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  • Today, in the center of South Africa, there is a desert called the Karoo. It is a land filled with rocks and dust and sun and silence. Long flat topped ridges cut with great wide steps rise above the plains. Traffic on the roads all races to somewhere else. Long ages ago the land was a wide swampy plain fed by rivers that ran down from towering mountain ranges that bordered the Karoo to the south and the north. This small piece of earth remained while the rest of the continents wandered across the face of the globe. To visit the Karoo is to travel in time. To the outsider, travelling from the city to the sea, the Karoo is an obstacle with only one season, a long dry season of heat and dust framed in the car window. Every town on the main road advertises itself as a half-way point in the long race between work and holiday. But step away from the highway only a short distance and along with the grand vistas of mountain ridge and basin below, more intimate views emerge. The Karoo is full of small surprises. Rocks glazed by thousands of years in the sun. A tortoise as big as a boulder and just as immobile. A jackal, ears pricked, in the stillness of dawn. The full moon framed between the dead, silver, wind sculpted branches of a tree. Gullies gouged by torrents long since dwindled. And over all a stillness and a buzzing sense of expectancy and of waiting. When it is dry the small bushes appear to be all thorns and tough scraps of leaf and the sun is unrelenting. In cooler seasons there is rain and small frogs spawn in the brief pools, flies buzz and the desert blooms purple and white. Tufts of grasses rise knee high. In the bright sun the grasses gleam silver and white and the wind sweeps down and to caress it like the soft shining fur of a relaxed and sleeping cat.

    Nieu-Bethesda is a small Karoo town with no allusions of grandeur despite the imposing crags on all sides. In a harsh land where houses are shuttered against the sun and windows are deep set eyes shaded against the light, the wide dirt streets of Nieu-Bethesda seem to all lead to other places. The houses are small and humble before the stark commanding rise of the church spire. Squirrels, industrious outsiders themselves, forage for the acorns dropped from the dusty oaks that border the roads. The houses are flanked by broad gardens. Once, the gardens and sagging out buildings seem to say, this town knew the value of self-sufficiency. Nieu-Bethesda has always been unto itself and out of step with the times. It guards no mountain pass. The cross-roads at its center are of importance only to itself. It is on the road to nowhere. A little more than a hundred years ago the armies engaged in the bitter Anglo-Boer War occupied it briefly on their way to more important prizes and then let it be.

    The two roads in to Nieuw-Bethesda are dirt and sliding gravel winding over mountain passes. The town is invisible from the high country around it until you get ready to drop down the steeply descending track to the valley. From the top, you can see the valley of the town below as a vibrant green slash between dusty ridges. Not that long ago it would have been a two-day trip to the nearest town and two days back. A trip made only by those with a need to get away or a need to get home.

    Its only claim to fame these days is the Owl House. Hand lettered signs point the way once you cross the bridge and lead you right and left and right again through town. A cluster of street vendors form an arch a set distance from the official entrance. Their rough carved owls stare balefully from glass marble eyes. A donkey and cart wait in a state between resignations and supreme patience in the scrap of shade cast by a forlorn thorn tree no bigger than a tattered umbrella. Five cars are parked haphazardly out front competing for the strips of shade along the walls. This is the main attraction. Wide stone steps lead you up to a dim room done up as a museum exhibit showing the life and work of the former occupant, artist Helen Martins. Helen filled her yard with concrete sculptures. The bare yard fenced is a concrete garden sprouting allegories, metaphors and biblical scenes. The rusting chainlink fence is embroidered with quotations woven in wandering wire script. The sculptures all face east and are decorated with bottles and crushed glass. As I walk through the narrow spaces between the statuary I step over fallen statues marked by white and red signs saying that restoration is in progress. Other figures have splashes of new concrete to show where they have been restored. The few other tourists walk through the yard quietly. Parents hold their children tightly and the kids do not complain. It is all left out in the open as if the owner wandered away, intending to be gone for only a moment. There is a brooding sense in the yard and no one wants to waken whatever lurks there. Cameras take pictures dutifully and people watch the statues as if they expect the patient figures to explain themselves. The sun beats down on the figures and the tourists and the harsh little town equally.

