On our recent tour through parts of the Beloved Country, we were fortunate enough to discover one of the somewhat hidden gems of the Karoo in the charming desert hamlet of Nieu-Bethesda. Nestled in the foothills of the towering and aptly-named Compassberg – the tallest mountain in the Eastern Cape Province, which juts out at an impossible angle above all its neighbours – this dorpie is home to a vibrant community of artists, writers, restaurateurs and fossil hunters (yes, you read that correctly). This arty little Karoo town seems sleepy and somehow frozen in time when you first drive after kicking up dust on some twenty kilometers of dirt road, but it doesn’t take long to discover that it is a place of many hidden and sometimes quite unexpected treasures.
We were here on a stop on our December coastal tour to play a show at the local pub/music venue Die Ramstal. Many musicians of all stripes, from blues and folk to rock, have performed at this cosy venue when passing through and have found an appreciative audience made up in part by the communities coming from towns in the surrounding area to get their fix of live music as well as by fellow travellers and backpackers exploring the stark beauty of the Karoo. The evening starts off with a Karoo lamb potjie, slow-cooked over a wood-fired oven which is tended by Ian Allemann, co-owner of the pub and attached restaurant The Karoo Lamb, which he and his wife Katrina have been running for a number of years. Dinner is served overlooking the mountains while enjoying the cool summer evening. Sunset gives the silent signal for guests to shuffle off to the pub for a couple of rounds of drinks, some lively conversation among fellow travellers, and of course, an evening of good music!
Some of the other activities in Nieu-Bethestda include a fascinating afternoon searching out fossils or a quirky morning visit to see the Owl House, once the home of the reclusive and prolific artist Helen Martin. If you happen to find yourself in the Karoo and looking for detour with a difference, we’d recommend heading off down that dusty road less-travelled.