8 Things to do in Nieu-Bethesda
by Wessel Badenhorst
In ancient Jerusalem there was a pool called Bethesda, that was stirred daily by an angel. The first person to get into the pool once the stirring began, was healed of whatever ailed them*. I could not help but wonder what kind of healing the founders of a tiny settlement wedged between the Sneeuberge were hoping for when they named their village Nieu-Bethesda, but we were heading there to find out.
Less than a kilometre down the dirt road my wife spotted a monitor lizard (from the same family as Komodo dragons). We stopped next to the "dinosaur", which was more than a metre long, and marvelled at it until it shuffled off into the veld. The kids have never seen this unusual animal in the wild before and neither have I; it was like an omen of interesting things awaiting us.
A farmer by the name of BJ Pienaar established Nieu-Bethesda in 1875, and with the town came a full-time minister, cutting down the travel time to Graaff-Reinet, a seven-hour trek at the time. The town does not have ATMs or petrol stations, and we were warned that none of the establishments accept card payments, so planning ahead was essential.
We found this quaint little town to be a delightful place to explore and here are our eight favourite things to do in and around Nieu-Bethesda.
Get a bearing on the town
After 23 years, you can still find Jakob van Staden standing in the shade of the tree across from the owl house, ready to take tourists for the most in-depth guided tour of the town. The donkeys come and go, and the cart keeps changing, but Jakob’s friendly donkey cart tour remains the highlight for any kid, big or small, who visits Nieu-Bethesda.
Tel: 072 987 98
Good coffee and some cheese
From the tree where Jakob starts and ends his tours, a quick drive across the river takes you to the Sneeuberg Microbrewery and Two Goats Deli. They have an option to eat indoors, but the large trees and "leivore" (furrow system) make outdoors the perfect choice to spend a couple of hours, indulging in a delicious cheese platter or a cup of coffee from beans roasted on the premises.
Tel: 049 841 1602
Stay close to the water
The road back to town curves past the old water mill that was once used to grind wheat. The 140-year-old mill is not currently in use, but there are talks of restoring it, which would be a fitting addition to a town that exists outside of time. Another enjoyable activity is taking a tranquil stroll along one of the many furrows that feed the residents’ gardens.
James Kitching was the first person to identify a Karoo therapsid** in Antarctica, which proved that Southern Africa and Antarctica were once connected. The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre inspires a new generation of fossil hunters. Visitors will encounter real fossils being freed from their rock enclosures. Call ahead to check the times of the official walking tours with a guide showing you how to spot potential fossils in an actual river bed.
Tel: 084 500 3902
Find a good book to read
The Dustcovers bookshop stocks every kind of book, from coffee table books and fiction to philosophy and collectable Africana. Most of the books have a history outside the shop but remain in perfect condition, and you can pick them up for a fraction of the price you would pay at a regular bookstore.
Tel: 082 517 0045
For families who like a challenging climb, the short drive from town will be well worth it. From Brenda and Alf James’ farmhouse, a 90-minute hike takes you to the base of the mountain, from where it is another 90 minutes to the summit (depending on your level of fitness). There you are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the surrounding Karoo. Compassberg is situated on private property, so you need to call Brenda or Alf to arrange the hike.
Tel: 087 150 4922
Experience the Pumpkin Festival
Once a year, around Easter, a pumpkin obsession settles on the whole town. Shops offer their very best pumpkin-based treats and drinks to sample while you browse their wares. Pumpkin growers of all ages compete to see who could grow the largest, smallest, funniest, and most fossil-like pumpkins. The more artistic types take to pumpkin painting.
A sense of emptiness
The Camdeboo National Park surrounds Graaff-Reinet. It is in this park that you will find the entrance to the Valley of Desolation, approximately 63 kilometres from Nieu-Bethesda via the N9. You need to bring cash, because like much of the surrounds the Valley of Desolation reception have no other means of payment. Follow the tarred road up the mountain. From the lookout points, the panoramic views of the plains of the Great Karoo and piled dolerite columns give you a sense of timelessness. Even with its premier tourist attraction status, you still get a feeling of being completely alone when you stare out over the plains.
Tel: 049 892 3453
The summer days in the Karoo were sweltering, but late in the afternoon heavy clouds appeared and a thunder storm stirred the air. With the first heavy drops, my spirit was healed of all its ailments.
* Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pool_of_Bethesda
** a fossil reptile of a Permian and Triassic order, the members of which are related to the ancestors of mammals.
In the direction of Middelburg, just after the Loodsberg Pass, you will find the Jagtpoort farm stall where they specialise in the food and snacks from a bygone era. My favourite was the locally produced Kudu salami. The kids eyed the fruit leathers [MB1] and my wife had a taste of her grandmother’s kitchen in a bottle of pickled mustard beans.