Karoo hospitality at its best

Tremaine van Aardt revels in the sights and tastes of this unique region

The Valley of Desolation
The Valley of Desolation
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

Starlight instead of street lamps, shanks as opposed to steaks and “hello” rather than “how much” are just some of the special touches that define Karoo hospitality.

While the crisp, clean air of the Karoo is often forgotten when planning a getaway, the area with its warm-hearted people, hot temperatures and ice-cold beers provides every guarantee of being memorable if afforded the opportunity.

As coastal residents, more often than not we opt for the “N” road holiday options instead of the “R” routes.

This means missing out on towns like Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda along the R61 with their host of museums, game drives, galleries, restaurants, churches and friendly folk who have perfected the art of “nog net enetjie” [just one more].

Weekend Post was welcomed by a culture of hospitality and caring that compels all residents, business owners and youngsters from both towns to find the time to connect.

Graaff-Reinet: The Gem of the Karoo

The Dutch Reformed Church or “Groot Kerk” in Church Street, Graaff-Reinet, continues to tower over the sleepy town
The Dutch Reformed Church or “Groot Kerk” in Church Street, Graaff-Reinet, continues to tower over the sleepy town
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

Prior to seeing the mesmerising NG Gemeente Kerk in Graaff-Reinet, we were treated to an almost 150km “game drive” along the R61 from Uitenhage as warthogs, buck and giraffes moved between farms bordering the roadside.

And while the “Groot Kerk” – established in 1792 – definitely deserves a second look, it was also hard to divert our attention from the town’s neatly maintained historic architecture, particularly along Somerset Road.

Shuttered windows and protruding stoeps, tree-lined pavements and freshly swept side streets combine to provide a picturesque dorpie backdrop.

While we were enjoying a drink at one of the quaint stoep-styled restaurants, an open air Land Rover sporting Karoo Connections’ signage pulled up.

Karoo Connections: Valley of Desolation

Inside it was Graaff-Reinet resident and Karoo Connections owner David McNaughton, who proved to be a veritable encyclopedia of Karoo knowledge as he accompanied us on a sundowners tour of the Valley of Desolation.

As McNaughton shared facts about the area, its history and heritage, he somehow slipped out of town with three simple right turns and placed us seamlessly within the borders of the Camdeboo National Park which surrounds Graaff-Reinet.

Travelling up to more than 100m above the valley floor, as the sky becomes infused with shades of pink, purple and orange, the palatable anticipation of what lies ahead continues to build until you reach the top.

After continuing along a short footpath, we were treated to one of the most awe-inspiring views in the province, if not the country.

Port Elizabeth resident Lisa van Aardt experiences the exceptional views of the Valley of Desolation outside Graaff- Reinet
Port Elizabeth resident Lisa van Aardt experiences the exceptional views of the Valley of Desolation outside Graaff- Reinet
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

Overlooking the Valley of Desolation – proclaimed a national monument of geological and scenic significance in 1939 – will leave you speechless as the sun caresses the vertical cliffs and columns of dolerite while the early evening light allows your eyes to scan the substantial landscape spanning more than 100km.

“The beauty of this for me is that, despite coming to the Valley of Desolation on a basically daily basis, it always looks different. The time of day, temperature, even the wind all contribute to the experience and how it resonates with you as an individual,” McNaughton said.

The Bavarian: Great German grub

While the Valley of Desolation left us filled with inspiration and a tale to tell, the responsibility of filling our stomachs was left in the capable hands of Michael Smit and Johann Swiegelaar, affable owners of the Bavarian restaurant in Graaff Reinet’s Calendon Road.While the restaurant is essentially the new kid on the block, having opened in October 2018, the owners have decades of experience as cordon bleu chefs. They’ve given their spot a nice Karoo twist but be warned: in this part of the land everyone disregards portion control!

Prior to arriving at the quaint town of Nieu Bethesda, one is treated to uniquely beautiful views along the Owl Route
Prior to arriving at the quaint town of Nieu Bethesda, one is treated to uniquely beautiful views along the Owl Route
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

The scenic beer garden- styled establishment has four craft beers on tap as well as a host of uniquely flavoured rums, gins and tequilas. But it is the hearty German dishes derived from Smit’s family recipes which will have you returning again and again.

We started our three-course meal with a selection of German pizza from the light meals menu. It was topped with a sinful amount of bacon and consumed any available space on the table.

As a result I was unable to muster the courage to tackle the 800g eisbein, which is referred to as a “regular size”, and instead modestly accepted the “ladies” portion” of 500g, which fell beautifully off the bone and left me wanting more.

Aa’Qtansisi Guesthouse: From plaas to a palace and back again

Alas, it was time to retire to our home for the night. At Aa’ Qtansisi Guesthouse (the name is a Khoi phrase meaning “we welcome you”) we were delighted by the little treasures which filled our room; objects collected by the owners, Ria Fivz and Pierre de Lange, during their travels through Africa.We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the air-conditioned room with its elevated bed and standalone tub.

De Lange said each of the eight rooms was uniquely styled according to an African country. Behind closed doors you might be exploring anywhere from Zanzibar to Egypt, but you are brought back to the charming Karoo lifestyle when you step into the corridors or dining room decorated with homely, farm-style objects.