    After the yard you I go inside the house. The path leads in through the back into the kitchen. The cast cement sink has a mermaid beside it but even an elf would have to kneel to get a glass of water. In an afterthought of a room off the kitchen there is a bath also cast cement. The stained glass windows are barely held in their frames and the bath must have been an ordeal to fill and then to get in when the winds roared through the little valley in the winter. The shelves in the kitchen are just as she left them. Tins of tea and rolled scotch oats, boxes of matches, some preserves leaking through the bands she might have tightened on her last day. Around the corner is the pantry. Rows of Mason jars fill the shelves all filled with different colors of crushed glass. The grinder where she ground the glass is still clamped to the counter. The walls of the house are painted in geometric patterns and then covered with crushed glass. There are mirrors on the walls and 1930 style pictures of women in artistically erotic poses. A variety of Mona Lisas smile enigmatically. Every shelf and table is covered with kerosene lamps and candles. Some one has strung a clothesline as a sort of museum style barricade through the rooms. There is her little camp cot style bed and on the floor in the corner a doll she made to represent herself complete with club foot. She had a lover and his bed is across the room, almost twice as long as hers but just as narrow.

    She collected shells from the sea and they are piled here and there. It is dark inside and outside nothing but glaring sun. Maybe the house blazed with warm light when the candles and lamps were lit and the glow reflected crazily inside the house. Maybe she entertained in her kaleidoscope of a house but the guests couldn’t possibly have found any comfort in the crusted glass chairs and the food from the tiny wood stove in the kitchen could only have been as basic as the house was fantastic. Helen Martens committed suicide by drinking lye and now, 30 years later, the streets are dusty and the only building that dares raise its head is the church that dominates the town like an angry pointing finger.

    Hard to believe that the little town has come down in the world but it has diminished since we were here last just a few years ago. Then there seemed to be a green light in the owl House and a sort of almost magic in the town. There were little galleries and hopeful restaurants and craft stores. Now, most of the restaurants have shut down, instead of construction there were for sale signs. Now there is a large blow up dinosaur, T-Rex, right next to the Owl house sculpture garden, an air compressor keeps the big fellow standing tall proudly announcing the Kitching Fossil Center and its Permian menagerie. James Kitching, another native son, ran away by lying about his age to fight in the Second World War. He came back found he had an extraordinary eye for fossil hunting and ended up with an honorary PhD in palaeontology. He found the fossils in Antarctica that helped prove that once all the continents were one, back in the good old days of Gondwanaland in the Permian time. Now there is a sign in his honour that advertises a fossil safari and the classic example of Jurassic fantastic, only 100 million years out of his time period, standing guard outside. Inside there are a few posters and some casts of the Permian reptiles that wandered the area 290 million years ago. When we finished reading the display boards, a young local woman gave us a tour. She had her talk down but needed to say it all in a rush so she didn't leave anything out. End of an ice age, rivers leave deposits from the mountains, reptiles died. There was more but her Cape Colored accent and speed of delivery made it hard to get it all. Besides 50 million year in under a minute is quite a pace. After giving a demonstration of using a dentist drill on a fossil skull. She lead four of us out on the safari. About 100 yards from the green plastic inflatable dinosaur over grey crumbling exposed mudstone she stopped to point out a fossilized creature staring up at us from out of the rock. Ribs, backbone, skull, tail, legs it was all there curled up slightly exposed to the sun again a quarter of a billion years later. She showed us three sets of bones in the rock (in about 3 minutes) and then headed back to headquarters leaving us alone on the frozen plain of ancient mud. Just us and more time than the mind can take in. If you look up to the hills you can see the paler layers of sandstones that were laid down after the Permian extinction. On a farm a few kilometres away I found an outcrop of the thin red layer of dried mud red with the minerals suddenly evaporated out of the water. The layer of mud that marks the end of an era and the end of the line for list as it was known back then. The pattern of cracks as fresh as the day the rains stopped and the rivers receded and the marshes were buried in mountains of sand and of the many little reptiles that frolicked in the marshes only 5 survived to become you and me and all the rest.

    The sandstones in the hills above the town show a pattern of dark and light like tree rings marking long seasons of dry and slightly less dry. Look higher still and there are the flat tops of the hills, steps made by the huge outpouring of lavas when the continents separated to go their separate ways. In some places the basalts are over a mile thick. All of these blankets covered the little critter that laid down one day and didn't get up. All these layers laid down and ever so slowly worn away again until now we stood almost nose to nose this little creature and me.

    So that is what we found when we went back to Nieu-Bethesda. A trip measured in inches and metres and miles and hours and ages and aeons. A trip through the lives and accidental clutter left behind on the hot dry desert called the Karoo.
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