Karoo spirits guard the treasure: some Nieu Bethesda stories.

bethesda road

The spring, which bubbles abundantly with life giving water, deep in the rich and fertile valley at the foot of the rugged Sneeuberg mountains. is still  bubbling from its source,.  It is what gave Nieu Bethesda it’s name more than 200 years ago.  The natural fountain is so strong that to this day the water flows along the concrete open furrows that have been created.  Residents who have “water rights” take turns to have their gardens or fields flooded once a week as a means of irrigation.  The Voortrekkers named  the village after the healing waters of Bethesda, in the Bible story: the place where the leapers and cripples would lie on the stairs and wait for it to bubble.  When that happened,  they would find their way down to the pool and be healed.

In the old days, before cars, the village was self-sufficient.  The soil is fertile and grain and vegetables were planted.  It is a days ride by horse cart or ox-wagon.  When I was growing up I was often told the story of how my great grandfather was once driving his horse-cart along the very steep cliff road that leads to Graaff-Reinet out of Nieu Bethesda, when something frightened the horses.  They shy-ed and the whole cart rolled off the road and down into the steep canyon bellow.  My great-grandfather had his knee-crushed but survived.  He always walked with a limp after that.

A mill was built in the village, which was powered by the water from the stream to crush the grain, and the villagers baked their own bread.  They did not need anything from outside.  Only recently have bridges been built on the roads, which lead out of the town, but still, when the rains come down on the steep mountains around the town, the village is marooned and no vehicle can cross the raging rivers that appear out of nowhere and fill up the dry river banks on all the roads that exit the town.  So villagers just have to wait and make do with what they have.

To this day the people who live in the township of Pienaarsig,  have little means of getting to of Graaff-Reinet, where shopping and medical attention is more available, as transport costs are very high.  There is no public transport.  They gather wood from the surrounding mountains to warm themselves and cook in the icy cold winter months.  Electricity has only been available in Nieu Bethesda since about 1994.

Once upon a time, there lived in this village a woman called Helen Martins.

She had grown up there, but had spent some of her life in Muizenberg, Cape Town, she had also, some say, been to America.  But she came back home to look after her parents when they grew old and eventually died.

Her father was a very dark character.  There are some disturbing rumours about him in the village.  He must have been very oppressive. After he died, Helen had a new lease on life.  She started by painting the room where her father had slept, black.  She covered the walls in ground glass- ground in an old hand powered coffee grinder.  She wanted there to be some sparkle.  Even though there are no windows.  The black room is the darkest place in the house.  She wrote:  “The Lions Den” on the step in concrete.  Then she filled the yard with sculptures of pilgrimages to the East.  Inspired by the poems of Omar Khayum and a strong forboding sense, that there was going to be something big happen one day, and that time could not be held back.  A spiritual transformation would be needed and it was essential for all mankind to follow the star… to make a journey of spirit towards the light.  Helen employed local appentice sculptors of Khoi decent to help her make these sculptures of wire and concrete.  The most well-known was Koos Malgas. (More about him later.)

The rest of the house is a play of light and colour.  Each room has layers and geometric patterns of colour on the walls – which enhances and emphasises the light coming into the windows.  This is enhanced further by shaped mirrors, which reflect and reflect back on themselves.  There is coloured ground glass on every vertical surface of the house to emphasize the sparkle.  On top of this Helen collected lamps and lights.  So that at night there would be a festival of light in her home.

“Light is a Miracle, even the most ordinary human being can make happen.”  Is a line from the play, The Road to Mecca, written by another famous Bethesda resident, Athol Fugard.  It was the logo on the crew T.shirt I got, when in 1991, I got to work on a feature film production of The Road to Mecca.

The play is a fictional interpretation of a real relationship between Helen Martins and her friend Jill Wenman, – who is called Else in the play.  The village priest (or Dominee-as it is Dutch reformed) who also had an influencial role in Helens life is the third character in the play.  The Dominee was played very sternly by Athol Fugard himself, who also co-directed the film production.

