🕒 10-minute read
This story was first published on 21 April 2016 and was updated on 29 January 2019 by Leigh Hermon.
Looking for an erudite, eccentric experience complete with a superb history lesson and a glass of red wine? Visit Bethulie’s Royal Hotel, read one of its many thousands of books and meet its fascinating owner…
Hostelries around South Africa will tell you the items most stolen by their guests are not the bathroom smellies or the towels – it’s the novel on the nightstand. And who can blame you for running off with that copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that you’ve become so involved in?
Now try doing that at South Africa’s first-ever Book Hotel, the Royal, in Bethulie. It would be like stealing a choc drop from Willy Wonka – you wouldn’t know where to start.
Owner (and writer) Anthony Hocking says no one has made off with a single tome from the Royal, which has almost every available space lined and stacked with something like 20 000 books – just a part of his 120 000-strong collection.
For bookworms like Jules and I, the Royal Hotel in Bethulie is indeed the candy cottage deep in the woods – except there’s no wicked witch here, only a very polite ghost occasionally seen disappearing down a corridor, deep in thought. It probably reads a lot, too.
Meet the Hotel’s Permanent Residents
In fact, over the years, we’ve often speculated on who that ghost could be. A previous owner, the Randlord Sir JB Robinson? The notorious Lord Kitchener, scourge of the Anglo-Boer War camps? Is it perhaps the ghost of the hotel piano player who, when the British occupied Bethulie in 1900, was in the street thumping out God Save the Queen as the troops galloped by? Or is it a certain General Charles Knox, who was at the hotel with a bunch of Canadian cowboys fighting under the flag of Strathcona’s Horse? Their rakish cowboy hats set something of a military fashion in these parts. Scoutmaster and Chief Mafeking Man Robert Baden-Powell ordered 10 000 Strathcona Stetsons for his troops.
And these Canucks, mostly recruited from the ranks of the Canadian Mounties and cow towns of the Great Northwest, were large as well. When Kitchener saw them, his eyebrows lurched skywards in shock. Their commander was also equipped with a sense of humour, assuring the Big Chief: “My apologies, sir. I combed all of Canada and these are the smallest I could find.”
Which brings me to another highlight of a visit to the Bethulie Royal: Anthony Hocking’s encyclopaedic knowledge of lots of things, in particular Anglo-Boer War stuff that happened around Bethulie.
Anthony will gladly take his guests around the historic town, revealing insider facts of ‘the war’ (there is only one ‘war’ worth mentioning in Bethulie), or telling you about the life of Patrick Mynhardt, one of the town’s most famous sons, or the origin of Gariep Dam.
The main historical focus of Bethulie is the concentration camp outside the town. This infamous camp, said to be the worst of the lot, housed about 5 000 people, mainly Boer women and children. Of the 1 700-odd who died, more than 1 200 were children. Conditions were so bad that for months there were as many as 25 deaths every day.
During the 1960s there were fears that the old camp graveyard would one day be submerged under Gariep Dam, so remains of the dead were exhumed and moved to a new site on higher ground. The monument erected there includes an alcove bearing gravestones, and their hand-carved inscriptions comprise a bizarre kind of folk art. Pain is etched into every one.
Anthony tells us a touching story. When the war ended, the British authorities told the surviving Boer women they could leave. With no transport available, a group of them started walking the 180km to Bloemfontein. Along the way they came to one of the few Free State farmhouses that had not been burnt down. When the farmer’s wife heard they were from Bethulie camp, she asked them how they had survived the awful experience. Had they wondered if God had abandoned them?
The women told her that, although many had lost their faith, in their case they had taken inspiration from the Bible – specifically from Matthew 10:29, which assured them they would not be forgotten: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father [knowing it]?”
The farmer’s wife liked the story and repeated it to her friend Tibbie Steyn, married to the Free State’s president Marthinus Steyn. Tibbie was on good terms with Jan Smuts, the Boer general who later became prime minister of a united South Africa.
