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Published: 27 February 2013

By Andy Ross

Quilts and owls

A few years ago, my sister told us about this strangely wonderful place set in the vast spaces of the Karoo in the Cape of Africa, where a local woman had created a marvellous garden and house, called the Owl House. I was captivated by the story and really wanted to visit so, when the chance came up on this trip, we went to Nieu-Bethesda.

The village is set in a cleft in the mountains of the Karoo which surround it. Originally the small settlement was prosperous and grew because of the farming in the region but, with the rise of the neighbouring towns, Nieu-Bethesda started to decline. The wide dust roads that bisect the village lost their traffic, and the beautiful small houses that had sprung up began to fall into disrepair. Now the town is a tourist attraction and there are some good places to eat, a fossil museum (the Karoo is internationally known for its fossils), a small museum about the Owl House, and lots of interesting buildings to look at.

There is a very good textile studio in Nieu-Bethesda where a group of artists make intricate, detailed and colourful quilts, based on themes of social issues or on local tales from the San people. Sadly, I was not able to take photographs but have a look at this website for the art gallery which shows some of the quilts. The pieces are large and are displayed in a large room, to very good effect. I loved the stories, and fell in love with a wonderful piece which shows a praying mantis outwitting the other animals. The studio offers accommodation in a tower; a future trip destination.

The Owl House

In the late 19th century, Helen Martins was born in the town and eventually moved back to nurse her ailing parents. Hers was not a happy life; divorce, affairs and more drove Helen to seek solace in the light that shines so brightly in the Karoo. Over time, with the assistance and vision of "her artist", Koos Malgas, Helen transformed the house and garden into her own fantasy of the Orient.

Koos' contribution to the Owl House has been written out of history until recently. We bought a book about the man, written by his grand-daughter, which describes him as the artist of the Owl House, and Helen as the visionary. Without knowing as much of the story as I would like, I would say that is probably very true. The statues that Koos made are sensitive and almost alive in their detail and simplicity. Helen and Koos would sit and talk about dreams and ideas for hours on end, before Koos started work, and the statues are created using cement and wire in a technique that the man invented himself to work in this difficult medium.

The house itself is disturbing. Coloured glass decorates most of the surfaces in the rooms, including the ceilings and walls, and the windows of the original house were removed to be replaced with coloured panes. The overall effect is of a strangely off-kilter stage set, surreal and hard to live in, I would imagine. The garden though is filled with miraculous statues, owls perched as though protecting passers-by, camel trains and wise men heading to Bethlehem, two men pulling back the hands of time on a clock, wire wrought words decorate the fences, and everywhere, eyes made of glass and clothes made of glass.

Here are some pictures of the Owl House and the garden. I found the garden a peaceful, happy and joyous place to be and could have quite happily spent a few days looking and experiencing the small town.