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Caught between space & time

Text: Sarah Isaacs. Photographs: Dylan Kotze. Article from the July 2012 issue of Getaway Magazine.

It’s that cold town with the big telescope, a mere speck in the vast Karoo landscape. Are stargazing and the promise of snow Sutherland’s only drawcards? There’s more to it than that, writes Sarah Isaacs, and the more comes from doing less.

It's that cold town with the big telescope, a mere speck in the vast Karoo landscape. Are stargazing and the promise of snow Sutherland's only drawcards?

In Sutherland, you don’t need a telescope to appreciate the sky. The Milky Way is so thick with stars and glowing gas that it really looks like a pathway of spilt milk. The skeletal constellations one sees in the city transform into full-bodied creatures, swords and pincers perfectly intact. There are so many stars and the sky is so big and unobstructed you don’t need a giant telescope to realise how tiny you are.

It’s not just the night sky that is spacious. Sutherland’s closest neighbour is Calvinia, 160 kilometres away, and it really is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the vast Karoo emptiness you either love or loathe.

Sutherland blends effortlessly into the flat Karoo plains.

Quite by surprise, I found myself in love. The naked plains have a way of working under your skin and can quiet the busiest of minds, which makes it easy to appreciate Sutherland’s smalltown charm.

The one and only petrol station is made up of three roadside pumps that are often found switched off over lunch.The main and only tarred road is completely deserted between one and two o’clock when everything – including the petrol station – closes for lunch. In the morning, locals wave to one another from their courtyards and stoeps and catch the news from pedestrians on their way to work. This exchange resumes each evening as the day winds down and the Old Dutch houses turn gold with the setting sun.

There’s no movie house, mall or 24-hour Woolies here and when someone gets sick, the closest pharmacy is in Calvinia. Sutherland residents don’t shy away from the smallness of their town, but embrace the unhurried pace at which the small stuff can be appreciated.

No-one instilled this appreciation more than Rita and Jurg Wagener, owners of Kambrokind Guesthouse.

Rita points to one of the plants on the Veldplant Route on Middlefontein Farm, drawing a comparison to its far sprightlier spring-time version; even from the confines of a glass viewing cage‘What looks like nothing during the dry season bursts into colour in spring. Over time this landscape changes – the Karoo teaches us that we can wait.’ As she spoke, Rita pointed to what looked like a dried-out weed, but was in fact a flower, one of many along her carefully labelled veld plant route on Middlefontein Farm, a kilometre out of town. It was mid-February and the hot air felt as if it was blow-drying my throat with each breath. Behind Rita, a lone windmill stood perfectly still, silhouetted against blue sky and yellow hills. It was hard to imagine those hills as anything but yellow, yet as the year unfolds the Karoo scenery changes.

There  mightn’t be much to do, but thanks to the Karoo’s remarkable seasonal changes, there is alwys something new to see

In winter, Sutherland lives up to its title as South Africa’s coldest town, with temperatures dropping well below zero. Photographs on restaurant and B&B walls show the main street and its surrounding grid of dirt roads coated in white snow and there’s no sign of the summer yellow engulfing my visit. Come spring, the landscape undergoes another facelift. Wild flowers nab the temperate gap between winter and summer, punctuating the Roggeveld Mountains and underlying plains in living colour.

Perhaps this is why so many revisit Sutherland. There mightn’t be much to do but thanks to the Karoo’s remarkable seasonal changes, there is always something new to see.

SALT'S honeycomb collection of hexagonal mirrors are an impressive sight.There is, of course, one very big to-do in Sutherland and that’s the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). Many, including me, who visit the observatory go expecting to look through the telescope and are disappointed when they don’t get to do so. Truth is, no-one does. SALT is made up of 91 hexagonal mirrors, totalling 10 metres in diameter and weighing 82 tonnes. Stars and objects in space are reflected off the mirrors, converted into images using technology you’d find in almost any digital camera and sent to computers where astronomers and scientists study them.

Although you don’t see stars through it, SALT is an impressive piece of machinery that warrants a visit. Together the mirrors look like a giant honeycomb, one so big that the maintenance team must use mountaineering equipment to do their job. Even without touching or looking through it, the sheer size and reflective veneer of this giant eye are enough to make your jaw drop.

You can arrange stargazing sessions through smaller Jurg and Rita Wagener, owners of Kambrokind Guesthouse and Halley se Kom Eet restuaurant, offer stargazing sessionstelescopes at the SALT visitor’s centre or with Jurg, who has a private set. Both impart cool lessons on space, seemingly obvious but nonetheless amazing.

I learnt that constellations are just man-made patterns. Orion is only Orion according to the Greeks, for instance. The Khoisan saw Orion’s Belt as three zebras, shot at by Aob the hunter who is depicted by the star Alderbaran in the Greek constellation Taurus. When you’re looking at so many constellations, trying to keep track of their names can be tiresome. Thankfully, when memory fails, we are free to use our imaginations.

Perhaps the most startling thing about space is that it’s indeed a lot of space. Proxima Centauri, our closest star after the sun, is about 4,2 light years from Earth. Adhering to a speed limit of 90 kilometres an hour without loo stops or picnic breaks, it would take approximately 50 million years to reach it.

Fifty million years of space. Trying to get your head around all this space and time gets you thinking about the relationship between them. Light from Proxima Centauri takes more than four years to reach us, so if it exploded tonight we’d only see it after four years. Theoretically, this means if we could travel faster than light, we’d be able to travel through time.

Realisations like this create a lovely kind of puzzlement that grows the longer you stay in Sutherland. Give this modest town a few days and you’ll leave satisfactorily puzzled and perfectly relaxed.

