Bethulie, Free State
Did you know?
Pelissier House, the oldest building in Bethulie, now houses an historical museum displaying local artefacts.
The southern Free State town of Bethulie lies in the heart of the Grassy Karoo, a part of South Africa that is rich in fossil beds and early San (also known as 'Bushman') artefacts.
The vast waters of the nearby Lake Gariep, at 5 500 000 000 cubic metres the largest dam in South Africa, are believed to cover thousands of fossils embedded in rock.
Depending on the day you drive through Bethulie, you might encounter a buzzing town full of Harley Davidson biker-types on a weekend rally – or a slumbering little village where rush hour constitutes a donkey cart passing a slow-moving farmer’s pickup truck.
Bethulie had no fewer than seven name changes before becoming Bethulie. It was once even called 'Moordernaarspoort' (Murderer’s Gulch) after a particularly bloody battle in the area.
Bethulie’s most famous son is the late Patrick Mynhardt, who made his acting name playing characters from the Herman Charles Bosman stories, based in the Groot Marico district of the North West province. He also wrote an hilarious autobiographical piece called Boy From Bethulie – his humour was so universal and visceral that it was successfully performed on stages around the world.
Sadly enough, Bethulie is best-known for the concentration camp dating to the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) outside the town, where more than 1 700 Boer women and children died. Their remains were later exhumed and moved to a special memorial garden on higher ground. You can still see their gravestones – mounted in brick walls – standing mute testimony to one of the most infamous passages of the war.
One of the heroic figures to emerge from this disaster was Emily Hobhouse, an English activist who visited many of the camps and returned to Britain to campaign against the practice. She made a mortal enemy of Lord Herbert Kitchener, who ran the British end of the war campaign.
By the end of the war, however, the concentration camps had claimed the lives of more than 27 000 Boers.
Travel tips & Planning info
How to get here
To get to Bethulie from the north, you drive 170km south of Bloemfontein on the N1, then turn east at the Gariep sign, and drive for 52km on the R701. It's about a two-hour drive from Bloemfontein.
Best time to visit
Mid-winters (June-August) and mid-summers (November-January) can be brutal in this area (very hot in summer, very cold in winter). For the rest of the year, it’s a very good time to visit.
Around the area
You can take trips in this area to Smithfield, the Gariep Dam, Tussen-die-Riviere Game Reserve and Colesberg.
Tours to do
Bethulie is on the Open Africa organisation's Gariep Route. Read up more about the route and things to do in the area on the Open Africa website (listed top right of this web page).
It's best to drive yourself. The roads are good, and hire cars are available from Bloemfontein or Johannesburg.
What will it cost
Accommodation costs in the rural Free State are low, compared to the bigger urban centres.
Length of stay
Bethulie and surrounds are worth staying in for a couple of days if you have the time.
What to pack
In this part of the world, always pack for both cold and warm weather and take weather reports seriously.
Where to stay
There are guesthouses like Oppiekoppie in Bethulie, or stay at the Royal Hotel.
What to eat
Try out the local country cuisine, which is hearty and usually quite meaty.
Look out for sheepskin slippers on sale along the Gariep Route.