As described in my previous post, my mom and I took a road trip from Joburg to the Garden Route and back. Along the way we stopped over in Bethulie for a journey through South African history and a drive around the Gariep Dam, among other things.
I’d been to Bethulie twice before but something keeps pulling me back to this little town and its unusual guesthouse, the Royal Hotel.
My previous Bethulie visits (read here and here) were too brief — arriving right before dinner and leaving right after breakfast — and I wanted more time to explore and learn about the history of the area. I also wanted to check out the nearby Gariep Dam, South Africa’s largest man-made reservoir, which is at full capacity after several years of drought. So I booked two nights in Bethulie this time, giving us a full day to see everything.
A Full Day in Bethulie
I’ve written about the Royal Hotel and its owner, Anthony Hocking, before. So I won’t repeat myself except to say that if you’re interested in books and records, or if you just enjoy quirky, charming weirdness, this guesthouse is a must-visit for your next stopover between Joburg/Pretoria and the Eastern/Western Cape.
I will, however, tell you about some of the interesting historical sites that Anthony took Mom and I to see during a blazing-hot morning drive around Bethulie. Warning: Most of these sites, while very interesting, relate to wars and are hence more depressing than quirky.
1) The Louw Wepener monument
Louw Wepener, a 19th-century military commandant of the Orange Free State (a former Boer Republic), spent the last part of his adult life in Bethulie. Wepener died in 1865 while leading an ill-conceived attempt to storm a mountaintop fortification in Thaba Bosiu, Lesotho, during a losing battle in the Free State-Basotho Wars.
A couple of years ago Thorsten and I spent the night in the eastern Free State town of Wepener (a couple of hours from Bethulie, right on the Lesotho border), which was named after Louw Wepener. I’ve wanted to check out Wepener’s Bethulie monument ever since. It’s a few kilometers north of town on the R715.
Anthony drove us up to the monument and told us the story of Louw Wepener’s life and death and his fierce rivalry with King Moshoeshoe I, the first King of Lesotho.
2) Site of the Bethulie concentration camp
Not-fun fact: South Africa was the site of some of the world’s first concentration camps. During the Anglo-Boer War (also called the Second Boer War or the South African War) between 1899 and 1902, the British Empire interred tens of thousands of Boer (Afrikaans) civilians — mostly women and children, expelled from their farms as part of a scorched-earth policy — in squalid, poorly managed camps. Bethulie housed one of the largest and most horrific camps, nicknamed “the Murder Camp”, where about 5,000 people were interned and at least 1,750 died of hunger and disease; 810 of the dead were children.
Anthony took us to the actual site of the concentration camp — an empty field with a few remnants of old grave stones and an unfinished monument — and then to the concentration camp cemetery a couple of minutes away.
The “new” concentration camp cemetery and memorial, Kamp Kerkhof, was established in the 1960s, when the graves were exhumed and moved to higher ground in case the original site got flooded by the creation of the Gariep Dam. (That never happened though.)
Like many Afrikaans monuments and structures built during the brutalist era, which coincided with the height of apartheid, the cemetery felt harsh and oppressive, especially in the shimmering midday heat.
The cemetery is just north of town on the R390.
Those few sites were all we had energy for on a very hot day. But for a more comprehensive description of all of Bethulie’s historical sites, check out this great post by fellow travel blogger Roxanne Reid.
Afternoon Drive to the Gariep Dam
Late that afternoon, as the air finally started to cool, Mom and I went to see the Gariep Dam. Anthony drew us a map and we drove a loop that took about two hours total; the dam wall is about 50 minutes’ drive from Bethulie. We drove there on R701, crossed over the dam below the wall, and headed back on the R58 and R390 via Venterstad.
(Note: Unlike in America, in South Africa the word “dam” refers to the actual body of water. The “dam wall” is what Americans would call the dam.)
If you’d like to learn more about the Gariep Dam, read this recent Daily Maverick article by the Karoo’s most accomplished writer/photographer duo, Julienne Du Toit and Chris Marais.
I was unprepared for how spectacular and thrilling the fully open dam would be. I would have liked to spend a lot more time admiring it, checking out the dam wall from different viewpoints, but we needed to get back to Bethulie for sunset.
We hurried back and reached the Hennie Steyn Bridge — the longest road-and-rail bridge in South Africa, which crosses the Orange River as it starts to tail away from the dam — just as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
It was a great end to our full day in Bethulie.
To book the Royal Hotel, call Anthony at +27-71-683-7767. Coming up: The final leg of our Quirky South Africa road trip.