I recently treated myself to a break from city crowds and traffic woes –the Karoo was an obvious choice. First stop Sutherland – mission accomplished in terms of traffic and crowds. After a few hours on the national road I veered off on a lonely but well-tarred road for over 110 kms. This was pure heaven – no cars, no noise, just sky and land. The land is too dry at the moment but that’s what the Karoo is all about.
I had driven through Sutherland before, but this was my first stay-over. It’s a culture shock after Cape Town and the various towns of the Winelands and Garden Route where tourism is highly developed, but a dearth of choice and sophistication is more than compensated by clean air, down-to-earth sincerity and low prices.
Giant Eye on the Universe
Sutherland is known for two things: snowy winters with sub-zero temperatures, and the famous Southern African Large Telescope – SALT. It’s one of the largest telescopes in the world and we’re mighty proud of it. Sutherland was selected as the perfect location for SALT because of the high altitude and the clear sky that has very little light pollution.
I visited the telescope – inside and out, as well as the oldest telescope installed on the hill in 1964. This older one has been modernised with attachments allowing ease of use but in the early days it had to be manually focused and sometimes the earth had moved a little too fast so the astronomer missed his chance.
SALT is not large, it’s enormous. It consists of special mirrors that are regularly removed and cleaned on rotation. For more technical aspects and information, you’re better off checking this link rather than my interpretation of inter-galactic giant mirrors to look backwards in time.
SALT is fascinating but I was also impressed by the new planetarium in the centre of town. The brainchild of Nicol and Marina van der Merwe, owners of a nature reserve outside town, this venue not only has the best coffee in town, but they show short films, in 3D, that explain various aspects of the universe. I learnt (with shock) the extent of light pollution, and I finally understand what black holes are. Well, almost. Nicol told me I should be visiting in a few weeks when he will install several brand-new telescopes on the same property as the planetarium, and star gazing will be offered to visitors. I’ll check it all out again next time I am there, and I will also take him up on his invitation to spend some time at Blesfontein Nature Reserve which I heard from another visitor is fabulous.
One evening I spent a few hours star-gazing at Sterland with the passionate and friendly Jurg who has several precious telescopes – I loved their individual casings for when not in use – and enormous passion for and knowledge of the sky above him. It was here that I met a farm couple from the north-west province who had witnessed the falling meteorite of a few months ago that had all of South Africa in a tizz. They explained how they were just driving home one evening, the same road as always, not expecting anything new when suddenly a fireball appeared in the sky and crashed not far from them. This was debris from a meteorite that we learnt about in the news the next day but unfortunately no pieces have been found, as far as is known. I suspect a farmer or 2 have new ornaments.
Sutherland has tarred roads only because of the telescopes. It is otherwise a typical dry dusty Karoo town with much poverty and few job opportunities, yet everyone is friendly and cheerful. The efforts of the Planetarium will no doubt add to the appeal of SALT by offering the universe in a more casual and user-friendly manner. The Planetarium also acts as an information centre for the town and surroundings, something desperately needed for advice, suggestions and some interesting town history, including Boer War history and anecdotes such as the story of the soldier who was buried twice.
Sutherland is not on our regular touring route but can be incorporated in our Spring Flower Tour because when the rains have been good this is a magnificent region for flowers as the veld comes alive with colour.