive the pun, this might have been a coy3 reference to the ethnicity of the people the museum celebrates. The name has gone from being slightly defensive to being overtly proud of the heritage.
There is an explanation for this process and it rests with the restored pride of the people involved. Richard and I had an emotional realisation 5 years ago. Shan and I had an epiphany that resulted in having to press pause after our introduction to museum. There wasn't a dry eye and that included our sympathetic guide, Gerald, who had to retire to restore his composure.
When he returned, his story had us going again. The restoration of pride had reset his life from feeling apologetic for his existence and resorting to crime to scratch out a living to the erudite museum curator we saw in front of us showing off the spectacular art.
And make no mistake, it is spectacular. The museum asks that the public does not photograph the exhibits. We totally understood that but, if you're interested, please, this is the centrepiece of Nieu Bethesda. Visit it. If you can't get there, there are other centres. This is a positive quiet revolution guys, and you won't be disappointed by the magnificent art, either. The pieces are huge colourful tapestries with an impact all of their own. So you do need to see them "live".
Helen Martins and the Bushmen. The Misunderstood. Helen won't benefit from restoration of understanding but the Bushmen will, if you let them. And the installation in NB is not resting on its laurels. There is a restaurant, separate cafe and unique accommodation on site. This may sound like a commercial puff but, believe me, our view was entirely based on the tenacity in restoring a right to exist that we witnessed. And the guys who make it happen are positive and proud of what they have accomplished. Delightful experience even if it started out with snot en trane4.
L to R: The Enterprising Bushman Museum incorporates this tower on its property, housing the cafe and panoramic accommodation; now we needed to cross the dry river (which occasionally becomes a raging torrent) via the suspension bridge; there was some urgency to visit the lav at another NB treasure.
Antidote to an emotional morning
Seriously, there is no better place to detox than the Two Goats Deli. Officially the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli (SBaTGD; I think?), it is an oasis of craft brewery and a scrumptious cheese lunch created by André Cilliers and Yolandi van Zyl. Total detox from a day's travails. So laid back it is difficult to gird one's loins to resume life in the fast lane. Not that there is such a thing in NB but you get my drift. You rush to get there and then you take your time getting back, absorbing the peace and scenery.
We went there twice for lunch. Heaven knows how many hours were involved and memories merge between a first and second foray and long conversations with a young couple, Dannelle and Warren, who were on a bit of a sabbatical helping out in the SBaTGD. Warren was a bit of a machinery buff and managed to explain some of the niceties of the rusting iron scattered about by collector, André.
Many of these itinerant citizens were also habitués of Boeties Bar and/or Die Waenuis, so we kept bumping into new and then increasingly familiar friends. Others included Charl, who worked longer term at SBaTGD and helped us with useful information. There was also a local sheep farmer and Molly the Collie, George from Florida (the one in Joburg) whose girlfriend had been at school with Shan and then a lovely, friendly retired couple from Hout Bay who cropped up everywhere we set foot.
Above, Clockwise from top left: Dining al fresco under the trees; tucking in so enthusiastically to our abundant cheeseboard, it was all but gone by the time we remembered to take a photo, enough for two unless you've had a seriously physical day, home made ginger beer to accompany the craft beer; clear mountain water delivered to the town via open aqueducts; fancy a hammock for two after a satisfying repast;
Below, left to right; savouring the peace in a patch of sunshine, we always seem to attract local dogs; repurposed iron, beds and food trays for sundry livestock; Warren approved; Definitely dead but what were they when they had flesh and skin?
Strolling back from lunch pre-gloaming
There is plenty of opportunity for serious hiking in the Nieu Bethesda area but sometimes only strolling will do, especially when returning from lunch or taking part in a pre-dinner passeggiata. Sometimes these two things run into each other, maybe punctuated by a snooze (if you failed to score the hammock at SBaNGD) or perhaps a cheeky half in Boeties.
The thing about the town is it encourages casual conversation while promenading. From people walking in the opposite direction to the plentiful stoeps attached to dwellings and restaurants. It is unlikely you'll make it past unless you have a dark scowl arranging your face.
Often the greeting is on the flimsiest of excuses and almost always it is more than just a nod and "evenin'". I have mentioned this is in a previous blog, my first occasion of strolling back from SBaNGD, a venerable Mercedes skidding to a halt and its occupant demanding, in a friendly way, "are you guys rich Americans?"
"What makes you think that," I replied. "We are neither rich nor American."
"The expensive camera around your neck," he said
There are many places in the world where this might have been bowel-clenchingly intimidating but on a balmy evening on Pienaar Street, Nieu Bethesda in a settling cloud of dust, we just grinned back as he accelerated away with a cheery wave and a renewed plume of fine sand.
