Bethulie

Patrick Mynhardt did something incredible – he introduced the world to his hometown in the one-man show, “The Boy from Bethulie.” Obviously, I had to go check what this place was about. Armed with a lot of history, and established around the countries most important water source, this town, well, disappoints. Driving into town, the town’s façade is dreary – the main street has the eerie feel of a town with so much potential but doesn’t know how to show this to the world. Maybe my expectations were too high!

Bethulie houses two extremes of humanity. Two kilometres north of the town, is a wire sign in Afrikaans reading: Bethulie Kampherhof. To the uninformed and those not fluent in Afrikaans, this would be one of those signs you see on a road and forget it a few seconds later – just like those hand-painted signs for painters and tree-fellers that adorn many robots. To those in the know, this is home to South Africa’s worst concentration camp…

Concentration Camps were not solely Nazi run for the non-Aryan. These camps have been utilised in war long before World War 2 as effective tools to control the enemy. During the South African War that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the British set up several concentration camps where civilians were placed and tortured – most of the times, to death. The camp at Bethulie was the countries worst. Here, mostly Boer women and children were brought (concentrated) and kept in subjection. Countless names adorn the walls of the monument signalling that this was not just a camp for control and work – it was a death camp. Overall, 26 000 Boer women and children and about 15 000 Blacks were killed in these camps. In contrast, about 3 000 Boer soldiers were killed in battle…

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Whenever I attend funerals, visiting the cemetery is always a real hard experience. This is not even done at night when most of your “scaredy-catness” comes out. Places of death hold so many stories – lost to this world. Places of mass-murder are worse. The founding name of the town was Moordenaarspoort… Okay, I really can’t put more words to this…

The amazing thing is that the victims here had no connection to me whatsoever. Nor could I relate to their suffering and oppression. Yet that feeling persists…

Two kilometres from the Bethulie turn-off in the OTHER direction is one of the greatest feats of South African engineering. The Bethulie Bridge connects the Eastern Cape and Free State. It is 1152m long concrete structure spanning over the convergence of several rivers that drain into the Gariep. Viewed from afar, it’s immensely huge. Driving across it, it doesn’t fell like it though. In this desolate region, your car is the only automobile for miles. You drive onto the bridge doing 120kph and 30 seconds later, you’re over the bridge. Only by peering over at your odometer will you notice that a whole number has changed because of this crossing! It’s also a very boring looking bridge – typical late 60s/ early 70’s South Africana.

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Both these monuments are of extreme importance and showcase our humanity. The bridge showcases our local engineering brilliance in its most extreme form. The camp, a showcase of the inhumanity and disrespect humans can have when interacting with other human beings. However, both these monuments have no awe surrounding them. As I mentioned, if you don’t know the history behind these two and you are on your way to Oviston or Burgersdorp on the other side of the dam, you probably won’t even notice the camp and after 30 seconds, the bridge will be just another bridge that you’ve driven over. I don’t know – my opinion is that these two are important to all South Africans and should be made so. There are so many less important monuments in the country that have such fanfare and hype built around them that when you see the actual article, like an 18th century kitchen knife, your mind tells you that you should be in awe because this is really important. Maybe the Free State authorities will, one day, realise this…

Bethulie has the vibe of an artist’s town. It is full of inspiration – it’s perched on the banks of a great lake, the koppies around it are magnificent and there is untouched greenery at the end of most roads. Even the litter bins are hippy-inspired, multi-coloured spectacles.

Adjoining Information is an unmanned book-shop. The wall has several cut-outs and photocopies detailing the history of the town. Small towns always have these second-hand bookshops where you can pick up so great literary pieces. I found Olive Schreiner’s “Story of an African Farm. “ I felt that I had to get this book here in the land she wrote about – well, not really but I mean, buying it at Exclusive Books in Sandton is just so bland. The Honesty Box was a great touch – the sign that this is not Jozi.

