Rediscover your sense of self in the stark Karoo

It took an exploration of the isolated landscape in and around Nieu-Bethesda to get her spark back, writes Sarah Dirsuwei

Ralph and Sarah Dirsuwei on a mountaintop near Nieu-Bethesda, where Sarah got her zest for life back
BEACON OF HOPE: Ralph and Sarah Dirsuwei on a mountaintop near Nieu-Bethesda, where Sarah got her zest for life back
Image: RALPH DIRSUWEI
There's nothing like a Karoo walk to clear your head and gain a fresh perspective
A PATH FOUND: There's nothing like a Karoo walk to clear your head and gain a fresh perspective
Image: RALPH DIRSUWEI

I found myself on top of a mountain in the heart of the Karoo.

I stood hugging a trig beacon with the wind howling though my hair and turned slowly all the way around, drinking in a full 360 degrees of complete wildness as far as I could see — sweeping plains edged by mountains in every direction, illuminated in fiery orange hues as the winter sun slowly bade its daily goodbye.

I stood in complete silence, it pierced only by the sound of the wind and an occasional bleat of a sheep, and marvelled at the sheer wonder of the planet we call home.

This little mountain near Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo Heartland is as close to heaven as I have ever been.

It is located on Ganora Guest Farm, which was our destination for a weekend of art and exploration in the charming hamlet made famous by the Owl House.

We had visited Ganora for a fossil and bushman painting tour a few years ago, and at the time I vowed to return to stay for longer and explore it more thoroughly.

The last time we visited, Nieu-Bethesda was packed full of tourists, but the Covid-19 pandemic meant that this time we pretty much had the whole town to ourselves.

The hunt for coffee

We arrived late on a Friday afternoon and struggled to find a place that was open for a cup of coffee.

We drove up and down the dusty streets until we saw a place with its lights on and door open — Stirlings at The Ibis.

We were greeted by a friendly chef who was more than happy to brew us a cappuccino, and we found ourselves in a pretty courtyard with a floor made of mosaic artworks, a trickling fountain in its centre and tables made from repurposed street signs.

The coffee was every bit as good as we imagined, and whatever was cooking in the kitchen filled the air with delicious aromas, which led us to book a table for Saturday night dinner that we were delighted to hear was a six-course Karoo tasting experience.

Checking in

We drove to Ganora Guest Farm, 15km outside town, and checked in to our old farm coal shed that had been repurposed into a guest room with antique wooden furniture, crisp white linen and Persian rugs, overlooking a weeping willow tree and field of crops.

Load-shedding kicked in and we went up to the main farmhouse for a candlelit sundowner and a friendly chat with the other guests, before enjoying a delicious three-course home-cooked farm dinner.

Starry Karoo skies

As we walked back to our room in the dark, we looked up and were amazed by the canopy of stars above us.

The Karoo skies are among the clearest in the world and famous for stargazing, so we grabbed a blanket, switched off the room lights and sat outside, enjoying the splotchy glowing milky way and the thousands of twinkling stars as we tried to spot shooting stars and identify the various formations.

The Owl House

When we arrived at the Owl House after a hearty farm breakfast on Saturday morning, we were thrilled to find that we had it all to ourselves.

This gave us the time to really absorb each artwork, as well as play around with photographing the pieces.

The artist, Helen Martins, was a troubled soul and poured her heart into the weird and wonderful cement creatures, each with a unique and emotive expression.

After exploring every inch of her house and sculpture garden, we strolled around town admiring the pretty homes and gardens, checking out the water furrows lining the streets and popped in to a few art galleries before returning to the farm to tackle its mountain hike.

Climbing a mountain

The hike from Ganora’s farmhouse to the trig beacon is about 7km each way and a gradual uphill rather than a steep climb.

The Karoo, with its arid landscape, forever views and deafening silence makes the perfect backdrop for a thoughtful and introspective walk.

We hiked mainly in silence, stopping along the way to take some photos and admire the resident sheep.

As we neared the mountain, we started to realise we had miscalculated our timing, and if we pushed on all the way to the top, we were unlikely to return before nightfall, and we might miss our much-anticipated Karoo tasting experience.

But with the end goal so near, it was impossible to turn back before completing our mission and we instead chose to leap out of our comfort zone and run up the final stretch.

We arrived at the top panting from the enormous effort we put in to reaching our goal and exhilarated that we had managed to do it.

Our tight deadline meant we only had 10 minutes to absorb the magnificent views, but somehow the urgency, speed and exertion of our ascent culminated into an extremely intense experience.

Time rushed by and we trotted back down the path, retracing our steps as the sun set and darkness loomed.

Karoo tasting experience

Our over-enthusiasm with climbing the mountain resulted in us making it to Stirlings at The Ibis well in time for our tasting.

And what an experience it was. Course after course of thoughtfully prepared and brilliantly presented dishes that included foraged local ingredients and unique flavour combinations matched with local gins and wines, each course personally served by the talented chef with an explanation of how she had conceptualised and prepared each dish for us.

The interesting menu, artistic presentation and personal attention made this the best food experience we have ever had.

Finding myself

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but somewhere between Ganora’s fertile farm valley and windy Karoo plains, somewhere between Nieu-Bethesda’s gravel roads and distinctive artworks, somewhere between the courses of our Karoo tasting experience and on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere that was everywhere, I found myself again.

I didn’t actually realise how lost I was until my zest for life, my joie de vivre gushed back into my veins and ignited inside me an explosion of passion and positivity that made me feel whole again for the first time since the pandemic hit.

I found myself on top of a mountain in the heart of the Karoo in more ways than one, and I am absolutely delighted to have me back again.

About Ganora Guest Farm

Ganora is located outside Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo Heartland, 60km from Graaff-Reinet.

It offers an enjoyable way to experience a working sheep farm and provides a good base for exploring Nieu-Bethesda.

There are hiking and mountain biking trails, a fascinating fossil museum and guided tours to San rock paintings on the farm.

Ganora offers B&B accommodation, a self-catering cottage and a campsite. Visit www.ganora.co.za for more information.

  • Sarah Dirsuwei is the creator of the Chasing the Rainbow travel blog. For more adventure travel inspiration visit www.chasingtherainbow.net
A guest room at Ganora, outside Nieu-Bethesda
COSY BOLTHOLE: A guest room at Ganora, outside Nieu-Bethesda
Image: RALPH DIRWUSEI
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