The Karoo is an open and honest place, consisting of outstretched plains and a massive sky spun across its desert-like landscape. In a way it looks like a straightforward, uncomplicated country that doesn’t hide much. Drenched in sun and soulfulness for a large part of the year and, stretching itself like a never-ending runway, an empty palm promising nothing but space and time to dream, the Karoo does, however, has its own unique way of taking visitors by surprise.
Allowing the seasons and the weather to fill its vast expanses, it’s easy to be absorbed by the rhythm of the seemingly noiseless but pulsating, vibrating, beating heart of the landscape. As you continue your apparently plain-sailing journey you might just pass a mountain – blue and hazy in the distance but earthy and tortoise-shell textured up close – drive by a clump of aloe vera succulents or prickly pear trees and, suddenly, find a place unexpected and appearing as out of nowhere.
Nieu-Bethesda is one of these surprising places: a few kilometres outside of Graaff-Reinet, as you turn off the N9 and follow the road swirling into and through hills and cone-shaped rock formations like massive beehives, you will find, folded inside the flanks of the Sneeuberge like a sophisticated secret, a village of wonders.
This place, with its untarred roads and complete lack of streetlights, provides enough space for stuff that dreams are made of and endless possibilities. At night, the stars are clearly scintillating in the sky above a town devoid of lights. From this village’s dust and quietude magic reinventions appear constantly. This is one of those spots where people make do with their dreams, make viable their visions; where conjuring ideas into a concrete reality is a necessity. A hamlet that provides a blank canvas to tie many to and bring about more of themselves.
It happens in various ways, of course. People spin their own stories, their own shapes, be it in clay, or paint, or food, or drink, or running B & Bs with beautiful names that reflect the different aspects of the town: Zonnenstrahl (Ray of Sunshine), Meerkat, Aandster (Evening Star), Klein Geluk (Small Happiness), the Brewery Loft, the Outsider, the Water Tower (originally a water tower, then a Buddhist meditation room, now a place to rest and dream), Starry Nights, The Cow Jumps Over The Moon and the Bethesda Tower (https://www.safarinow.com/destinations/nieu-bethesda/hub.aspx).
In The Brewery and Two Goats Deli’s yard on the outskirts of town, a bed swings noiselessly from chains between trees. An outdoor bath stands close by, facing the hills towards Kompasberg.
Here the bees are alive and well and happily buzz around visitors. A perfect place in which to forget about the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats; to sway for a while within the unique cadence of a place untouched by life’s frenetic haste.
In the backyard of the Owl House, (http://www.places.co.za/html/owl_house.html), Helen Martin’s cement statues – a fantastical, stationary exodus – bears witness to a pilgrimage. A personal, inward journey of pain, of longing for purpose, of forever reaching for the light which here she made concrete and universal in her own way. Surrounding the sculptural crowd on their way to Mecca (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_to_Mecca_(play), a fanfare of words and letters are twisted in the wire fence and are uttered in the sounds of the wind that resonates its way, like a voice forever searching, through the narrow throats of beer bottles like glass flutes. A small universe of things seemingly unsaid but sculpted in forms and shapes as meaningful as the words snaking through the wire hedges. Inside the Owl House light and colour and shadows and a regular dose of sunshine dance in a daily wake on shy, shuffling feet through the house and fall in shafts, like stardust, through the rooms of Helen’s home.
Outside local people sell copies of her owls – eyes wide like all-knowing children – and mermaids with mosaic fish tails and the children greet strangers as they pass, dancing and playing in the patterns the strangers’ footprints leave in the dirt roads.
As you enter the town, the imposing Dutch Reformed church towers above everything and everyone. White, huge, baked and bleached and white-boned in a bold and blazing sun, it seems to guard the small village. Strict and pertinent, it keeps a close eye on the goings on, its bell resting like a silent promise in the clock tower.
In the third floor, top room of The Tower, in the community art centre’s backyard, an immaculate round bed fills the space, covered with a ‘love quilt’ made at the project. As one reaches the top floor, spiralling upwards, you expect a fairy tale princess at the window and a grinning prince trying to scale the wall outside but it’s only Athol Fugard’s donkeys one can see, happily munching on grass and afternoon brightness next door at the Waenhuis (https://en-gb.facebook.com/KarooWaenhuis).
In the entrance of the Waenhuis the escaped princess awaits visitors: frozen in the brown, bronzed, arm-less torso of a mannequin, she seems ready to cast a spell on visitors as they enter. A southern hemisphere Venus de Milo, dressed in a leafy skirt, a pink feather headband and pearls around her neck. Because, if you are lucky enough to be visiting here at the end of July, you might be celebrating Christmas in July, 1920’s with a Touch of Pink (2017’s theme). In the Waenhuis every corner has a story to tell.
O’ Keeffe and Kahlo spring to mind as sudden splashes of colour and the definite, deceptively simple lines of natural materials, of wax and wood and bone serve as a viewfinder, as a reminder; a link to the landscape surrounding but also pervading the people and their art. And as a visitor, the echo of equanimity, as if cut from the hidden depths of desert cloth, will call you back time and time again.
Because, as you will find out, the Karoo is a magical place: seemingly arid but wonderfully resourceful and rich. Next to the dusty streets of Nieu-Bethesda, the water from a spring on a plateau above the village flows through the old stone water furrows. Don’t be surprised if you see a pink feather boa – Priscilla Queen of the Desert-esque – floating autonomously over scrub and bush or dangling carefree from a quince hedge; if you are invited to come and shop at the Honesty Stoep or if you come across Roesemaat (Rust’s Mate) an old, rusty shell of a car. Here the passing of time is celebrated, nearly everything gets recycled or decorated and celebrated.
Exploring the Karoo is a journey of delicious discovery. It allows you to dance with your dreams in the dust, serenade with the stars, let your imagination run havoc: to shake life’s turbulence from you. Here you can discover a place where worlds happily trespass upon each other: the old and the new; the past and the present and maybe even glimpses of a hopeful, more tranquil, possible future.