The Saturday Dispatch Ford Everest Adventure team’s foray into the Great Karoo – land of windmills, lamb shanks and heritage houses – was crammed with sensational landscapes, fascinating museums, starry nights and captivating characters, writes Barbara Hollands.
Pictures by Alan Eason
Our first stop in the Great Karoo was the Walter Battiss Art Museum where tourism officer Ros Turner gave us an engrossing tour of the double-storey 1818 building which the Battiss family ran as the Battiss Private Hotel a century ago.
Battiss was best known for his creation of fantasy world Fook Island and the museum displays his unconventional paintings as well as wacky artefacts, like Battiss’s King Ferd the Third cloaks.
Known as the gem of the Karoo and nestled beneath the shadows of Spandaukop and the Sneeuberg Mountains, Graaff-Reinet is awash with perfectly preserved Cape Dutch, Victorian and Karoo architecture and lovingly tended national monuments.
Tree-lined avenues are clean and pothole-free and the town, with its looming Dutch Reformed Church landmark, is distinctly tourist-friendly.
The Dispatch team took up residence in the grand Drostdy Hotel, which was renovated to five-star Karoo chic sumptuousness over three years and re-opened in 2014.
Once the Cape Dutch-style home of the Landdrost, the hotel, with its deep chesterfield couches, groaning library shelves, sparkling chandeliers and rows of trophy skulls, was redesigned by celebrated interior designer Stephan Falcke.
General manager Janus Schoeman explained that the hotel also served as a training ground for students of the South African College of Tourism who learn how to deliver superior hospitality as year-long interns.
Old Library Museum
While it no longer serves as a public library, this museum and national monument now houses collections which include reproductions of over 1000 South African rock paintings, early stone-age tools, a heart-wrenching slavery exhibition and a fascinating fossil collection which includes a massive skull that once contained the brain of a 220 million-year-old herbivore.
An exhibition devoted to teacher, lawyer and activist Robert Sobukwe (1924-1978) features his desk, chair and a Pan Africanist Congress T-shirt the PAC leader once wore.
Once you’ve taken in the main Cape Dutch house with its buttery yellow-wood floors and rooms set up just as they were when the grand house was the Dutch Reformed Church parsonage, head downstairs to the very roomy cellar.
Prepare to be amazed because this is where you will find finely curated collections, including hand-crafted doilies which include a bobbin lace wedding hanky made in 1857.
There are also cabinets groaning with gorgeous haberdashery, decorative hairpins, waist-clinching Victorian ladies’ undergarment ensembles, inky mourning clothes, fans, hairbrushes and button-hole scissors, all dating back to faraway years.
Venture deeper into the cellar of amazement for a doll exhibit that includes hundreds of dollies once treasured by children long-gone.
The jaw-dropping collection has wax dolls from 1893, creepy celluloid dolls with staring eyes from 1910 and liederhosen-ed Imperial Germany dolls from 1920. With its doll-house furniture, tiny tea-sets and dolly prams and a massive doll-house made of porcupine quills, of all things, it is hard not to imagine generations of children who nurtured toys before electronic screens all but replaced them.
Dental and medical collections with their snake bite serum kits, wicker wheelchairs and rows of ancient dentures complete these beautifully preserved oddities.
Obesa Succulent and Cacti Nursery
“Plants and cats are much better than humans”, grumbles bearded Obesa Succulent and Cacti Nursery owner Johan Bouwer, who is as prickly as the thousands of cacti in his remarkable Graaff-Reinet garden.
Bouwer, 70, was a criminal lawyer for 42 years, before retiring two years ago and begging off cutting his furling white hair or shaving ever again. He is as enigmatic as his enormous garden of twisting, spiralling, snaking cacti, which take up an entire block of Murray Street, spilling over into the pavement and surrounds, some as high as buildings.
At last count in 2012, Obesa Nursery had a staggering 7 200 species of cacti and succulents and the number has grown, but Bouwer says it would be “too egotistical” to keep taking stock.
“I bought up the whole street of houses and flattened them to make this garden. I started collecting cacti and succulents in Standard 2 and now this is the largest private collection of cacti and succulents in the world,” Bouwer said.
Valley of Desolation
In a region crammed with national monuments, the awe-inspiring Valley of Desolation, about 30 minutes’ drive from the town centre, is one too.
Situated in the Camdeboo National Park, the dramatic dolorite rocks are the colour of Donald Trump’s face and rise 120ms above the valley.
They were formed about 180 million years ago when volcanic molten rock seeped through the sandstone, forming striking pinnacles.
