Last Thursday, we set off on our first roadtrip of 2016 with eager anticipation. Our journey from our home town of Port Elizabeth inland to Johannesburg would cover 1100km and take us via Graaf Reinet and Colesburg, where we would overnight. This would allow us to detour further into the Karoo to visit the small village of Nieu Bethesda, a long held travel desire of mine.
“Nieu Bethesda? I hear you say, “Where on earth is that and why would you ever want to visit there?”
Well, Nieu Bethesda is a charming Victorian village situated near the Karoo town of Graaf Rienet. If you plan to visit, beware that although the first turnoff from the N9 is tarred most of the way, the second is entirely dirt. I would, nonetheless, recommend that you do as we did and enter via the first and exit via the second as the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside from the dirt road are awe inspiring.
That answers the where, so moving on to the why.
Firstly, Nieu Bethesda has become a haven for artists of all types but it’s the area’s first artist Helen Martins who has created it’s iconic tourist attraction the Owl House.
Later immortalised in Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca, Miss Helen, as she became known, returned to this, the village of her birth, in 1926 to care for her ailing parents. She was a patently an unhappy and emotionally unstable woman who, after her mother’s death, moved her verbally abusive father into a sparsely furnished, dark, windowless outhouse where he remained bedridden until his death some years later. Clearly, she was not a woman to be toyed with!
Over the years, Miss Helen became increasingly reclusive and fearing impending blindness, she committed agonising suicide at the age of 78 by drinking caustic soda.
I found my visit to the Owl House a somewhat disturbing experience. In keeping with Helen Martins express instructions, the house has remained unchanged since her death and is maintained as a museum. It clearly reflects her unique artistic style. Almost every surface is covered with oppressively coloured paint and finished with ground glass, while many of the windows have been glazed in richly coloured glass.
These, combined with her acetic furnishings and decorations give the house a dark air of malevolent sadness. It is definitely not a happy place! It was a relief to escape back in the hot Karoo sun.
The garden is filled to the brim with a bizarre collection of mystical, mythical and religious icons made from cement, glass and wire.
Bottle skirted hostesses stand check by jowl with a bizarre mixture of owls, a caravan of camels, wise men, nativity scenes, pyramids and mythical beings, all designed and created by Helen and her assistant, Koos Malgas.
Although the creativity displayed at the Owl House is undeniable and it is undoubtedly worth a visit, it isn’t a comfortable experience so expect to be unsettled by it. But, isn’t that the purpose of art, to make it’s audience think, feel and experience life from a different perspective? If so, Helen Martin’s legacy certainly succeeds in doing that!
What legacy would you like to leave behind?