Time to exercise the "expensive camera" with a picture peering down Pienaar street at a patch of fading sunlight and the stately, omnipresent Kompasberg preening itself in the background (below)
The Mercedes departed and the dust settled, Pienaar Street was quiet for a while but soon you're around the corner and in the town centre.
The thing about Nieu Bethesda is that people gather and then disperse. One moment the main crossroad on New and Hudson streets is entertaining a small crowd, Some people you've never met before come up to confront you smiling, ask what you're up to and dispense some advice. On a particular occasion, two women walked up to Shelley-ann and me and, after the greeting, one of them suggested we should eat at her new restaurant. She'd just opened. Turns out she is Elbé van Heerden and the new proprietor of the Village Inn. We ate our last, tasty meal there before leaving NB.
But, no sooner has there been a crowd (a crowd means maybe 10 people) than everyone has dispersed. Into Boetie's Bar or to freshen up for the evening. Then the stoeps are empty and maybe a random horseman and his dog glide past in the gloaming.
Of course, horses are part of the fabric of this town and share the roads, unsupervised and apparently without molestation, with other users, including motor vehicles. And there wouldn't be a Two Goats Deli without a tribe of goats nibbling at the suburban hedges. And, of course, the poor tormented tortoise in our garden.
There must be incidents from time to time but, for the most part, symbiosis prevails.
Our ticket for the Owl House had had a hidden benefit, included was entry to the Kitching Fossil Museum. We had been feeling a bit slack after the activities of the week and the temptation was to chill out. The what appeared to be fibreglass replicas of dinosaurs didn't exactly sell it to us. Perhaps a recommendation from our Hout Bay friends had tipped the balance because we decided to give it a go.
Well, how stimulating was that? A couple of morning hours, first learning about one of the world's top palaeontologists, James Kitching, who had grown up in NB and discovered his first fossil at the age of 6, went on to be an internationally eminent scientist, working on a number of facets of his domain including contributing to the understanding of continental drift and its various stages ending up to the global map we have today. The material was comprehensive and presented by a local man who was a student completely immersed in the world of studying fossils.
When he asked us and another couple if we'd like to find a fossil of our own, we jumped at it and, after a being shown the tool-kit consisting of a squirty water bottle and a fossil template we sallied forth to the dry river bed. I won't say we found our first fossil on our own but we were sympathetically nudged in the right direction. It was seemingly miraculous that a squirt of water on to a suspect patch immediately highlighted a fossil that matched the template.
Using water is ideal because it evaporates quickly and the fossil becomes camouflaged again5. The first two pictures below are of the model dinosaurs outside the museum and of the fossil template alongside the real thing.
In the beginning (of our sojourn in NB, at least) there was Carla. On our last morning we were enjoying our breakfast at Brunos and then settling up with our hostess. Shan was having a customary post-prandial vape outside when we noticed an unusual wrought iron gate leading seemingly towards the middle of the earth. We asked Carla about this and it emerged that Bruno, a previous owner of their guest house, had one day decided he wanted a cellar. As had been the way with Bruno, if he had had a whim it would soon be acted upon. So he dug out the cellar and built a substantial underground gallery, vaulted ceiling and everything. Shan can be seen above marvelling at this hidden gem. After emerging we quizzed Carla further and she gave us a bit of background, including a bit about how Bruno had memorised where the individual wines in the collection were located in the cellar.
So, when there was the inevitable flood and the cellar became ostensibly inaccessible, Bruno would find specific wines, ordered by diners from the wine list, by stripping down to his underpants and diving through the sludge to produce the desired item.
Carla also told us about Bruno building a light aircraft in the shed (another wagon house, surely? ed) and then having to partially demolish the building to get it out to fly.
I mentioned this to Jules du Toit and she confirmed that she and Chris had known about some of Bruno's eccentricities but not all of them (I think the cellar included). I do hope the intrepid Karoospace team will revisit NB and Bruno's role in things. It was Chris, after all, that sent me to NB in 2016 because it had TWO top 21 pubs in the Karoo.
It is easy to reflect on a well nigh perfect holiday in an unspoiled location and hope nothing will change, and especially that it will not be bombarded by a phalanx of tourists. Become a victim of its own success. Nonetheless, that is essentially a selfish view in that it (a) potentially denies others the pleasure and (b) potentially denies the businesses providing facilities such as accommodation, food and entertainment their right to a decent living.
If history has taught us anything it is that nothing is static and often the alternative to forward is backward. I guess we'll just have to leave it to the honest burghers of Nieu Bethesda who've done a pretty damn fine job so far.
Just PLEEZ don't tar the roads in the town centre and the peripheral access routes. Ever.
(Oh, and OK, the lack of street lighting is also a good thing, too).
Skirting the Swartberg down towards Calitzdorp, punctuated by a superb dining experience, and then Swellendam and Hermanus. After that, a trip to the Swartland beckons.