The charming village of Nieu Bethesda occupies a tiny spot on the South African map, and it’s a well-hidden spot at that. Not even many South Africans seem to know about this small town in the Eastern Cape. Fortunately, my in-laws do know about it, and they recommended that my husband and I stop by Nieu Bethesda to check out the main attraction, the Owl House. The Owl House is the home of former local artist Helen Martins. We decided to follow their suggestion.
Last Christmas, we were making the long trek from Joburg to Knysna for a week long visit to see my in-laws. Since it’s a 12 hour trip, we needed to find a place to spend the night along the way. It was a convenient opportunity to stay in Nieu Bethesda and finally check out the Owl House. The nearby town of Graaff-Reinet (approximately 50 kilometres away) is more well known as a stopover, however, I believe that people are truly missing out if they decide to bypass Nieu Bethesda altogether.
De Toren Farm & Cottages
I booked a pet-friendly cottage at De Toren , a small working farm on the outskirts of the village. There are fancier places to stay (fancy is all relative in this case). The cottages are actually quite basic, but – after seeing the pictures of the scenery around the farm on their website, I knew it was something I had to see. To get there, we first turned off the N9 onto the rather rough and bouncy dirt road into Nieu Bethesda . I have a feeling it was one of the roads “less traveled”.
Rough roads are always more fun anyway – unless you’re in a tiny Nissan Micra. Since we were in a hulking Toyota Landcruiser, with massive wheels and four wheel drive, it was bloody awesome.
The farm, cottages and farm stall were nowhere near anything else. There were no swarms of tourists. We wouldn’t have had any idea that it was there but for the GPS coordinates on our Garmin. In another word: perfect (for me, anyway). There are lots of farm beasties and other domesticated animals about, such as: sheep, donkeys, an ostrich, doves, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback-Mastiff cross (don’t worry, it was very docile), a friendly Jack Russell, ducks, geese, chickens, and much to my dismay – a pet baboon that followed the proprietress around. That’s the only thing I didn’t like about the place.
There was also a lovely cat who apparently felt our cottage was THE place to be, even though my Staffie thought the cat was THE only thing worth chasing. Even though the farm was full of animals, it was still much quieter than my current rental home. Every day I hear new sounds at my house that I didn’t know existed, and let me tell y’all – they aren’t soothing sounds, either.
After arriving at the cottage, we took our dog for a jaunt in the beautiful land around the farm, and had a bite and a beer or two at the farm stall (It’s not a place to put livestock. It’s what I would call a roadside store/restaurant.) The food isn’t fancy; it’s standard Afrikaans farm fare. This is a place to buy frozen Karoo lamb chops, boerwors, biltong, and the like – straight from the source.
The next day, we got out early, left the pup in the cottage to keep our bed warm for us, and went to go see the Owl House. It’s now a museum, but from the 1930’s until 1976, Helen Martins lived there, transforming the place with her particular brand of artistic vision. The house has quite a haunting past, and I could feel this as I walked through. Call it vibes, intuition, whatever you like – it left an imprint on my mind which I will never forget.
Helen Martins & Her Quirky House
Helen was born and grew up in Nieu Bethesda but quickly realized that farm town life would never suit someone with her flair for art and drama. She also wanted to escape her strained relationship with her notoriously unpleasant father (whom she and her siblings secretly called “The Lion”). She eventually married and made her way to the city lights of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Her marriage was a rocky one, and it ended quickly. As her mother grew old and unwell, Helen made the choice to come back to Nieu Bethesda and take care of both parents. Unfortunately, her father only became more abusive as he got older and sicker, and eventually Helen resolved to have nothing more to do with him. A social worker had to come in to take over his care. The week he died, she went into his abandoned room, painted the walls black, bricked up the windows, and put a sign over the locked doors that said “The Lion’s Den”.
Mental wellness was clearly not this family’s strong suit. But – some “normal” people can be exceedingly boring, in my opinion, and Helen Martins seemed to be anything but boring. Besides the interesting back story, the house is a visual wonderland. I can tell you the story, and show you the pictures, but it still doesn’t convey the atmosphere of the place. It’s very colorful, strange and somehow eerie.
Like many truly talented artists, she was off-kilter. More than likely, lifelong abuse had taken its toll on her, leading to mental illness. That mental toll led to some freaky-cool artwork, though. It’s important to note here that though Helen’s concepts and ideas were the driving force behind all of the artwork at the Owl House, all of the manual sculpture work was carried out by a man named Koos Malgas. He became her friend and confidant towards the end of her life, even while the majority of the town was mocking her.
The house and gardens are a kaleidoscope of multi-colored walls, glittering crushed glass, mirrors, mosaics, strange concrete figures with round, alien glass eyes and watery light coming through stained glass windows. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Sadly, Helen started going blind in the 1970’s, and subsequently went into deep depression. She told a close friend – “Dying isn’t the problem. Living is the problem. That is why we must live our lives passionately and to the full. My agony would be to “live dying” without being able to work.” In 1976, she committed suicide by drinking caustic soda and died three painful days later .
It’s a tragic tale, but I’m thankful Helen Martins left behind a house of enchantment and wonder for the world to experience. She was afraid of “living dead” but she lives on even after death through her artwork. The Owl House has become her memorial – a tribute to her creativity, eccentricity, and her bizarre but beautiful visions.
If you’re in South Africa, and are interested in visiting the museum, please visit: http://theowlhouse.co.za/
If you’re not in South Africa, but you’d like to read further about Helen Martins’ fascinating life, try:
http://about-south-africa.com/home/culture/37-helen-martins-and-the-owl-house-this-is-my-world (not sure about the validity of the information in this post, but it’s interesting nonetheless)