After a full English breakfast we left the sleepy town, nestled in a horseshoe bend of the Sundays River, for the uncharted territory of Nieu Bethesda.

Nieu Bethesda: Gravel roads to a goldmine of good times

The peaceful streets of Nieu Bethesda
The peaceful streets of Nieu Bethesda
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

The 30-minute drive to this quaint town along the Owl Route yields endless photo opportunities as you are encapsulated by the Sneeuberg Mountains before descending into a valley where a view of the uniquely shaped De Toren koppie awaits.

All of this before driving onto the grid of gravel roads making up the town affectionately known as Bethesda. At this point it became clear that, despite us not knowing anything about the town besides it being home to Helen Martins’ famous Owl House, it could not possibly disappoint.

We entered the town as temperatures continued to climb, to be welcomed through the dust by the Tot-Hier-Toe farm stall. At this little oasis of friendly people, beers are served by the quart and the rugby TV remote is run on a first-come, first-served basis.

The 18 dirt roads free of traffic lights do not stop yielding surprises. With each turn comes a fresh experience ranging from donkey cart rides to horse races between the local children, and even a crafts market and micro-brewery.

Ibis Lounge: Where comfort and kos take the lead

The pristine Dutch Reformed Church in Nieu Bethesda celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2018 and its presence can be felt through the town
The pristine Dutch Reformed Church in Nieu Bethesda celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2018 and its presence can be felt through the town
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

Few are able to hold a candle to the Ibis Lounge, where owners Johan and Barbara Weitz welcomed us to their immaculate establishment where comfort only just plays second fiddle to Barbara’s Bethesda-raised lamb. The slow-cooked Camdeboo lamb shank came in a rich red wine sauce and each delicious forkful flaked effortlessly off the bone.

The cherry on top was Barbara’s home-made (and an Ibis exclusive) Royal Sorbet made from the fruit of the Queen of the Night cactus. With its undertone of cucumber, it is a tantalising taste of the Karoo.

Though there are no streetlights in the town, the magic of this largely crime-free community truly came to the fore as we enjoyed a stroll through its starlit streets. The town has a small convenience shop for necessities, but no petrol station or ATM.

The next morning, before we left and after another full breakfast, we visited the famous Owl House which turned out to be yet another enlightening experience.

Our Karoo getaway amazed and surprised us not only because of the splendid sights and large array of activities, but because of the passion and pride of its special residents.

Artcentre offers hope to locals

Bethesda Arts Centre chef Martin Lackay
Bethesda Arts Centre chef Martin Lackay
Image: Tremaine van Aardt

It has been almost two decades since a UK artist and her daughter wandered through the mystical meadows into Nieu Bethesda and changed the lives of some of the once struggling descendants of the /Xam bushmen.

Jeni Couzyn and her daughter, Tarot, started giving drawing lessons to the local people in 1999. Most of them – descendants of the /Xam – realised they could also sell their creations and so a new attitude towards the value of art was born.

Since then the ‘First People’ artists – consisting of painters, seamstresses, actors, and even cooks and sculptors from nearby coloured township Pienaarsig – have taken ownership of the Bethesda Arts Centre, which was established by and remains under the directorship of Couzyn.

Lead artist and Nieu Bethesda resident Sandra Sweers, 38, said Couzyn was UK based and only able to visit about once a year.

The 13 permanent artists subsequently run the centre’s accommodation, restaurant and Bushman Heritage Museum.

While all the artworks, tapestries and performances are locally created, they are of a world-class standard, having been included in exhibitions in several European cities and in Australia.

“We all had a basic understanding of the arts and our history, but Jeni refined our skills. She made us realise our heritage could actually lead to building a living,” Sweers said.

She said prior to Couzyn’s arrival the majority of artists forming the “First People” group were either unemployed or doing odd jobs.

“All of us here now receive a stipend, access to education and a portion of the profits from the sales of our artworks.”

The centre’s chef, Martin Lackay, 34, said: “Jeni taught me the skill and techniques. I had the basics but she brought out the best in me. In 2018, I won third place in the Eastern Capes Creative Cooks competition.”

Win trip for two

One lucky reader will win a two-night stay for two in Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda. The prize, with a total value of R5,000, includes accommodation for two nights (sharing) at Aa’Qtansisi Guesthouse (Graaff-Reinet) and Ibis Lounge Guesthouse (Nieu Bethesda), and breakfast.

The prize also includes a sundowners tour of the Valley of Desolation followed by a meal valued at R600 at the Bavarian German Café and Beer Garden, as well as a meal valued at R600 at the Ibis Lounge.

All other costs will be for the winner’s own account. The winner and his or her partner will also need to make their own way to, from and between the two towns. To enter, SMS the word KAROO to 41893. The competition closes at noon this Monday.

The winner will be electronically drawn, and telephonically notified, before day’s end on Monday. SMSes cost R1.50 each, errors and omissions are billed, and free SMSes don’t count. Other Ts and Cs may also apply. The prize is not transferrable, or exchangeable for cash, and must be taken up within six months, subject to prior booking and availability. Tiso Blackstar employees and their family members are not permitted to enter.