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TThe Owl Route is a 50km U-shaped dirt road in the Eastern Cape province, best explored by bicycle. The route leads explorers to the well-known Owl House, a museum in the town of Nieu Bethesda that features the interesting artworks of Helen Martins and Koos Malgas.
The route, in the Sneeuberg mountains, is reasonably flat and the journey is more about the scenery and serenity than the physical challenge.
Nieu Bethesda, a small rural town 305km north of Port Elizabeth, was established in the 1870s by a group of innovative farmers, led by BJ Pienaar, who established the farm Uitkyk (“Lookout”). Many of his descendants are still prominent in the area today and will greet you with a wave as you cycle by. This town is where the land meets the Karoo sky and stone water furrows still line the wide, dusty streets. Night skies are unpolluted by streetlights, and the air is still fresh and clean.
TThe town has retained its historical charm and has managed to shun modern technology and systems. It does not even have a bank, let alone credit card facilities or petrol stations. The town will transport you back in time and the realisation of old-school charm awaits you.
Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape
AArid, unspoilt grassland surrounds the town, which features some beautiful old buildings, such as the white Dutch Reformed Church building that was inaugurated in 1905. This is a nature-lover’s paradise, a high altitude semi-desert that is home to the largest variety of succulents in the world – as well as eagles, sacred ibises, secretary birds, blue cranes, flamingos, otters, tortoises, bat-eared foxes, kudu, springbok, reedbuck, wildebeest, wild cats and aardvarks
Nowadays much of the industry is based around art. There are craft shops and galleries, potteries and sculpture gardens – most famously, the late Helen Martins’ extraordinary Owl House. The Owl House museum is Nieu Bethesda’s best-known attraction, with its garden full of statues (the Camel Yard) that were created by Helen Martins, the lady who inspired Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca.
HHistorians refer to Martins as a reclusive, yet immensely talented and passionate person who devoted the majority of her later years to her sculptures of cement, glass and wire. Owls and camels were clearly among her favourite subjects. What began as a decorative quest for light and colour soon developed into a fascination with the interplay of reflection and space, of light and dark and different hues; and if you find yourself in this area it is most definitely worth a visit.