Bethulie is probably not on anyone’s bucket list. It should be, but most people don’t even know where it is.
I’ll give you a tip. If you can find the biggest dam in the country on a map, you will find Bethulie. Situated within spitting distance of the Gariep Dam, it is a 50km detour off the N1 onto the R701. Colesberg is the closest town, but if you want a precise location, here it is.
The centre of Bethulie town is 30°29’47.21″S and 25°58’39.50″E
This area is not holiday brochure pretty. It is not a feast for your eyes; it has more depth than that.
I see Bethulie as more of a balm for your soul. It requires human interactions, ears that will listen to the stories that hide in the history, the heritage and the generations of the townsfolk.
It loves a mind that can activate the imagination. It thrills a visitor who will try to understand the desperate times of war and concentration camps, and appreciate why monuments to Ox Wagons and horses, commandos and missionaries exist. It welcomes all who want answers to questions like why was it once named Murderers Pass.
Don’t get me wrong, Bethulie is not ugly. The surrounding area is rugged farming country and the town is a mix of Victorian houses, unremarkable homes, exquisite National Monuments and some stores begging for a paint job. It is a real town, not a made for tourists money trap. It delivers countless surprises if you are happy to walk through the town and get dust on your shoes, sunshine in your hair and find stories that imprint your heart forever.
The Royal Hotel Bethulie .
What attracts local and international ghost whisperers, bibliophiles, military historians and bikers to this remote Free State lodging?
This hotel has no sign announcing itself to the world. At first sight I thought it was a rather derelict yard of horse stables or perhaps a disused barracks of sorts. There was no reception area, just an ordinary looking side door that was opened to welcome me inside, and what I saw rendered me speechless.
A long corridor of books wall to ceiling , a passage that bent and turned revealing more books and eventually opened into a cluster of rooms that housed the bulk of the 30 000 books that line these walls.
While my mind was still trying to process this lovely quirky interior design, I found myself in yet another room that defies belief. Three walls of shelves are packed with 24 000 vinyls of every type of music you can imagine. The total collection numbers around 80 000 records. (Those of you over 40 will know vinyls as LPs.)
A small stage and impressive sound system are the focal point of this room where an impromptu show by local poets and a song writer reminded me what a creative and talented nation we are. This show would have received an encore on any stage in the world.
Dinner is an event to be savoured slowly. It is served with pride, fine wine and lively conversation interrupted only by the irresistible urge to scour the shelves for a long forgotten song to add to the playlist on the turntable.
I was very right and very wrong in my first impressions. In the 1860s the original building started as a trading store. Some ten years later it was converted into accommodation and grandly named the Royal Hotel. As things have turned out it has never hosted a royal of any description but in its early years it was used by at least two Free State presidents.
In 2005 Anthony Hocking took ownership and has very successfully rebranded it as a sanctuary for books and vinyl’s. Read more about Anthony’s story here, it is a fascinating one.
What’s the big deal about the bridge?
You will be badgered, nagged and encouraged to take the 7km drive to the bridge. If you are not immediately enthusiastic about this strong suggestion you will be told that it is the longest road and rail bridge in South Africa. It is the DH Steyn Bridge and was built in the 1960’s from local sandstone. It is 1.2km long.
I gave in. I went to the bridge. It is just easier to say yes.
To the east is the magnificent sight of the Gariep River flowing into the dam of the same name. Sandstone hills and the first lights from the village draw your eyes to the distance. Cows lie down on the embankment, birds dart and swoop millimetres above the waterline, fish jump, and the sun is perfectly posed in the centre of the horizon.
To the west the river is much narrower and darkly mysterious as it bends out of sight snaking through the gorge.
Gusts of wind raise gooseflesh all over, and then calm and warmth and silence are restored. Low railings beg to be climbed over, to stand in the middle of the train tracks, and feel the residual warmth radiating off them. A whistle, a rumble that turns to a growl and a call to action, and I hop clumsily over the railing to the safety of the road. The thunderous noise of tons of steel locomotive beating a rhythm on the tracks as it crosses the bridge to a different province enthralls me.
And then the sun begins its journey to the other side and the sky is a painting of mad clashing colours and unworldly shapes.
In the darkness faces smile and heads nod as understanding of the allure of the bridge is absorbed. It is a spiritual place where nature will not be ignored. It is much more than a crossing over a river. It is somewhere to find silence, to allow your heart to listen to unspoken messages, to breathe cleanly and deeply, to find the stillness inside yourself.
To some people, it might be just a bridge: to the folks of Bethulie it is a place to visit to meditate, to congregate, to celebrate, to integrate. Is that too many “ates”? Ah well, it’s true, that’s what the big deal is about the bridge.
If books are not your thing, and you absolutely loathe music and bridges perhaps you could try something else.
For under ZAR55 you can play a round of golf on a 69 rated course and have a caddy to help you along the Karoo style fairways to the grass putting greens.
Play for the views. The Bethulie golf course is laid out against a backdrop of sandstone mountains with views of the Bethulie and Gariep Dams, and you can see that damn bridge too. Although there are no water hazards, the course is challenging for an average player and I am sure if you tried you could land a couple of balls in one of the dams.
The Gariep Dam
The dam was built in the 1970’s and is the largest dam in South Africa. At full capacity it spans 320 square kilometres. South Africa’s newest town is the one developed around the dam and has the imaginative name of Gariep Dam. The area offers loads of water sports and wet activities as well as plenty of land based fun. For more information visit http://www.gariepdam.com/
South African road trippers take note. Bethulie is halfway to everywhere.
Well not quite everywhere but for a first visit it is a worthy stop if you are travelling between Cape Town and Durban or Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. For those who prefer to fly, Bloemfontein is the closest airport, about 200 scenic kilometres away.
Be warned, this town tempts visitors as a convenient overnight stop, however it has a very high rate of repeat business.
Disclosure. My visit to Bethulie was part of a trip hosted by South Africa Tourism. Thanks to Dale, SAT and the Royal Bethulie Hotel. Opinions are my own.