Peer through one of the five biggest telescopes in the world at distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye. See if you can spot any aliens or approaching asteroids. Visit the childhood home of one of SA’s greatest poets, or take a tour of graves, forts and blockhouses from the Anglo Boer War. In winter you can frolic in the snow of SA’s coldest place, and warm yourself by the fire sipping sherry. There’s bird-watching, hiking, 4X4 trails and much more too.
It may not be South Africa’s highest town or the one closest to space, but from its perch on a semi-desert hilltop in the western Roggeveld of the Western Cape Karoo, the town of Sutherland offers one of the clearest views into the starry skies surrounding our planet. That is why the primary telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy and research of astrophysics, are located here. They include SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the five largest telescopes in the world.
This telescope is capable of recording distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. Through it objects in space can be viewed that are hundreds of millions of light-years away, thus being seen as they appeared those many millions of years ago, their light only reaching us now. The large observatory telescope is able to capture that light reaching us now in a way that makes the object visible to the human eye.
The Hubble Space Telescope that orbits earth, for instance, can look back in time and space at objects over 13-billion light-years away…a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang. That’s long, long before any of humankind’s prehistoric ancestors, or dinosaurs, were even roaming the earth. In fact, back then the earth didn’t even look remotely as it does today.
Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Yet, you can share in some of this experience. The observatory is open to visitors at specific times with daily tours guided by qualified observers being conducted and consisting of a short slide presentation, a brief talk on SALT, a description of how astronomers collect data and followed by the highlight tour of the domes.
And while you are in Sutherland for your space exploration, you can do many other delightful things too. The town is well-known for its hospitality, with excellent tourist accommodation and eating places, cold and snowy winters by the fireplace, dramatic Karoo scenery and a range of outdoor activities.
Perhaps it was the serene and quiet remoteness of the place that also allowed Sutherland to produce three of South Africa’s most famous and beloved Afrikaans poets: DC Esterhuyse, NP van Wyk Louw and his brother WEG Louw. Of the three NP van Wyk Louw is probably the best known. Reading his poems, one finds there the influence of the natural surroundings of this place, the clear crisp skies, the cold winters, the longing for distant things or people, and a connection with his world.
Something of the legacy of these poets as well as another local writer, Pieter Cornelius Johannes Jordaan, who wrote under the pseudonym of Datei, can be viewed in Sutherland at the Louw House Museum, the 150-year old house in which both the Louw brothers were born. The museum also showcases the cultural history of the area with farm implements, clothing and furniture donated by Sutherland’s residents and farming community over the years.
The town and its surrounding areas is saturated in history, from the graveyards that bear testimony to those who fell in the Anglo-Boer War as well as prominent citizens of the past two centuries, to the military forts and blockhouses throughout the district that saw many a battle or skirmish between Boer and British forces. The area was originally inhabited by Khoisan populations, with the first Dutch settlers arriving in the district in the 1700s, later to be complimented by British, Jewish and other arrivals.
Much of its original architecture has been preserved in well-maintained buildings constructed with the distinctive grey stone quarried in the area and can be viewed on a walking tour of the town. Even better, you can stay in one of them as many of these buildings now serve as guesthouses. You can also join other visitors for a stargazing evening in an open enclosure on the farm Sterland, where light meals like home-made Karoo Curry and rice or traditional braaivleis are served.
Sutherland also has some truly fascinating natural attractions with plenty of paleontological history that includes the youngest active volcano south of the Equator (last active only 66 million years ago). At Salpeterkop the striking circular strata and caves can be viewed, while it is also a site of significant fossil finds.
Sutherland can be easily reached by car from Cape Town, a 350km distance via the N1 and R354, or from any other part of the country.
- South African Astronomical Observatory: Tel +27(0)23 571 2436;
- Louw House Museum: Tel +27 (0)23 5711 131;
- Discover Sutherland, email Alta Steenkamp at email@example.com.