Calm in the Karoo

by Jared
 * This article first appeared here in ASPIRE LIFESTYLE

To confess, the Karoo was always an unavoidable drive-through when the journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town had to be done by car. On one of these trips during the pandemic when flights were unavailable (yes, we’d all like to forget those days) I made the trip a slow one and with this change in pace, the region grew on me with new appreciation. I vowed to return someday, intending to explore two of the small villages I’d seen signs for along the way.

Two years later, three of us set out in search of what the Karoo has to offer: for me, some mountain passes where my new SUV could stretch her tires, for fellow journalist David some quirky stories and curious succulents, and for foodie Derick some of the region’s artisanal producers.

Prince Albert

Our first destination in the semi-desert was an easy 45-minute drive off the N1. Prince Albert appears as an oasis in the Karoo, and before enjoying a cold draught at one of the local pubs that were playing into our thirst, it was time to offload our bags at the aptly named De Kleine Prince. I’d booked us into what seemed one of the region’s most impressive reimaginings of a Karoo home.

Owner Adrian Lombard is a creative force of note, and after decades of working in the creative industry, this is his Lifesong to the world. And what a beautiful one it is. Volumes of thought has entered the conception of De Kleine Prince with every corner carefully conceived, considered, and curated.

I asked what brought the Joburg raconteur to the heart of the Karoo: “I was looking for a sophisticated village, close to the mountains. Having a quiet retreat for city dwellers to be creative and recharge. A space to refocus, refresh and rewind. That was always the goal.”

De Kleine Prince was not only designed as a plush rental stay but also as a content house – with multiple spaces for brand shoots. It cleverly doubles up for creatives in need of escape as well as having to do some inspired work. The three distinct parts – The Victorian House, Barn and Poolhouse, can be hired separately or for exclusive use sleeping ten in total. Plus you needn’t worry about the summer heat, the pool, lush gardens, and air-conditioning provide excellent respite from the summer sun.

Following the Karoo’s theme of white-washed architecture, many of the home’s spaces echo the calm tranquillity of the Karoo; my double-volume bathroom is replete with seven-meter tall Natal mahogany trees, and the jasmine-drenched pagoda (where local therapists delivers intuitive treatments) are but some of them.

Researching Prince Albert, guide Ailsa Tudhope’s Ghost Tour kept leaping to the top of my screen. She is informative, quirky and full of fun – and brought the village alive in a way few could. And yes, there were plenty tales of ghouls and spooky apparitions. For gourmand outings, Derick made sure we sampled delicious fruit at Weltevrede Fig Farm and then cheese from the renowned Gay’s Dairy.

I recalled Sally Andrew’s words from Recipes for Love and Murder: “I made some coffee and went and sat on the stoep to watch the day arrive. It happens all of a sudden in the Karoo. One minute the light is soft and full of the night’s shadows, and then the sun is blasting everything awake”. After three mornings of the sun blasting us awake, it was time to point the Audi Northwards.

Niue Bethesda

Twenty minutes after the frontier town of Graaff-Reniet, the N9 takes you further into the hinterland; first snaking through the scenic Rubidge Kloof, and then descending again into the fertile valley where Niue Bethesda lies waiting.

There are no tar roads. No street lights. And no traffic lights. It truly feels like being transported back in time; although people have settled here since the late 1700s, the road was only completed in the 1960s – and only tarred more recently than that.

While researching the town, a friend mentioned that I had to stay in “the beautiful cottage with a unique name… if you’re lucky enough to get a booking”. As fate had it, Mukti was available. Another two Joburg gents, also in search of a dream Karoo escape, found their nirvana in Nieu-Bethesda and thankfully for us, opened it up to guest bookings.

“We were possibly on the hunt for a ‘rural’ place we could go to rest and recharge. When we arrived, we were instantly smitten with Nieu-Bethesda and extended our stay.” Mukti was the property they bought on the edge of town and gave a complete overhaul: “The biggest challenge renovating a property 8 hours’ drive from home is the regular checking required, which involved tens of thousands of kilometres driven.”

Arriving at Mukti it was straight to the pool where, white-washed walls, oversized succulents and black door/metal detail make for a remarkable scene. Mukti offers two bedrooms, two lounges, a study, and a large kitchen that spills onto the veranda. A walk through the house feels in part like a turn through a gallery, with the walls adorned with a bevvy of striking artworks and limited-edition prints. Curiosities abound, but everything feels like it belongs.

Mention Nieu Bethesda and people will usually respond by referencing the Owl House – while this quirky spot has certainly given the town its fame there’s a lot more to do. My confession (yes, the second in this article) is that we didn’t enter the site. Our brief walk past was enough to quell my curiosity. After all, we were on a mission to see what Nieu Bethesda had to offer beyond this well-known haunt.

In search of local cuisine, we were led to Brunos where their Karoo Table provides a flavourful welcome to the town. Although owners Ludolf and Carla Smit are relatively recent transplants from Johannesburg but have fast become ardent advocates of the Karoo town – be sure to ask to visit their underground cellar.

Craft beer and the village’s best coffee flow freely at Two Goats Deli, where economics lecturer turned brewer André Cilliers has lived for almost two decades. He recalls a time when the village was home to no more than 20 residents. His beer is available on-site, so it’s a case of savour on the spot.

The 1905 NG church is worth a visit to see the Vincent pipe organ – which I discovered after firing up – was in perfect working condition. A short walk away Dustcovers is a veritable treasure trove for literature lovers with over 1000 titles.

For a fascinating outing, take the 15-minute drive to see the Stone Folk of Ongeluksloot – a permanent outdoor installation by Ryno Greeff that takes in mountains and art with nine freestanding ‘stone people’. If you are looking for a vantage point with the best views of the village, then Marette se Bank on the Uitkyk pass offers unbeatable views.

With a plethora of candlesticks scattered around the stoep – inspired by the bright Milky Way overhead – we celebrated our last evening in the Karoo with some of the products we’d foraged over the past days, but the highlight perhaps, being Angie’s bread. Mukti’s housekeeper made perhaps the region’s finest bread. Of course, she proudly refused to share the recipe for the baked treat made in the kitchen’s traditional stove – giving us a veritable reason to return once more.

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south african travel journalist