Wanderings: The stars and stillness of Sutherland

September 8, 2015 , In: Wanderings

On the fringes of the Northern Cape, nestled in between mountains, sheep farms and seemingly endless plains of desert shrubs, lies a tiny town. It is home to one main road (one of the only streets that is actually tarred), a population of 2030 (according to the sign), and the largest single optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere.

Sutherland, with its notoriously low temperatures and starry attractions, has been a must-see for me for a while. While I’m not an astrophysicist, my fascination with space (coupled with my fondness for road trips and quirky villages) earned the town a spot on my travel to do list.

The quiet Karoo

The road to Sutherland
After hearing so many stories about Sutherland, by people who travelled hundreds of kilometers to reach it, I was expecting a small town. It isn’t small. It is minuscule. There is one road through the town, one road to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), and that is pretty much it. But it feels like an adventure.

The main road is home to a church that was around before (and occupied during) the Boer War, a tiny golf course and a handful of gift shops, bars, a mini-mart and co-ops that supply the surrounding farms.

Church Sutherland
No, it isn’t a spot for artisan coffee to energize you after a long afternoon of curio shopping (some of the town’s few restaurants only open over weekends or in the evenings).

But Sutherland offers the chance to wander across the Karoo landscape, bird watch from a hiking trail or curl up with a book in front of the fireplace while you wait for the sky to darken so you have an opportunity to stargaze.

Wanderings: the stars and stillness in Sutherland |

Farms and veld

RooiKloof guesthouse Sutherland 2
Thanks to the tourist draw of SALT, there are quite a few accommodation options in town, as well as guest farms which are popular with city dwellers looking for an escape. Most are easily accessible from the main road (even to those without a 4×4 to tackle the dust tracks), and many come with the necessities for a wintery stay — fire places and electric blankets (there is even cellphone signal).

Blossoms in Sutherland
We stayed at Rooikloof Guest Farm, which was cosy and incredibly peaceful (except for the occasional 4am crow from a roaming cockerel). Since it was (very) early spring, the veld in the surrounding area was full of surprisingly vibrant miniature flowers, and the farm itself was full of dainty snowdrops, daffodils and so many blossoms it seemed like I’d gotten lost in a Disney movie.

Astronomical explorations

SALT in Sutherland
The main attraction, of course, lies 15 minutes out of town. We opted for a day tour of SALT, which allows you to view the structure’s inner workings without losing feeling in your limbs in the freezing evenings (have I mentioned that its average temperatures have landed Sutherland the honour of being the coldest town in South Africa?).

The tour also includes some time in the mini museum at the South African Astronomical Observatory field station, which explains the science behind star gazing with interactive exhibits and even a green screen photo booth which allows you to snap a photo in the Orion Nebula (if you so choose).

Looking out from SALT in Sutherland
Given the distant location and lack of light pollution, stargazing in Sutherland is incredible, even without a telescope. The Milky Way appears almost like a stripe in the sky, pronounced thanks to the light of immense clusters of stars that make up our galaxy. Local astronomers also offer guided stargazing sessions, where you can gaze through a telescope while being informed about exactly what you’re looking at.

Thanks to a lucky combination of timing and weather during our stay, we could clearly see Saturn through the telescope, with its distinct rings glowing impressively from light years away.

Now that’s worth standing outside in the dark for.

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    • Emma
    • March 10, 2016

    Extremley helpful! I’m new to South Africa and this just helped me plan a trip tp go stargazing. Can’t wait to see the milky way. Also I’m vegetarian, so if you know any veggie friendly restaurants in Sutherland – would be great.

    Thanks heaps,

    Emma 🙂

    • Ah that’s awesome Emma! Sutherland is a really tiny but interesting place – if you can get there on a clear night, you’ll be amazed at how many stars you can really see.

      I usually have recommendations for veggie food, but we mainly self-catered on this trip so almost all my meals came with us from Cape Town. There are a few restaurants in the town, but many are only open on certain days of the week, and it’s a rural sheep farming area so a lot of the meals are centered on meat. There is also a small supermarket, and some stores that sell home made biscuits and baked goods, so you can get by. It’s an interesting experience if you’re from a bigger city 😉

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Hi! I'm Lauren, a daydreamer, vegetarian and aspiring world wanderer. I've visited 15 countries on 5 continents (so far!) and have a mild obsession with cats, dairy-free coffee and all things digital.

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