Our regular feature in which we visit some unique, hidden-away and off-the-beaten-track places and experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.
By Stef Terblanche
The Owl House…reclusive treasure of light and magic
For thousands of people around the world the name Nieu Bethesda has become synonymous with The Owl House. Yet, if you’ve never been in those parts you probably wouldn’t even know where to go look for this tiny village where owls, camels, glass creations and a host of other weird and wonderful figures found a home in the house and backyard of an eccentric, reclusive but very creative woman.
Nieu Bethesda is not reached by any main road. The village lies in the Karoo. It’s in the Eastern Cape. It’s in a fertile valley surrounded by inhospitable mountains and Karoo koppies. It’s somewhere in South Africa. You could even say it’s in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t have credit card facilities, ATMs or a petrol station. It only has about 1,000 permanent residents. Yet it has a dozen or more thriving guest houses, restaurants, a fossil museum, and other businesses. And thousands of people flock to this village each year. Most of it is thanks to the late Helen Martins and her now world-famous Owl House.
To reach Nieu Bethesda and The Owl House you have to drive north from Graaff-Reinet for about 27km along the N9 before turning off onto a secondary road and driving another 19km to get there.
You might even miss the Owl House with its shutters and stoep, despite its understated signage in front, for it looks like many of the other Karoo cottages in the village. What sets it apart however, is a cement arch on the side, with a cement owl with shiny glass eyes sitting on top. The arch leads into what is known as the Camel Yard. It is there where you’ll enter a fantasy world of figures made of cement, dominated by many owls with glass eyes made of the bottoms of bottles.
The sculptures include mermaids, a little church, skirted female figures, figures taken from Biblical tales, camels and pilgrims, a collection of giraffe heads on necks without their bodies, lambs and shepherds, a nativity scene, suns, fish, a lion, peacocks, snakes, cranes, dogs, a cat, a singing bird, Buddha, Mona Lisa reliefs against the walls, Adam and Eve, and sphinxes. And of course owls.
During her creative years Miss Helen, as she was known in the village, created some 300 odd of these sculptures. Many are inlaid with bits of colourful glass and mirrors, and she frequently used the bottoms of glass bottles as eyes. She painted the inside walls of her house in bright colours overlaid with layers of crushed glass and placed many mirrors around. It is thought she sought to transform her dreary, isolated life into one of light and magic. During the day sunlight reflected off the bright colours, glass and mirrors, and at night candles and lamps brought it glitteringly alive. And thus, she brought light and magic into her life…and later into the lives of thousands of visitors. It is unlikely that she ever foresaw what an effect she, her creations and her house would one day have on so many people.
The house and the yard containing this creative treasure are a testament to a woman many considered having been an outsider, a recluse, an eccentric, some even claimed mad, but that has been debunked. Although she did have friends in the village, she kept to herself, and more so as she grew older. Between 1945 and 1976, living alone in this house, she created her art. Helping her were a few labourers, chief among them Koos Malgas, who probably was the person who knew her best.
Both the tragedy and dullness of her life were probably the inspiration for her creativity. Although it seems no-one really knows. According to research published on The Owl House website, Miss Helen was born in Nieu Bethesda on December 23, 1897, the youngest of six children. After completing her education with a teaching diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet, she married fellow teacher and villager Johannes Pienaar. Together they travelled the country as part of a touring theatre group, but the marriage was an unhappy one, and six years later they divorced.
She returned to her frail parents’ home to care for them. In 1941 her mother passed away. Her father, with whom she had a troubled relationship, passed away in 1945. A reflection of her relationship with her father was the fact that in his last years she moved him into an outside room, later named the Lion’s Den, of which she painted the walls black. He too was said to be an eccentric man who acted strangely at times. By now she was alone in the house in which she had lived most of her life, and her creativity started filling the void. She transformed the house and gradually the yard filled up with sculptures.
At the age of 54, in 1952, she married again, to a widower named Johannes Machiel Niemand, but it lasted less than a year. As she grew older, she suffered badly from arthritis and started losing her eyesight, her eyes possibly having been damaged by years of working with ground glass. By now she seldom ventured outside her house. At the age of 78 she committed suicide rather than being separated from her beloved Owl House and her art.
Not only does her Owl House inspire thousands of people from all over the world – up to 15,000 people visit it each year – but she is said to have inspired the famous playwright Athol Fugard to write his equally famous play, The Road to Mecca, which was later made into a film.
Today The Owl House belongs to the Camdeboo Municipality (Graaff-Reinet), while the Owl House Foundation maintains her legacy. The house is maintained as she left it, as is the art, and part of her story and legacy can also be viewed in the Helen Martins Museum in the village. The Owl House is open from 09h00 to 16h45, Monday to Sunday, and during the December school holidays, from 08h00 to 17h45.
