New Bethesda – The Owl Town At The End Of The World

Our visit to New Bethesda, a tiny town in a surprisingly fertile valley in the dry vastness of the Great Karoo, boggled our minds as an Swiss compatriot invited us spontaneously to his hand-crafted, outrageous home of architectural excellence.

A life of a Swiss in New Bethesda, a tiny town in the middle of the Great Karoo, famous for its Owl House and its artist Helen Martins.

“Is the town still coming or are we wrong?” The tar turned into a bad dirt road, so the question of George was eligible. I’d been here about four years ago but it looked even more backwards and abandoned now as we jolted and navigated around the many potholes.

New Bethesda (Nieu-Bethesda), Eastern Cape, South Africa

My favorite tree, weeping willows, line up along the gravel road leading up to New Bethesda. Surprisingly the valley is contrasting green to the surroundings as water isn’t scarce, despite being in the middle of the semi-desert of the Great Karoo.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Church in New Bethesda

An old man in rags with a weathered face watched us absentmindedly as we drove past. After a few hundred meters we saw the church, the center as it is common in all old towns of the Karoo. A viable sign that we finally arrived in New Bethesda.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
A town, forgotten in time

The most famous OWL HOUSE in New Bethesda

The place is famous for its artist Helen Martins whose fabulous chimeras are exposed in the Owl House. But I want to dedicate a entire post only to these creatures and the story of the artist at a later stage. Just bare with me.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Fabulous chimeras in the Owl House

The place of flowing water in the middle of the semi-desert of the Great Karoo

New Bethesda isn’t overwhelming, just a few bashful white houses in the old-dutch style and dusty roads in between. It’s Afrikaans and dutch name is Nieu-Bethesda which means place of flowing water, well chosen as the tall trees prosper in this little town of the Eastern Cape.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Place of flowing water

The place appears uninhabited, almost ghostly, but that impression is deceptive. An estimate of more than 1.5 thousand inhabitants live here.

The quaint town center of New Bethesda

The quaint town center with its few restaurants, pensions, a tourist office and a heavily barbed-wired police station is home to just a handful of people preferring this remote lifestyle. I wonder if the police station is so heavily protected to keep delinquents in or out.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Farm Stall in Nieu Bethesda

“Lets park in front of the tourist information,” I suggest as that seems to be a safe place to leave our car. “Let’s walk first a bit through the town to get the stiffness out of our bones after the long drive.” George agrees and we walk leisurely around the corner.

Horses browse on roses

“Oh, my …! Look these horses walking freely and eating roses out of that garden. Such a shame!” George is reminded of his own horses who liked to annoy him by eating everything possible he had just planted in his garden. “I’ve never seen horses eating roses. That must be something special of African horses to eat just anything!” I teased him.

A Swiss in the remote vastness of the Great Karoo

Opposite of the garden, where the horse indulged in some beautiful white roses, a neatly dressed older man with long trousers and hiking boots emerged out of his garden. “I’m Bruno and I’d like to invite you to a cup of coffee. I don’t see people very often, so I take the opportunity to invite strangers as they walk past.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
The Alfresco Pizzeria

Amazed we agreed and entered to his masterpiece of a rose garden, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen! We sat down while he introduced us to his life and his work of the past seventy years or so.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Converted barn to restaurant
Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Bruno’s Pizza oven

He’d come as a young man and award winning hairdresser from Switzerland to South Africa and went from vintner to other occupations till he lost his heart to New Bethesda, where he wanted to spend the rest of his life with his wife.

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Bruno’s roses

A hairdresser with surprising ambitions

His wife died unexpectedly after only three months living in the small Karoo town of a very fast developing cancer. Bruno didn’t give up: He renovated the existing house and extended it. In the barn he opened a Pizzeria and the best of all, he built a underground wine cellar as big as a church only with the help of a few locals. No crane or digger, only bare muscle power and wheelbarrows!

A wine cellar as gigantic as a underground church

We walked through the house, the wine cellar and ended our tour in his rose garden. With lots of affection and tenderness he touched his roses which were more than just a hobby to him. He’d put an ingenious irrigation system in place which allowed him the freedom to leave now and again for some time if he had to.

It was a coincidence to find a compatriot in the middle of the remote Great Karoo. Knowing the Swiss as quite industrious it still amazed me how Bruno had built it all without any architectural education or the help of an engineer.

‘Heavenly’ support for the vault

Two tourists from Switzerland who’d heard of his project from the local guide had helped him spontaneously for a couple of days. They’d resolved the problem by welding a framework of steel with whose support Bruno was able to lay the bricks for the vault of his wine cellar in the upcoming weeks.

Bruno interpreted this help as a sign from god. He’d been stuck for months not being able to find a solution for the building of the arch on his own before the Swiss guys arrived, surprisingly enough, turning out to be a tunnel engineer and an architect!

Nieu Bethesda, South Africa
Two Swiss in the Karoo: Bruno shows his rose garden to Marcelle

A man with a big portion of optimism and stamina

The hour with Bruno had been a great pleasure to us. We think back with admiration for this enterprising man living in the sticks with a big portion of optimism and stamina. We hope that he will invite many other visitors for a cup of coffee, he having company and the joy of telling his life story and visitors enjoying a most interesting character with extraordinary skills.

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Author: Marcelle Simone Heller

I’m searching for natural beauty and wilderness, while I’m travelling relentlessly to find delightful places and encounters with wildlife. I try to capture the thrill of the moments in photography and words, hoping to inspire others with the love for animals and nature.

2 thoughts on “New Bethesda – The Owl Town At The End Of The World”

    1. Thank you for your comment. It’s nice to know that locals read our blog, too. There are quite some official tourist websites which use the english name New Bethesda. Like Kaapstadt and Cape Town – to use both expressions makes it easier for tourists to find the town on the map and in the internet.

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