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Karoo - Nieu-Bethesda

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

By Dave Charles.

My wife, Sue, and I have recently returned from a road trip across three provinces into the heart of the Karoo. It’s the kind of trip that I would encourage you to consider. I had no great desire to drive almost two thousand kilometres to nowhere and back, but we have journalist friends, Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, who have made the Karoo their home for the past two decades, and they put together an itinerary that sounded really good.

Open field in the in the Karoo, South Africa

Essentially it entailed quite a lot of whisky and coffee sipping on stoeps of old farmhouses. Now, while that’s something that I could do all day, it wouldn’t appeal much to Sue, so they also included a fair deal of spiritual wandering through the world of Zen meditation at Poplar Grove about an hour south of Colesberg. That would be followed by a deep dive into the eery fantasy world of Helen Martins at the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda in the valley of the desolate Sneeuberge mountains.

It was also an opportunity to properly road test the Toyota Corolla Hatch that we have on extended loan from Toyota Ballito. At the current price of petrol, there’s no way I was going to take the Jeep anywhere near this trip!

This was a decision that I thought I might have to revisit when I saw the amount of luggage that Sue had prepared for the trip. I could honestly not believe that so many cases and bags and boxes and extra warm blankets could ever be fitted into this little hatch, but, with the rear seats folded down, everything disappeared into the vehicle like Dr Who’s Tardis!

Car in front of a store in the karoo

The first leg of the journey took us to Clarens in the Eastern Free State where we spent the night at a comfortable BnB before heading off again across the ever-widening landscape towards our rendezvous with our friends on a dirt road intersection off the N9 just past Colesberg.

At the end of this track that wound seemingly endlessly through featureless pale-yellow grassland, we arrived at a curious collection of ancient farm buildings adjacent to an equally ancient grove of Poplar trees. Poplar Grove Farm is home to a renowned Zen master Antony Osler and his wife, Margie. Antony has been a student of Buddhism since the early 1970’s. He was ordained as a Zen monk by the late Sasaki Roshi and studied under two late Korean Zen Masters, Seung Sahn and Su Bong. He was also formerly an advocate of the High Court, an arbitrator and acting judge, and in 2016 received the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of the Free State for exceptional service to South Africa. Margie was ordained by Zen Master Dae Gak in 2013 as Tae Ja Do, Osho and she now teaches alongside her husband.

Sunsets in the karoo

Beautiful house in the karoo

Now, I admit that I was rather intimidated by the biographical description of our hosts, but what we met was a delightful pair of twenty-first century hippies who were completely charming and welcoming.

Three days in Nieu-Bethesda were enough to convince me that I would go as mad as Helen Martins if we stayed here much longer. The place is full of ghosts, and I don’t think they want to be disturbed.

There were also the makings of quite a cool country band in the mix here. Antony plays the double bass; Chris was the former front man of the Silver Creek Mountain Band and the two of us had performed professionally in a close harmony outfit in the eighties. I had brought a guitar along for the ride and all we needed was a splash or two from a bottle of Chivas Regal to bring it all together. Then, as the sun set like a blazing Buddhist robe over the distant hills, it was game on!Three days later we left Poplar Grove with a lifetime’s worth of indelible memories and headed deeper into the heart of the Karoo. Our destination was the village of Nieu-Bethesda, home of the Owl House. Strange to think that what was once shunned as an abode of madness and sorcery, should today be preserved as a national treasure and the single biggest attractor of tourism and revenue in the district.

Stone Sculptors

It’s a strange place – no tarred roads, no auto banks, one small spaza-type store and one church. With a permanent population of around 100 white people with a further 1600 coloured folk in the informal settlement in the dust beyond the “City Limits”, it has the feeling of a rather shabby film set. Yet despite this, or maybe because of the air of desolation, property prices are sky high, and sales seem brisk. I have an idea that city folk are seduced by the idea of a simple country lifestyle to get away from the hard edge of twenty-first century living, and they are largely behind the mini property price boom. In time, it may become as commercialised as Clarens and lose most of its allure. Only time will tell.

Three days in Nieu-Bethesda were enough to convince me that I would go as mad as Helen Martins if we stayed here much longer. The place is full of ghosts, and I don’t think they want to be disturbed. The temperature had plummeted to near freezing and there had been some unseasonal rain that turned the Karoo dust to a fine paste that made the ground treacherous underfoot. It was time to go.

We bought a pair of concrete owls with huge green bottle-bottom glass eyes from traders outside the Owl House as a memento of our time here and hit the road. An hour later, we said our goodbyes to Chris and Julie who took a short left towards their Cradock home base and, with a seven-hour drive ahead of us to our overnight stop in Clarens, we turned up a gripping Audio Book selected for the journey and headed for home.

The Toyota Corolla Hatch proved to be an inspired choice for this trip. It was comfortable and easy to drive with plenty of acceleration to overtake the endless stream of heavy trucks that plague our national roads these days. It used very little fuel considering the distance we covered, and I have nothing but praise for it.

Toyota car

Several weeks later, I am still processing the experience. It’s as if I have been partially possessed by a restless spirit that aches to return to the vast emptiness from where we have come. Sue’s evocative photo and video journals have captured some of the magic, and somehow, this amplifies the feeling. There is a poem by Jan F Cilliers that resonates with what the Karoo has become to me

Dis al

Dis die blond,

dis die blou:

dis die veld,

dis die lug;

en ‘n voël draai bowe in eensame vlug –

dis al

Dis n balling gekom

oor die oseaan,

dis n graf in die gras,

dis n vallende traan –

dis al


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