Sutherland in the Northern Cape of South Africa (about 400km from Cape Town) is known for two things (1) being the coldest place in South Africa and (2) the field site of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). It was chosen because of its’ high altitude, predominantly clear skies and absence of light pollution. Winter with its crisp and clear long nights is the perfect time for star-gazing provided you wear a million layers and have a nip or two of the good stuff.
What to do in Sutherland?
1. SAAO including SALT
The SAAO site is on a hill just outside the town of Sutherland. There are a number of small and medium sized telescopes on the site owned by international institutions that are predominantly robotically operated. The star of the show is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) which is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. SALT is funded by a consortium of international partners who are each allocated observation time on SALT prioritised by a number of factors. When the roof is open at night, the light from the stars strikes a primary mirror array at the base of SALT which is 11 metres across consisting of 91 individual 1m hexagonal mirrors. That is then reflected from the mirror back up into the lens which captures the data. I thought there would be some impressive ray of light beaming down to the massive mirror but this was not the case and my sci-fi dreams were a bit dashed. Also, you can’t actually look at the stars through SALT because the data is captured on a wall of computer screens.
But I went to Sutherland to visit a friend of mine (Ros) who is currently one of the eight astronomers at SALT. She is usually based at the Observatory in Cape Town and goes up to Sutherland for her shift about once every two months. It was an absolute privilege to be taken on a private tour of the facilities and I was so inspired by Ros’s knowledge and love for astronomy. The Sutherland townsfolk revere the SALT astronomers and so little did I know that my friend was a local celebrity.
For those who do not have an astronomer friend, SAAO offers excellent daily public tours of the facilities twice a day and also a star gazing opportunity four nights a week using two dedicated visitor telescopes.
2. Walk around the town
The town of Sutherland is tiny and charming with one main tarred road right through the middle. One beautiful N.G. Kerk. One petrol station. One Magistrate’s Court. An interesting graveyard with Boer war graves. And the Louw Huis Museum which features artefacts, letters and photographs of the famous inhabitants of Sutherland, the Afrikaans poets D.C. Esterhuyse, N.P. van Wyk Louw and WED Louw. The highlight of my town walk though was bumping into an Ostrich (fortunately he was behind a gate) that was housed in some-one’s backyard on the main road. It was also the beginning of my Sutherland animal encounters.
3. Stargazing with Oom Jurg at Sterland
Oom Jurg runs a pretty amazing stargazing show at his campsite Sterland just on the border of town every night of the week. Through his two telescopes, we saw Jupiter and its four moons, Saturn and its blurry rings, the stars of Scorpio and a few other constellations. Oom Jurg also has a little dog called Trompie (who looks after the campsite but is way too friendly to be a guard dog) and a cat called Catherine (who apparently thinks she is royalty) who were both part of the entertainment.
You obviously don’t need Oom Jurg to look at the Sutherland stars, which were breathtakingly spectacular on their own. You can see the Milky Way with the naked eye and Ros said that even binoculars are not a bad option (not that one would know what one was looking at).
4. Eat Karoo lamb
If you are a meat eater, the quality of the organic meat that they have in the Northern Cape makes it worthwhile to indulge in a chop or burger or lamp shank or the plethora of meaty options available especially the Karoo lamb. I enjoyed my meals at the Whitehouse Inn which always seemed to be the only place open. I could sit and relax on a couch watching TV at the bar while Neville the blue-and-yellow macaw roamed freely at the top of his cage trying to nip at those passing too close to him. I loved my ginger baked dessert with a huge helping of custard, so nostalgic. Other popular restaurants are the Cluster d’hôtel (for the lamb shank) and the Jupiter guesthouse.
There is basically no cell phone reception in Sutherland and so you can unplug from the digital world. All the accommodation places do have Wi-Fi but my B&B for example had very poor Wi-Fi which was a blessing in disguise. I was able to disconnect for most of my time there which means a proper break from the outside world.
Where to stay?
There are quite a few accommodation options in Sutherland which is geared towards the astronomy tourists. I stayed at the Primrose Cottage B&B hosted by Denise and David which felt like I was staying with my grandparents (if I was a bit younger). They gave me such a warm reception, the décor was charmingly old fashioned but comfortable and Denise cooked me delicious full breakfasts. Denise also was able to book me in for restaurants, tours and recommend spots without me having to ask which made my stay so easy. David even looked up my celebrity friend Ros on Google and advised me that the topic for her PhD thesis was galaxies. After seeing Ros in action running things at SALT, I too was left a bit star struck and in awe of my brilliant friend.