 I was lucky to be invited by Athol Fugard, who is a special friend I have known since my teenaged years.  I had just finished a year at film school, and got this amazing opportunity to be a general helper (P.A) on the set.  The legendary Yvonne Bryceland -played the role of Helen.  She had been performing the play at a theatre on the West End of London and on Broadway for a long time.  So long, that in fact she had begun to “get the spooks” from the play.  (As Athol told us one night after dinner.)  She had got the spooks so badly that one night at a packed theatre on Broadway with a full house -which included Steven Spielberg – as his wife was also in the play at the time, that they had to cancel the performance. After doing the play for so long, she had got to the stage of feeling completely haunted by Helen Martins.   (Or so I seem to remember the story went.) Well, on the set of Road to Mecca, there was a real haunting, which certainly could not have been Yvonne’s imagination.

yvonne 1yvonne

 I believe Helen’s spirit had remained earthbound for quite a while after her death. I had always been very aware of Helen’s presence when visiting the Owl House.  I do not feel it so strongly there anymore, since it is so popular and there are so many tourists there now.  But in those days, Helen was still there.  During the shoot on location at the Owl House,  the lighting truck with the generator and all the gear was left outside the Owl House at night. (The village had no electricity yet.)  The locations manager and his assistant camped near the truck all night.  One night they woke to the sound of the generator.  It had started on it’s own inside the truck, which had a huge locked padlock on the back!   Ghosts are known to play with electricity.

Another strange thing that happened was that a coin fell out of the sky onto the head of the producer, Roy Sergant.  The date on the coin was the date when the play was written.  (Helen was having fun.)  The coin had previously been in the hands of one of the sculptures.

To add to the madness, mother- nature made the schedule a very tense matter. The production was on a tight budget and schedule.  Kathy Bates, who played Helen’s friend, Elsa had a nomination for an Oscar so she had to be back in time for the ceremony, which was directly after the shoot.  So there was no time for bad weather.  But lo and behold, even though it was the Karoo, where the rain only comes a few times a year, it rained, and then, because of the rain, at night, the moths came when they tried to do night shoots.  The huge lights they used to light the yard at night attracted all the moths from the veldt for miles around and it was like it was raining moths.  The poor art department crew had their jobs cut out for them dusting off all the millions of moths between each take.

That was Yvonne Bryceland’s last shoot.  She told nobody except the make-up lady, that she had cancer.  She was very kind, gentle and extremely inspiring.  She encouraged me to study drama, which I did the following year.  Kathy Bates was amazing too.  She was so approachable, down- to- earth and homely.  She came to our farm and took photographs of us, and our dogs, and when she got back to America, in spite of the Oscar- (which she was awarded for her role in the film “Misery”, based on a Stephen King novel.)  She still found the time to have the photo’s she took enlarged and posted them to us.

Here are some photo’s from the shoot, mostly taken by my father, Robert Kingwill.  An amazing historical and ironic event happened during the shoot.  They needed a crowd scene and I helped gather all the local aunties and uncles to be there.  The irony was that these were the real people who knew Helen when she was alive.  They were her generation. They were the community she withdrew from in real life.  It must have given her great pleasure.  It was for a funeral scene, which takes place in the cemetery where Helen is buried. My own grandparents are there.  My grandmother has a cane and a red flower in her hat.  They had a lot of fun that day.

funeral gathering

Now Nieu Bethesda is on the map to be fracked for gas.  If this happens and the spring is polluted by fracking chemicals and gas, then how will this once abundant, self-sufficient village grow their own food?  What’s more, since we are heading into a time when fossil fuels for transport are becoming more and more rare and expensive, communities like Nieu Bethesda will be more dependent on the earth and their water resources than ever for their survival.  But if this has been contaminated, what will happen to this treasure?  The real treasure is the self-sufficiency of the excellent soil, the fresh air, the clean water and the view of the stars. Not the gas in the shale rocks.  I am sure that the powerful spirits of the Karoo will do their best to sabotage any fracking drilling apparatus that tries to roll into their backyard.  But lets hope they never do.

  Visit :http://www.treasurethekaroo.co.za/  to find out how you can help.

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