Willow trees filter probing sun rays above herds of grazing sheep at the pastoral entrance to Nieu-Bethesda about a half-hour drive 50km north of Graaff-Reinet.
The Owl House, with its processions of wondrous camels, wise men, mermaids and owls is of course the main attraction in the village, but Nieu-Bethesda also has other charms to sample. These include two “honesty shops” where visitors can help themselves to locally made necklaces, scarves and soaps before popping the required cash into a box or teapot.
At the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, friendly paleo guide Melanie Bowkers gives a short but stimulating presentation about the mammal-like reptiles that roamed the area a staggering 255 million years ago before a mass extinction killed them all, leaving their remains to fossilise and be discovered by the late famed fossil finder James Kitching.
At one point, Bowkers switches on a dentist drill and carefully carves away ridges of century-old stone in a manner that will eventually reveal the entire fossil outline beneath.
A short walk to the dry Gats River bed follows where, simply by squirting water on nondescript mud rock, the outline of a herbivore skull and a row of ribs emerges.
Like many remote small towns, Nieu-Bethesda is home to artists who crave the countryside tranquility and Frans Boekkooi is no exception.
His Sculpture Studio is a calamitous riot of sculptures in various stages of completion, old armchairs and shoes and scattered tools of his craft, all enshrouded in a layer of Karoo dust.
“Sculptured faces of his friends Athol Fugard and Steve Newman peek at passers-by from his front wall and illustrate his extraordinary skill.
“I once heard people outside saying my studio probably offered more cement owls, so I put the faces up outside to show what I do,” he says.
Two friendly dogs aptly named Aldous and Harper respond to the doorbell at Dustcovers bookshop, followed closely by owner and self-confessed book fiend Victoria Nance.
The former horse breeder, who is originally from Port Elizabeth, has restored the garage and outbuildings of her late 1800s home into a charming bookshop offering everything from new and second hand novels and literary reads to Africana and books about the Karoo.
A squishy couch invites comfy perusal of the merchandise.
A whimsical tower consisting of two B&B rooms – one featuring a round double bed – provides an income stream for the Bethesda Centre Community Arts Project where talented Nieu-Bethesda artists produce lino-cuts, textiles, stained glass and magnificent tapestries. Lead artist Sandra Sweers explains that poet and psychotherapist Jeni Couzyn is the brainchild behind the project, which is soon to launch an online shop.
Much has been written about the remarkable Owl House which was created by Helen Martins and her creative partner Koos Malgas and which has drawn a steady stream of visitors keen to see its unique bitter-sweet beauty.
A little disconcerting is the fact that the entrance is through the garden and then into the house through its back door, but the place nevertheless stirs up deep emotions of wonder, sadness and respect for the two souls responsible for such intensely moving beauty.
From the so-called “camel yard” with its beseeching cement figures, to the luminous little home which Martins encrusted with glass of many hues, the Owl House is a worthy addition to any bucket list.
Some visitors are moved to tears, so be prepared for that.
Outside you can meet Koos Malgas’ daughter Joyce Ruiters and other local craftsmen who sell glassy-eyed cement owls or wire windmills as mementoes. Ruiters says she remembers playing in Helen Martins’ yard while her father built the statues that still inhabit it.
“I met Helen. She was very kind and made us kweper tamalekie (quince toffee) to eat. Some people thought she was crazy but she wasn’t. She brought a living to our town,” she says.
Food and lodgings
Nieu-Bethesda has many accommodation and restaurant options, all operating from the village’s quaint old buildings.
The Saturday Dispatch team overnighted at The Ibis Lounge with its three comfortable en-suite rooms and bright, contemporary décor and friendly hosts Lucie and Paul Zunckel. He is a former air traffic control officer and current author of adventure thrillers and she once worked at Rhodes University.
The Ibis Lounge offers breakfasts as well as hearty Karoo-style dinners if ordered in advance.
The Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli is owned by former East Londoner Andre Cilliers who brews five different ales, ginger beer and apple juice, as well as three cheddars which can be enjoyed in the shady garden.
At the rustically appointed Die Waenhuis, an inspiration palace to the art of incorporating Karoo elements into home décor, lovely meals can be enjoyed in what was once a village trading station and is now a magnificent wedding venue.
Former Latin teacher Idil Sheard presides at The Village Inn. She serves scones and stories about her friend Athol Fugard, who has set a handful of plays in the village and still owns property there. Sheard has translated five of his plays into Afrikaans and is a mine of intriguing small town information. — firstname.lastname@example.org