In the land of the head-turning owl, the half-brained chicken is king. Lucky the chicken is testament to this, having survived a mauling by Spooky the dog wherein he suffered a partial lobotomy. Chickens, as Lucky would probably be the first to admit, were he not even more brainless than the average, are not bright creatures and he suffers from what Ian calls motor deficiencies which cause him to peck the ground painfully about half an inch to the left of the seed he is trying to scoff. Lucky is therefore now an ‘inside chicken’, not because he is in the know or a member of a secret society, but because he lives inside and ventures outside only when Spooky is inside (and because he is part of an assisted eating programme).
This was the conversation over lunch at Ian and Katrin’s Outsiders restaurant in Nieu-Bethesda, a haven of sanity (the mental well-being of Lucky the chicken notwithstanding) in a confusing little settlement of eccentrics, hermits and late suicidals. Coming down the hill from Murraysburg, the village presents a quaint field-strewn scene in which the onlooker half-expects Amish okes in braces to be swinging from barns and wholesome giggling children to be apron-stringing their frumpy mothers as they cart around baskets of freshly-laundered linen on their hips.
A study from closer up presents a rather different reality however. Although the furrows are running, it seems that not much else is. There’s a mild smell of dagga in the air. Almost-sober locals loiter in the streets selling succulents dug from the surrounding veld and cement owls modelled on the work of Helen Martins who famously committed suicide here just over 30 years ago but whose dotty avian obsession lingers on like the speculation in London over who Jack the Ripper really was.
I just don’t quite get Nieu-Bethesda. I’ve been a few times now and on each occasion it has been dead quiet and the word on the dusty streets from the 70-odd people who live there has been that you should have been there yesterday. It was heaving and humming yesterday, they say. Today, though, it seems that the galleries and the pubs are closed and the burghers are hiding out on their smallholdings. Two minibuses from Lilyfontein School in East London are parked outside The Owl House. I wonder what the 25 pupils make of it all and next I see them predictably plugged into their iPods and wandering unhappily around the cemetery. Their two vehicles could have carried half the population of Nieu-Bethesda and along with us, the couple from Umhlanga and WANDA-WP and her husband, this quiet day has resulted in a 50% increased strain on the infrastructure.
This unspoilt valley receives somewhere in the region of 13,000 visitors a year, mostly over Christmas and long weekends, coming for the tranquillity, the heritage and the owls. It seems, like so many spots that started out similarly remote but lost their privacy, Dullstroom and Greyton spring to mind, to be a place that needs tourists, indeed survives on them, but secretly doesn’t really like them very much. The price of solitude is being overrun every now and then but when all the kyadaars have gone away the locals slip back into a deep-breathing hibernation.
Ian and Katrin moved to Nieu-Bethesda eight years ago and opened the guest house. They love it and it shows. It’s all very together. Katrin is Swiss after all so you’d expect a modicum of organisation to have crept in. Sometimes in The Karoo you just get lambed out so it was a relief when she told us that the potjie was off. We were able to avoid the countless other variations on an ovine theme and hit the very enjoyable ploughman’s lunch instead, served in colourful bowls and made up of the ingredients lining the shelves inside. Cheese, olives, pickled garlic, onions, marinated pears, excellent biltong and homemade bread washed down with a bottle of Sneeuberg, the fine local beer from The Brewery and Two Goats Delicatessen on the other side of the stream, where there are many more than two goats and where the owners appear to be growing a maze in which to lose the tourists when they become too intrusive.
We got there two days after a long weekend. Nieu-Bethesda had already transformed itself back into a ghost town of closed coffee shops and pubs, houses for sale and staring cement statues. Only Outsiders showed any sign of life at all. As Lucky the chicken would have said, it was Spooky.
Outsiders B&B and Restaurant, Nieu-Bethesda, near Graaff-Reinet
Tel: 049 841 1642 Website: www.owlhouse.info.