The Mad Woman in the Village.

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 valley. Picture courtesy of Morne van Rooyen.
Nieu Bethesda valley. Picture courtesy of Morne van Rooyen.

“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.

An example of Helen Martins unique aesthetic.
An example of Helen Martins unique aesthetic.

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.

Camels in the Karoo!
Camels in the Karoo!

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?

16 Comments Add yours

  1. Fascinating, this will definitely be on my to do lists on our next visit to SA. Last time we went we drove down to Mossel Bay near George and drove across the Karoo – with me worrying all the way that the car would break down in that burning sun – but the views!!!!

    Thank you for sharing x

    1. So glad you plan coming back to SA some day … it’s a lovely place with so much to see and do. I’ll be posting more on our trip in the next day or two.

  2. Emma says:

    It is really exciting to be able to travel virtually through you. Thank you….
    Keep the blogs coming. Have a safe trip.

    1. Thanks Emma! We’ve just arrived in the Magaliesberg so will be blogging again soon. Big hugs to you, Rock and Sophia. Xxx

  3. Daphne says:

    Beautifully written Cathy . If we hadn’t been there I would want to go after reading your blog . Please ask Chris what his thoughts were ! 😂

    1. Thanks Daphne!!! Chris says it was “spooky but fascinating ” 🙂

      1. Daphne says:

        Now please ask my Chris !!!

    2. I’m sure he didn’t like it. Will ask him next week and then run for cover. Hahaha!

  4. I love south Africa, the people, the weather – Jeff’s parents live there, Jeff left in his 20’s – will be next winter hopefully 😊 I look forward to reading your posts x

    1. Would love to meet you if you ever make it to Port Elizabeth 🙂

      1. Aw that would be fab 😊 x

  5. Margaret Victor says:

    We have quite a number of photographs of the Owl House. Ken took Gavin on a Father and Dad trip and that was one of his visits. I have seen just most of South Africa and Mozambique, but unfortunately my dad never took us there as children .

    1. It’s never too late, Margaret 🙂

  6. Janice Wald says:

    Legacy? My blog LOL!
    I met you on Danny Ray’s site. Congratulations on being his featured blogger. I was his featured blogger too! Maybe you can check out my blog if you need a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about.

    1. Hi Janice. Thanks so much for dropping by and following my blog. I’m really looking forward to sharing my adventures and musings with you.
      I will certainly visit your blog, I need all the help I can get!! 🙂

      1. Janice Wald says:

        I will look forward to your visit.

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