Location: 266 kilometres from Port Elizabeth in Nelson Mandela Bay, past Graaff Reinette, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Date Visited: 18 – 20 May 2012 (Fall)
Accommodation: We stayed in a beautifully fitted 2-bedroom cottage with a kitchen, lounge & two bathrooms – only one of the options at Ganora Guest Farm, which also offers serviced luxury rooms, as well as accomodation for groups and something more standard for couples.
What we Drove: The Jeep Cherokee, 3.7 litre V6/p>
What we did: We did stargazing, discovered fossils, explored Nieu Bethesda, visited artists and art galleries, enjoyed scrumptious food, played with Meerkat and met the most interesting people.
Recommendation: Ganora Guest Farm is the perfect base from which to explore this area. Nieu Bethesda is a must visit. The village is almost perfectly preserved, it is rich with history – a perfect destination on your itinerary. A must see for anyone visiting the Great Karoo.
Website: Nieu Bethesda
Little did we know, as we left Nelson Mandela Bay in the Jeep Cherokee, on this cold Friday afternoon, that we would encounter so much in a single weekend.
The 220 kilometre drive to Graaff Reinet was easy & comfortable. The Jeep Cherokee’s 3.7 liter V6 enjin is loaded with power. Going past Uitenhage I engaged the cruise control on a comfortable 120 km/h setting and for the rest of the journey the smooth automatic gearbox did the rest.
We stopped in Graaff Reinette for refreshments and supplies, then tackled the last 40 kilometers to the village of Nieu Bethesda. The Cherokee’s heated seats & climate control easily kept the Karroo winter’s 10 degrees Celsius at bay.
It was late afternoon when we descended on the village.
The setting sun painted autumn trees with gold and orange brush strokes.
We couldn’t resist a quick drive through main street before making our way on a well kept gravel road to Ganora Guest Farm. The beautiful historic buildings & tree lined streets welcomed us. Two boys were playing in a water furrow along the street. In the distance a young man was leading a horse to pasture, probably for the evening. An elderly lady, grandly dressed with a floppy white wide brimmed hat, was out for a walk. A dog of unknown heritage made his way across the street. On the front porch of what seemed to be a home two men were having coffee and conversation.
At Ganora Guest Farm Hester was waiting for us as we drove down the scenic road to the homestead of this 4000 hectare working farm. Hester is the hostess. Jan-Peet, her husband, is the farmer. And the palaeontologist. He grew up in these mountains. He found his first fossil as a boy and could not escape the fascination of an earth with a history beyond that of his own kind.
That evening, before supper, he shows us his private collection of pre-Jurasic fossils. Our children are mesmerized by his stories of very ancient reptile like animals roaming a swampy basin.
We’re not the only ones at Ganora.
Renowned photographer and teacher, Pine Pienaar is also there with a group of people who are keen to learn photography from him. Some have driven as much as 800 kilometers to spend time under his hand. After dinner he takes us on a journey into outer space. A lecture on astronomy, richly blended with fascinating stories from Greek Mythology.
Before all of that we find our accommodation.
Our cottage is more than comfortable. It overlooks the homestead’s white buildings with their characteristic red roofs. A river, autumn trees and mountains completing the picture.
Supper is butternut soup, Venison Pie and freshly grown vegetables topped off with Malva-poeding & Custard, coffee & conversation for desert.
It is past eleven when we settle in bed, the children talking about all they saw & learnt on this Winter’s Friday.
Saturday morning is slow.
By nine the kids bring us coffee in bed. Maddi slept well. The rooms were warm. The bedding soft.
By ten we’re up.
Together we make breakfast.
A walk along the winding river, through fallen autumn leaves, then we drive the six kilometers back to Nieu Bethesda.
We make our way to Andre Cillier’s Snowberg Brewery & Two Goats Deli.
Andre and his family moved to Nieu Bethesda almost eleven years ago, giving up a teaching position in economics in Cape Town. They couldn’t resist the pull of this little bit of world. Today life, for him and his family is filled with everything involved when you brew three different kinds of beer, make & mature five different types of Goat’s cheese, roast special coffee and bake artisan bread. They raise & keep their own goats. Along with their three children they serve the guests & enjoy a life many envy & few imagine possible.
Lunch & beer is a slow affair.
Then we head out to explore a bit more. We’ve heard of Aunty Evelyn’s eatery on ‘the other side’ of town. We stop for a moment. We pop-in at Charmaine Haines‘ Ceramics Gallery. We end up talking away the rest of the afternoon with her and her husband, Martin. We talk Nieu Bethesda. We talk South Africa. We talk living abroad. The three years they spent in the south of France. The longing to come home. The awesomeness of our country in labor. The gift of raising children. The privilege of being able to spend your days on creating beautiful articles which bring joy to the lives of diverse people.
As we make our way back to the Jeep, the sun is pushed low by eager winter’s cold.
At Ganora Guest Farm a warm fire awaits us.
And delicious food.
Pine brought along a huge telescope. He shows us Jupiter with its rings. He tells us of Orion & the scorpion. Of how Greek Mythology made sense of Winter & Summer. The children view Mars with their own eyes. And Alpha Centauri.
Supper starts with Biltong Soup, followed by Roast Beef, vegetables & Hester’s famous pumpkin bake. Desert is traditional milk tart & koeksisters with coffee. Jan-Peet walks us to our cottage. Over dinner we talked about Anglo-Boer War History. About Bushman drawings & artifacts on the farm. The children drift away to sleep. Even Maddi, our seven week old baby, do not hesitate to embrace sleep’s wonderland.
After a slow Sunday morning breakfast we saunter down from our cottage so that Hester could share their Meerkat sanctuary with us. Sometimes Meerkat babies are orphaned. Sometimes they are captured and kept as pets, but because they are territorial tribal animals they become difficult to manage as they mature & then they’re abandoned. Hester & Jan-Peet take the destitute Meerkat in. They nurse them to health & then go about the slow patient process of re-introducing them back into nature. The children play as we talk of life & time and a world in desperate need of intimacy.
Then we load up & make our way to Nieu Bethesda for a last goodbye.
We visit the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre. The children finding their own fossils in the village’s river-bed.
We walk through the Owl House, saddened by Helen Martin’s story, fascinated by her sculpture garden.
We stop at Frans & Heidi Boekkooi. Heidi runs a gallery. Frans has his studio. We drink coffee on their front porch. The children play in the street. They talk of life in this village. Of people’s lives connected to each other. Of neighbors caring. Of interest in Frans’ work. The Meerkat sculpture he is working on. The commission he received. The little farm school where their children enjoy a different kind of education. It is here, on this front porch, that I discover my own tribe’s origins in this historic place. BJ Pienaar buying the farm in 1855. A town developing. A Church building built. Streets named. In the graveyard many graves carry our surname. A street is called Pienaar Street, a part of town Pienaar-sig.
We take lunch at the Art Centre, a centre promoting local artists. Beef Curry with Rotti.
What we thought would be a quick goodbye, ends in a slow Sunday, as if the village was holding on to us, not wanting to let us go.
The drive home is easy in the Jeep Cherokee.
The children talk of fossils & galaxies, of sculptures & forefathers.
Maddi suckles & sleeps intermittently.
It is dark when the Cherokee’s headlights light up our carport at our little house on the not so little hill.
Our weekend converted to memories & thoughts to be cherished in years to come.
For time is precious and we all leave a trail.
And sometimes we pick-up on the trail of those who came before us.
And sometimes we find something good.