My town Visit Nieu-Bethesda and your life will def­i­nitely change

This vil­lage in the arid Ka­roo looks and feels like a phan­tas­magor­i­cal green oa­sis – the sort of place that, like a pil­grim­age to Mecca, will change your out­look on life.


Some­where in this once-or­di­nary flat-roofed house where sculp­tures and shiv­ers now await you around ev­ery cor­ner, on 5 Au­gust 1976, He­len Mar­tins swal­lowed caus­tic soda. Three days later, she died in agony in the hos­pi­tal in Graaff-Reinet. She was 78.

The “ec­cen­tric, mad” woman of flesh and blood no longer wanted to live, but death was in no way the end of her story. Forty years later, Miss He­len sur­vives through her legacy: the now world-renowned Owl House and its gar­den, which she built with the help of a few men from the lo­cal town­ship, Pien­aar­sig, be­tween 1945 and 1976. Finely crushed coloured glass and oth­er­worldly con­crete sculp­tures trans­formed it into a pri­vate uni­verse where she felt safe.

Iron­i­cally, this legacy – a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of her re­bel­lion against the so­cial, moral and re­li­gious rules of her time – to­gether with the fos­sils found in the area, is re­spon­si­ble for the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of Nieu-Bethesda, de­spite all ex­peca­tions to the con­trary.

Yet, in all re­spects, it feels as though time has stood still in this fer­tile val­ley at the foot of the Sneeu­berg range, where Kom­pas­berg – at 2 502m the sec­ond-high­est peak in the East­ern Cape – watches over the town. Nieu-Bethesda still has dirt streets where, in the early morn­ings, you will see lit­tle piles of steam­ing cat­tle or horse ma­nure, or pos­si­bly a tum­ble­weed or three. Just as in days gone by, the res­i­dents still get their lei­wa­ter (ir­ri­ga­tion water) in turn thanks to an abun­dant foun­tain. There are still no banks, ATMs, fill­ing sta­tions or street­lights. And the ur­ban refugees who ar­rive seek­ing asy­lum re­peat­edly re­cite the four praises in which four s’s en­sure the nec­es­sary al­lit­er­a­tion: soli­tary, slow, serene and starry – with a sprin­kling of dust. >

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