South African writer Athol Fugard has left his mark in the land of his birth, mainly in the Eastern Cape and Karoo. The Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth are settings for two of his best known plays and reveal his close ties with South Africa.

Did you know?

Athol Fugard has written more than 30 plays. 

Time magazine considers South African-born writer Athol Fugard to be 'the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world'.

And even though this prolific playwright, novelist, actor, director and teacher lives and works in San Diego, USA, he continues to be inspired by the dynamics in his land of birth.

Visitors to South Africa who are interested in Athol Fugard can start off in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo. Fugard wrote many of his works there but the 'Owl House' town is famous for his play which was later made into a film, The Road to Mecca. It tells the story of Helen Martins who created an imaginary world around her in her Owl House, now a national monument. Fugard has also had a hand in the erection of a theatre in the little town.

Fugard is also remembered in Port Elizabeth where a memorial of kites in St George's Park, where his dad used to run a tearoom, marks his ties to the city. He wrote his only autobiographical play there, Master Harold and the Boys.

While living in the Eastern Cape city, Fugard also founded the Circle Players and then the Serpent Players to bring his plays to life. More recently, he has been hailed for an Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi, based on his work.

In this, like many of his other stories, Athol Fugard portrays the lives of marginalised people and gives a voice to the voiceless. Some of his other plays include The Captain's Tiger, Valley Song, My Children! My Africa, A Lesson from Aloes, The Island,andSizwe Banzi is Dead.

Fugard was born in Middelburg, Eastern Cape. He began writing in the 50s after he dropped out of university in Cape Town, hitch-hiked to North Africa then worked on a ship in the Far East. Today, he is a professor at the University of California.

He has South Africa and holds US citizenship but Athol Fugard's literature is still known for its South African content, dealing as it does with the political and social upheaval of the apartheid system in South Africa.

His latest play, The Blue Iris, is currently on at The Fugard in District Six, a new Cape Town theatre named after the great man.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

The Owl House
Tel: +27 (0)49 841 1733

How to get here

Port Elizabeth is on the national road (N1) along the coastline between Durban and Cape Town, and also has its own airport. Nieu Bethesda is some 60km from Graaff-Reinet. The turn off to the town is on the N9 and is well sign-posted.

Around the area

Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca is based on the creative life of Helen Martins, who transformed her modest Karoo dwelling with glass and cement and a singular vision. A visit to Nieu Bethesda is not complete without a visit to her house, now a museum.

Tours to do

Nieu Bethesda is conveniently situated for a number of day trips to a variety of destinations. Try the Karoo Fossil Safari, a half-hour stroll with a guide to the nearby Gats River bed.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Nieu Bethesda is both comfortable and quirky, varying from farmhouse to backpacker lodge. Most places are self-catering, but meals are also readily available at a variety of venues around town.

What to eat

Port Elizabeth offers restaurants to suit any palate, and Nieu Bethesda has a variety of restaurants offering diverse meal options.

What's happening

Nieu Bethesda is the starting point for a number of hiking routes.