The village offers plenty of excellent accommodation for visitors, ranging from backpackers to B&Bs and self-catering cottages. While in Nieu Bethesda a visit to the fascinating Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre is also a must. The exhibitions here depict the area around Nieu Bethesda some 253-million years ago during the Permian Period. The centre showcases fossils found in the surrounding Karoo and elsewhere in South Africa and some date to a time 50-million years before the age of dinosaurs when the continents were merged in a supercontinent called Pangea. Nearby Graaff-Reinet also has an abundance of activities and attractions, making a visit to the area a wonderful experience.
- Contact / more info: Nieu Bethesda Tourism Tel +27 (0)49 841 1733 or website nieu-bethesda.com.
- Unless otherwise stated, information & images supplied by www.theowlhouse.co.za
Heritage destination North West …keepers of tradition
North West, that land-locked province tucked away in the central northern part of South Africa may, in the opinion of some, lack the dramatic coastal scenery or beautiful forests and mountains of some other provinces. But for what it may lack in this regard, it more than trumps all the others with the most abundant, varied and fascinating cultural and heritage offerings. The province is truly a heritage treasure trove, and it certainly also boasts an arrestingly diverse landscape, plus much else.
At the centre of its allure as a cultural and heritage destination, is its varied and vibrant peoples who all share a strong sense of tradition. The dominant group found here are the BaTswana who speak SeTswana. Their origins and history cut a trail across the province and beyond, through many centuries of turbulence, war and migration, before settling down in what is today North West. Other groups strongly represented in the province are the Ndebele and Sotho, as well as Afrikaners, with sprinklings of other language and ethnic groups also found across the province.
Giving real-life expression to this cultural heritage in the province are a number of cultural villages and other cultural centres where visitors can immerse themselves in the varied, yet also overlapping cultures of all the people who made North West their home. Over the centuries each culture maintained its core, but also borrowed from the others.
Of course, when we’re talking heritage, North West is also home to the Taung Heritage Site and Route, where the famous lime encrusted skull of a child was unearthed by Prof Raymond Dart. He named it “Australopithecus africanus” meaning the “southern ape of Africa”. A monument to the discovery is at the site and an old mine tunnel has been opened for exploration. North West is also adjacent to the Cradle of Humankind with all its human fossil discoveries. Together these discoveries support the theory that all our planet’s modern-day people and cultures originated here in Africa.
Of the cultural villages in this province, probably the best known one – locally and internationally – is the Lesedi Cultural Village. Less than an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, it is located on the border between Gauteng and North West within the World Heritage Site area of the Cradle of Humankind. Set in bushveld and rocky hill it is a slice of real Africa. At Lesedi, seSotho for “light”, five different homesteads or villages were created, one of each representing the culture of the Pedi, Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho and Ndebele. In each, families live permanently in the traditional way, looking after livestock, preparing meals, dressed in traditional attire, and producing traditional arts and crafts.
Visitors can stay overnight and are looked after by the head of each house. Day visitors are also welcome and will be given guided tours. Another option is staying in the luxurious aha Lesedi Lodge, which is built and decorated in traditional African style. Guests will be treated to much traditional singing and dancing. At the Nyama Choma restaurant guests can enjoy true African cuisine, before gathering around a fire to enjoy traditional drinks, storytelling, singing and dancing.
At the Mphebatho Cultural Museum visitors can experience or actively participate in the unique culture and history of the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela community who live around the Pilanesberg mountains. This vibrant community centre provides an authentic experience of the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela heritage, culture and tradition. The local museum is managed by a community-based organization located in Moruleng village. Nearby is the popular Sun City casino and entertainment resort as well as the Pilanesberg National Park.
Then there is the Lost City of Mogale, which was the home of Chief Mogale between 1810 and 1869, after whom the Magaliesberg was named, and his Po people. Here you will find remains of well-preserved late Iron Age settlements. Highlights include a visit to the chiefs’ courtyard, the chief’s private place of worship and his cattle kraal, ceremonial cairns, ancestral centre of worship including the symbolical entrance, the remains of the slaughtering kraal, a unique granite rock pool believed to have healing capabilities, and monoliths.
The Zulu nation is represented in the province by the Buya Zulu Cultural Kraal headed by Jo Mbogwazi. He and his group originate from Hluhluwe in Northern Zululand. The Kraal consists of six Zulu huts, one decorated to be a show hut, while the others are used to live in. Here you will experience traditional huts filled with traditional Zulu utensils and décor. The villagers wear traditional Zulu attire and visitors can watch how Zulu shields and spears are made, as well as beadwork and traditional pottery. Or you can taste a sip of Zulu beer, consult the sangoma and enjoy real Zulu dancing. Camping facilities are available here.
At Mapoch Ndebele Village you will be delighted by the distinctive colourfully painted dwellings and kraal of the Ndebele villagers. It’s also a treasure trove for curios collectors where you will find some truly sensational handcrafted bead work made by the local Ndebele women. This village is located near the town of Brits. Close to Hebron, is the Gaabo Motho Cultural Village, a scenic mountain-top village that offers the best African traditional fare and educational demonstrations of many ancient traditions and practices. In the Groot Marico Bosveld region you can visit Kortkloof Cultural, dedicated to the Tswana tribe.
