South Africa has an abundance of famous tourist attractions, from Kruger Park on the north to Cape Point on the south. South Africa is also dotted with many lesser known spots that deserve a visit. Here we explore the Owl House.
Strictly speaking, the Owl House is not an unknown attraction. People from all over the world come to visit it. It would be even correct to say that it has a sort of a cult status among select groups of travellers. Still, it is amazing that so many born and bred South Africans look at you blankly when you mention to them this obscure-famous spot situated in the middle of their country.
Whether you are artistically inclined, an aficionado of the unusual, or simply adventurous, the Own House is a must-stop on the journey between Gauteng and the Garden Route or Cape Town and the Wild Coast, the considerable length of the detour notwithstanding.
But first, a word of advice: when you do go to visit the Owl House, opt for the longer route leading to Nieu-Bethesda. The shorter one will lead you onto the dirt roads that will leave your car coated in dust. Whichever the route, the chances are that on your ride though kilometers and kilometers of the barren landscape of Karoo you will meet more tortoises on the roads than other vehicles.
Nieu-Bethesda is located in a green oasis of that semi-desert. The first impression is of a village where time has stopped. Nieu Bethesda has no bank, credit card facilities or petrol pump. But it has several guesthouses, restaurants, a coffee shop, a pub, and art galleries, all of them sprung to accommodate some 15,000 people who visit the Owl House each year.
The Owl House is considered as the foremost example of what is variously called “outsider art”, “visionary art” or “Art Brut” in South Africa. It is said that Helen Martins began creating the Owl House as an antidote to the dullness and greyness of her life. She first embellished the interior of her small house with crushed glass, mirrors and vibrant colours.
Then she moved on to her garden. With the help of her assistants, she created over three hundred concrete and glass sculptures and reliefs. Almost all of them face towards the east. There are owls (Martins’ “totem” animal), camels, donkeys, processions of shepherds and wise men, nativity scenes – a fantastical and fascinating gallery that is thought to integrate Christianity with Orient.
The visit to the Owl House is bound to be emotional. It is eerie to walk though the low-ceilinged rooms of an unusually decorated house in which a person lived and died (Helen Martin committed suicide in 1976). It is eerie to wander among the figures that fill every available space in the yard and fill it with the smell of wet cement. The visitor is placed in a position of a voyeur ogling an intensely personal imagery of a passionate and obsessive individual. The experience is gripping and not a little unsettling.