Nieu Bethesda is a small dusty village in the heart of the Great Karoo. It’s one of my favorite places with its wide open spaces, clear night skies and mostly, silence.
It’s also home to many artists and sculptors who’ve left the city and chosen a smaller, less stressed out lifestyle.
It was forty degrees when I arrived, hot, sweaty and in need of gin. There is just one bar in the village and I headed straight to it.
Ben, the barman, poured my drink then yelled at me to come and fetch it.
‘It’s a bar,’ I yelled back. ‘And I’m the customer. Can’t you bring it to me?’
I had already joined the large communal table.
‘Nope,’ he replied. ‘I’m in the middle of a chess game.’
I picked up my drink then headed back to the table.
‘Idiot,’ I muttered.
Ken and Marie, who’d already introduced themselves to me, agreed.
‘Difficult man,’ they said. ‘But then, he doesn’t really like city people.’
Ken was a builder, originally from Joburg. Marie, from Germany, had arrived in Nieu Bethesda twenty years ago and never left.
Interesting, fascinating people. I loved learning about small town life.
Until Ken said:-
‘It’s perfect here in Nieu Bethesda. Quiet, no politics, no racial tension. We have our bar and they have theirs.’
Marie nodded in agreement.
My stomach turned. I went to Ben and ordered another gin. This time, I waited for it.
I knew what Ken had meant. That this bar was where the whites of the town hung out and that the township people, the black people, had their own drinking hole.
I was shocked to the core. I know some of these South African towns still hold on to old racism, but this place? This lovely arty special retreat. Could it be?
I left Ken and Marie. They’d seemed so nice They weren’t.
The next morning I was back on the road. It was a stunning day, the sun beating down and, astonishingly there were feathers floating, floating, everywhere.
Magic, I thought, my faith restored in humanity. The feathers were like a metaphor; everything would be okay.
Until I got up closer to the truck ahead of me and discovered it was a truck filled with ostrich. They were jam packed in, on the way to the abattoir.
And in that moment, I realised that nothing is what it seems. Nieu Bethesda had lost a whole lot of its charm. Ken was a racist. Marie was actually the town drunk. And the ostriches were about to become steaks.
And it was only Ben, the idiot, who turned out to be a really cool guy. When he finished his chess game he’d invited me to play. He’d won, easily, but he was kind and gentle and lovely and also warned me who to stay away from.
I still love the town.
But it isn’t perfect, in any way.
And neither is ostrich steak.
It may be time to turn vegetarian.