It was on a whim that we pulled the car off the N9 on the way down to George. The sign for the Owl House of Nieu Bethesda was all I needed to pull onto a dirt road that seemed to lead to nowhere at first. I had heard about this magical place, but never really thought about visiting. Nieu Bethesda is remote, and almost lost to the modern world, just a small crumb on a picnic blanket really.
The dirt road is longer than it threatens. A 45-minute drive that twists over the flat land of the Karoo, winding past wire fencing and remote farmlands. The entry into the town isn’t grandiose in any sense. Small, modest houses line the dirt streets here. Little pillboxes waiting in line, mostly well kept in their time warp. It’s not hard to find Helen Martin’s Owl House here, all the roads lead to it, the busiest part of town.
A few small restaurants and little businesses exist, but on a weekday out of tourist season, there wasn’t much to report on here. We were alone at the Owl House, crafters outside vying for our attention with their beaded owls complete with large glassy eyes. A mirror of what awaited us inside. After paying our entry fee, and taking the step into the garden behind the house, we had entered Helen’s world.
Twisted concrete creatures stared off into the distance, conveying a message of confusion, isolation, intelligence and sadness all at once. Camels facing towards an unknown mecca while a happy buddha sat at their feet brought in a understanding of the world’s religions, while comical frogs and owls seemed to be scattered at random throughout the sculptures.
I have no doubt all of these statues were placed with a very specific purpose though. Helen’s artistry indicates an inner darkness in contradiction to the simple life of the town in which she grew up. Truthfully, I found the statues of people disturbing in many ways, they did however make me think how each of these represented a character that had played a role in her own life. The baby in motion reminded me a little too much of a horror movie.
Helen Martin’s life is shrouded in mystery. From rumours of torrid love affairs to an alleged suicide by poisoning, she seems to have a lived a life in isolation, with very little understanding from the people Nieu Bethesda. This preserved museum to what is essentially a life’s works is a great stop if you’re in the area. The town has developed a few small eateries and places to stay in recent years that are apparently pretty decent. If you’re just passing through like we did, don’t expect it to be quick, the dirt roads towards the village are in good shape, but are longer than you’d expect. We spent about 30 minutes at the house, but could’ve spent longer exploring the town if we weren’t on a schedule for a sunset arrival on the Garden Route.