Then its on to “mampoer country” in the Groot Marico Bosveld made famous by the globally popular author Herman Charles Bosman. Visitors can get a front seat view of traditional Afrikaner life on the farms and sample some traditional mampoer, a home-brewed liquor that will have you gasping for breath, at Marico Valley Mampoer and the M&M Mampoer Farm. Mampoer tasting is also offered further afield at Schoemanati near Potchefstroom in a house with Anglo Boer War history. There are also many historical Anglo Boer War sites across the province, with the town of Mahikeng of course having been the site of the famous Mafikeng Siege.
- Contact / more info: North West Tourism Tel +27 (0)86 111 1866 or web tourismnorthwest.co.za; Tel Lesedi Cultural Village +27 (0)12 205 1394; Mapoch Village Tel +27(0)84 753 8439; and Marico Valley Mampoer Cell +27 (0)83 700 8538.
!Khwa ttu…where the spirit of the San is shared
Today they are scattered in small communities across Southern Africa, a place where they once roamed freely and plentiful: the San, or Bushmen as they are also known. They were the original people to live here, but today they are a vanishing culture, some would lament. Not so, say the people of !Khwa ttu, a place just an hour’s drive north of Cape Town where their culture is being preserved and thriving. !Khwa ttu is a unique travel destination that combines culture and heritage, adventure and relaxation with education, giving new meaning to the phrase “San spirit shared”.
Located on an 850 hectare nature reserve on the West Coast, here you can visit the new Heritage Centre, the crown jewel of !Khwa ttu launched in September 2018 and the culmination of a twenty-year dream to restore the San’s culture to its rightful place. Or you can join San guides on a fascinating tour of the veld and the centre to gain first-hand insight into their culture, heritage, knowledge, skills and contemporary life. There are many other activities to be enjoyed as well, such as cycling or walking the hiking trails, watching birds and other wildlife, or just relaxing. Excellent accommodation is available too in cosy, luxurious guest houses or tented camps, tucked away in the West Coast countryside, while sumptuous meals are prepared in a rustic farmhouse restaurant.
But the main attraction is most certainly the cultural experience – to see, engage, experience and learn. The new !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre is a truly unique a place of learning and sharing, owned and run for and by the San. The centre addresses the hopes and dreams of San all over Southern Africa. It’s a place where they can tell their story as and how they choose to. The location is easily accessible, making it convenient for locals and tourists alike to engage with the San and their culture, as not everyone has the time, means or inclination to travel to San communities that remain in remote parts of places such as the Kalahari or Namibia.
As South Africans we have all heard about and briefly learnt about the San at school, yet few of us have ever met any of them, let alone been exposed to their culture. And yet they are original people of our country. Foreigners visiting here have also almost always heard or read about the San, but during their visits here hardly ever get to meet any of them. And as Irene Staehelin, founder of !Khwa ttu points out: “There is no human group that has been written about more than the San. But these books are all in libraries and universities, not available to the people.” Now the centre aims to give their voice back to the San; let them decide which stories are authentic, which ones they want to accept and share as reflecting their history, heritage and culture.
“!Khwa ttu is a place of dignity where their voices can be heard,” adds Leana Snyders, Director of the South African San Council. “Here the past can be remembered for a better future. It’s a place to tell you who the San are. The San here welcome visitors and their pride in sharing their culture is inspiring and poignant.”
!Khwa ttu is, however, much more than a tourist attraction. When Staehelin first arrived here, San communities expressed a desire to learn more about their history and traditions, and to promote their culture and languages. They wish to give their children the chance to revitalise their traditional life while also accessing the modern workforce and live in dignity. To do this, they view tourism as a viable means to achieve this. And that is exactly the role !Khwa ttu plays. !Khwa ttu provides the infrastructure and tourism the necessary support. And it also allows the San to share their culture with a wider audience. The focus is on heritage conservation and providing training and adult education, including skills in tourism, entrepreneurship and community-based development for rotating groups of San youth from outlying communities.
In 1998, Staehlin, a Swiss anthropologist, agreed to work with the Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) which sought assistance for the San in training their own people to deal with tourism and how to showcase San culture to the world. So she bought the West Coast farm where !Khwa ttu is located. Today the project is run by the !Khwa ttu Non-Profit Company, jointly directed by the Ubuntu Foundation Switzerland and the San, represented by WIMSA. The farm is held in perpetuity by the Meerkat Non-Profit Company for the sole use of the !Khwa ttu project, and can only be used as a San Culture and Education Centre. The location was once part of the vast territory of the !Xam Bushmen who were systematically exterminated in the late 18th century.
A visit to the centre and the exhibition spaces is a must. So too is a tour with a San guide. You’ll be treated to a wonderful tea ceremony, hear lots of click-punctuated story-telling and discover the way of the San, including how to track animals. You can visit for the day or stay over as long as you want.
- Contact / more info: Tel +27 (022) 492 2998; email email@example.com; or website khwattu.org.
- Information & Images supplied by !Khwa ttu