This summer I took to the road and headed for Sutherland, a town famous for two things. It is known mainly as the coldest place in South Africa. It is also know for its star gazing.
The plan was to escape the busy city and find a place to relax and occasionally explore. Sutherland, only four hours away, delivered. We stayed at Starry Night, a nice self-catering accommodation, with a private kitchen, living room, and bathroom.
The town has a small population of around 2500 people, with the tallest building being the church (NG Kerk).
There is one main street, Piet Retief, which one enters and exits the town on. The street also is the main centre of business, with shops, banks and the post office found here. Most of the buildings and houses were built in the 1800s and are still maintained. Many houses have windmills to pump their own water. The town is so small that it takes one less than fifteen minutes to walk from one side tho the other.
The area is also know for Karoo sheep farming and private game lodges. The town boast some of the best lamb in the country, and you can’t leave without having dinned in Cluster D’Hote, which serves the best lamb shank in town. Other good places to eat out are Jupiter, which makes homely food and good pizza, and the White House Inn. If you are looking to just have a cup of tea or coffee Cluster D’Hote or Pa Se Engel are a good bet.
It didn’t take long to notice that there are a lot of BnBs in Sutherland, the town is very popular with tourists. It also didn’t take long to notice one particular person’s name plastered across town. Jurg Wagener. Jurg owns over eight BnBs, owns a property agency, and runs a successful star gazing business. Initially, we thought it would be funny if Jurg ran the town, and it turned out it was no joke.
Incidentally, we went star gazing at Sterland (owned by Jurg), and had Jurg himself give the tour. The star gazing was something special. Clear night sky, and we had the opportunity to look at the one of my favourite constellations, Orion and Orion’s Cluster. The cherry on top was the passing of the International Space Station right above us.
There are a number of historical places one can check out. The Louw Huis Museum, where the Louw brothers, responsible for formalising written Afrikaans, were born. The museum also gives insight on another local, Sir Henry Olivier, an engineer responsible for building numerous dams around the world, including the Gariep, Kariba and Mulberry Prefab dams. Other historical places of interest are the Anglo-Boer war Graveyard; and the NG Kerk, but be weary as the tours are only offered in Afrikaans.
My geek out moment was when I did the day tour of the Sutherland facilities of the South African Astronomical Observatory. This was a chance to see the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
The facility also host other telescopes from various countries, including Germany, South Korea, Japan , Russia, and Sweden.
Besides SALT, there are also the famous lakes that apparently boast a diversity of bird life only 8 km outside of town. We went to view these lakes only to find, dry beds, with a number of carcasses from birds that were caught in the mud. A reminder of the drought and water shortage that the country is currently facing.
There were a number of peculiar things I picked up about the town. The silence can be eerie, with town-folk seemingly absent on some days. Sutherland has one large liquor store, where people are always lined up to get their share. This is hearsay, but many of the primarily Afrikaans-speaking residents only have primary school education as they were pulled out of school when English was introduced to the school. It might explain why there is a feeling of heavy Anglo-Boer war nostalgia.
Sutherland was an interesting experience, a kind of place that you cannot stay too long for, but can’t wait to come back to. I can’t wait to return to the town with celestial-laden place names during the snow. I hear that it is completely transformed and its is the best time for seeing there stars.