In 1923 Smuts was preparing to introduce the first South African coinage. Tibbie Steyn suggested he should incorporate the story from Bethulie camp. Smuts agreed, and as a result the reverse of the smallest coin showed two sparrows on a twig – a motif preserved on our currency, as it is retained on the retired one-cent piece.
Snakes of the Orange
We drive through the township streets to get a clear sunset view of Hennie Steyn Bridge, which carries both road and rail over the Orange River. It’s the typical evening scene in a peaceful rural South African township: kids playing last-light soccer in the streets, moms getting dinner together, the old guys hanging out and shooting the breeze.
Anthony says the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon (who was here in 1777 and named the river after the House of Orange) fell into a Koranna hippo trap on the bank and lost his horse. We mention the fabled River Snake of the Orange, and Anthony has a great local story for this.
“The old railway bridge was a lot lower than the new one. Special trains carried thousands of mineworkers travelling between Transkei and the Reef, and many of them believed that the river contained a monster snake. As the trains crossed the bridge they tossed coins from the carriages as a peace offering. The young boys growing up in Bethulie were well aware this was happening. When the trains were due they hid under the bridge waiting to catch the falling coins, and maybe to dive for them. I hear they did very well out of it…”
The next morning, before breakfast, we are at Bethulie’s old railway station, retired in the 1960s when the main line was diverted as part of the Gariep Dam scheme. The Victorian buildings are still intact, mainly because Anthony Hocking bought the site years ago and installed tenants who are keeping an eye on it.
This is where the Boer women and their children waited to be interned in the hell camp nearby. In many cases they were detained here for days, sleeping in open coal or cattle trucks with tarpaulins draped over them.
The station guards prevented them from entering the buildings, even on the coldest nights. A number of people died at the station before they reached the camp.
On a more cheerful note, there is a typically ingenious 1920s cool room on the station platform. Its walls consist of lumps of coke held in place by frames of chicken wire. Back in the day, water was made to trickle through the coke. Wind blew through the chinks and generated coolth via evaporation. “This,” says Anthony, “is where local farmers used to store their famous Bethulie milk and cream. It was collected by passing trains.”
Back at the hotel, over bacon and eggs, we ask him what would happen if, say, Jules fell in love with an EL Doctorow novel taken from the wall outside our room.
“Look, while you’re staying here, you can read any book you like,” he says. “But I generally don’t encourage guests to walk off with the décor. However, if you simply must take the book home with you, then just make me an offer…”
In and Around Bethulie
- Classical pianist Benjamin Fourie, a Bethulie resident, gives concerts in his voorkamer. His audiences often include groups of foreign tourists staying at the hotel. Check with Anthony Hocking for details.
- Visit the Louw Wepener Monument just outside Bethulie on the Springfontein road. Wepener was the heroic Boer commandant killed in 1865 during an ill-fated attack on King Moshoeshoe’s Thaba Bosiu stronghold in Basutoland.
- Enjoy sundowners on Hennie Steyn Bridge, longest road/rail viaduct in the Southern Hemisphere and overlooking the magnificent Orange River.
- Do the 164km day drive around Lake Gariep, stopping off in the village of Gariep for lunch at the sophisticated De Stijl Hotel.
- Go on a fascinating Wind Pump Photo Safari between Bethulie and Jagersfontein, briefly crossing the N1 highway. This is a back roads adventure for road trippers, and landscape photographers and people who just love open spaces.
- Visit Aliwal North on the Orange River and see the various monuments, battle sites and museums.
- Do the classic Gariep Route, which takes in 14 towns, from Colesberg to Philippolis, with all the settlements around Lake Gariep included.
- Treat yourself to a magnificent glider flight over the Gariep area.
- Royal Hotel, Bethulie: +27 (0) 71 683 7767 (it is advisable to telephone in advance)
- The Bethulie Book Hotel also appears in Karoo Keepsakes II – The Journeys Continue.
Words Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Photography Chris Marais