I stayed at a new Bed & Breakfast called Old Watchmakers. Again, I surprised the owner with my Indianness but she really tried hard to make me feel welcome. It is a new place and in time, it should be a really great place to stop. Rates were very affordable and they also make excellent cakes for your afternoon tea.

I spoke to a local antique shop owner about the town and the hospitality industry. Small towns like Bethulie rely heavily on the city folk coming through town and spending their corporate Rands here. The economic recession has hit the smaller towns that normally got alternate holiday traffic. He told me that I was probably the town’s only visitor on that particular day whereas normally, most of the B&B’s in town would be at least half full with this changing to fully occupied during the high season. With less money being available for people to spend, their holidays are either forfeited or they go to the traditional centres where they either have a holiday home or family. The thing is that coming to this town (except for the petrol costs!) is very reasonable. The prices here are not inflated and staying in the accommodation is the fraction of the cost of any traditional holiday centre and the hospitality is orders of magnitude better.

The problem with this town is that my first impression still stuck. It’s really a great town. It’s welcoming and has so much to offer – I only touched on a few elements of what the town has to offer. However, the town needs to really show visitors the personality it has. Maybe it’s just me! I still recommend this town. Do take a visit – you will be surprised 🙂

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Day 44: Please send those Bags up to Room 16

Probably the most important part of staying away from home for extended periods of time is the lodging. Staying in a place that you do dislike for valid reason could make the whole experience rather uncomfortable. Then again, what constitutes comfortable is a whole other cup of tea – when the place has all the basics creature comforts, one should be happy with it especially if you are staying and eating for free! Then again, there are others who always find fault and complain about basically everything. I obviously did encounter that type of person and so have you a few blogs ago. Anyway, said person was removed from the guesthouse that we stayed at so I guess all ended quite well! Anyway, the guesthouse that I stayed at was the Klein Bosveld Guesthouse – very homely establishment and the stay was rather enjoyable. It had modern conveniences like WiFi (thank God!) and it looked pretty too! Here are some pictures.

This is the main reception building. We had our breakfast and supper there. Both were buffet type meals and I found one of the most awesome breakfast combos! What you do is toast your bread (I prefer white), then whilst it is hot, butter it and put some grated cheese on top. Then take some avocado, slice it thinly and place it on top of the grated cheese. Then you eat it. You are welcome to admire it but that might constitute playing with your food. I ate that almost every morning and the odd thing – I’m not a fan of avocado! Anyway, another feature was they always had two jugs of juice left out for both breakfast and supper. I have a weird liking for juice.

Just some views of the buildings that house the rooms. As you can see, we did go in winter seeing that the tree was a bit naked. I stayed in the building behind the tree.

Aaaah, my room; my lovely room and as you can see, King Size bed! Booyah! Although I didn’t require the entire monstrosity of a bed, it did come in handy when I kept my laptop in one corner, my clothes on the other and the pies from the Sasol down the road (both of them…depending on the night!) under the electric blanket on the other end. The plug-points were stationed behind my bed and were normally used for the bedside lamps and electric blanket and the rather useless panel heater on the wall. I ended up plugging in maybe two additional double adapters to cater for my external hard drive plug, cellular phone plug (both of them!), power cable for the laptop, the panel heater and the electric blanket. I also learnt that water makes a real good heatsink, though seeing that I spend so much time at a Power Station that releases tonnes of steam into the atmosphere every second, this should have been apparent!

In hindsight, taking a picture that looks cool rather than one that shows the contents of a room wasn’t the best idea. This was taken in the clubhouse which had this moerse enormous TV, an honesty bar, pool table and a dartboard. The toilet seat in the loo was the funkiest I’ve ever seen ever – a hardened, clear resin with nuts, bolts and nails embedded in it. The honesty bar worked on the principle that the guests would help themselves to the alcohol but write down what they take on a list and at the end of the month or end of your stay, you settle the bill. Anyway, I could have shown you all of this – BUT, how cool is this vintage Coke freezer???

How cool is this dude? Anyway, so yeah, that’s a brief tour of my humble abode for the last 40 or so days and will be for around another 20.