Travel planner

Getting there

Travel Planner - Getting thereFrom Cape Town, it’s 346km. Take the N1 through Worcester and 50 km after Touws River, turn left onto the R354. Continue along this road for 110km to Sutherland. If travelling from the north along the N7, take note that the 160 km stretch between Calvinia and Sutherland is on a dirt road.

When to go

If you’re a flower fanatic August and September are ideal, as the otherwise stark landscape bursts into colour during spring. June and July are the best months to see snow and stars (although there’s no guarantee it will snow and the stars are incredible year-round). If you enjoy the Karoo heat and want to visit out of peak season, the summer months are your best bet.

What to take

Sutherland - Home of Southern African Large Telescope

Karoo temperatures tend towards the extreme and it’s advisable to go prepared. Sutherland’s lowest recorded temperature is -16°C, so pack ample warm gear if you go in winter. Take plenty of moisturiser and lip balm during summer as the dry air is cruel to unaccustomed skin.

Where to stay

Blesfontein Guest Farm, 27 km out of town, offers guests a totally different feel to town accommodation. Surrounded by nothing but open plains and sky, you have no choice but to give in to the Karoo’s magnificent stillness. The farm has nine self-catering units, each with a braai area and fireplace, a communal dining room for bigger groups, two private telescopes and a 4×4 track.

From R180 a person a night and children from R80 a night.

Tel 023-571-2631, cell 083-633-4913, email, website.

** Kambrokind Guesthouse at 19 Piet Retief is arguably the most welcoming in-town accommodation option, offering six spacious en suite units that are cool in summer and warm in winter. Hosts Rita and Jurg Wagener also own two self-catering cottages on the outskirts of town as well as a caravan park.

B&B from R350 a person a night. Tel 023-571-1405, cell 082-556-9589, email, website.

Where to eat

The Jupiter Room restaurant and bar at 21 Jubilee Street is the only restaurant in Sutherland that is open all day, dishing up everything from healthy breakfasts to pizza and fish. The malva pudding is a must have. Tel 023-571-1340, cell 083-231-3094, email.

Cluster d’ Hote Restaurant on Piet Retief Street has an austere atmosphere, but the lamb shank is to die for. Book ahead and don’t be late if you don’t want to be turned away. Tel 023-571-1436, cell 082- 8099-869, email.

My pick of the bunch is Perlman House, also on Piet Retief Street. Hostess Carla is a pleasure to talk to and hers is the only menu I found with a decent salad and vegetable offering. The varied dishes include everything from pizza to sole and meals are very affordable. Tel 023-571-1454, cell 083-700-2724, email.

Halley se Kom Eet is attached to Kambrokind Guesthouse and is a great breakfast and lunch stop, conveniently located midway along the main drag. See contact details alongside.

Who to contact

For a full listing of all activities, 4×4 trails, restaurants and accommodation options in and around Sutherland, contact the Karoo Hoogland Tourism office at 7 Piet Retief Street. Tel 023-571-1265, email, website.

Accommodation price ratings: a person a night, usually B&B, sometimes full board under

* R250 ** R251 – R499 *** R500 – R750 **** R751 – R999  ***** R1000+

Stargazing and beyond

SALT offers guided tours of the large telescope and a smaller research telescope as well as stargazing. Tours are R30 a person and run twice daily from Monday to Saturday. Stargazing, at R50 a person, takes place on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.   Tel 023-571-2436, email, website. Kambrokind Guesthouse’s owner Jurg Wagener sets up his private telescopes at Sterland Caravan Park and is well versed in astronomy. Start with boerekos at the on-site restaurant, followed by two to three hours of laid-back stargazing. Stargazing costs R60 a person and dinner starts at R90 a plate (for contact details, see Where to Stay in the Travel Planner).

The Blesfontein 4x4 Trail delivers you to a spectacular viewpoint on the lip of the Boggeveld escarpment. If it's not too windy, the picnic tables make for a picturesque lunch spot.

The Blesfontein Farm 4×4 Trail is well worth the 28-kilometre drive out of town. It’s an easy-to-tackle route, culminating at a viewpoint on the lip of the Boggeveld escarpment. Tel 023-571-2631, cell 083-633-4913, email.

The Kambrokind Veldplant Route is a three- to 12-kilometre walking and mountain-biking trail which starts on Middlefontein Farm. The plants are carefully numbered, corresponding to a manual, which you can collect along with a key and map to the farm from Rita Wagener at Kambrokind Guesthouse. R10 a person (for contact details, see Where to Stay in the Travel Planner).

Three kids walk hand in hand towards the Dutch Reformed Church. Thanks to the low crime rate, you can wander the streets without worry.Take a tour of the Dutch Reformed church on Piet Retief Street, its impressive steeple forming Sutherland’s much-loved centrepiece. Built at the end of the 19th century, the church was made from sandstone brought in by ox wagon from the hills around town. The interior is beautiful and its history is fascinating. Tours must be booked. R20 a person. Cell 071-136-7468 or 082-937-227.

The Louw-Huis Museum, on the corner of Jubilee and Northumberland streets, was built in 1861. It’s where poets NP van Wyk Louw and WEG Louw, who put Afrikaans on the literary map, were born. Tours must be booked. R20 a person. Tel 023-571-1131, cell 082-362-5010.

The coach package costs R2690 a person sharing. The self-drive option is R2390 a person sharing. For more details or to reserve your place, contact Margie on 083-778-6487 or Keith on 083-235-5142, email, website.

Special reader offer!

Exclusive three-day guided tour to Sutherland.Explore the universe with Getaway adventures

Join Getaway Adventures from 16 to 18 September 2012 or 11 to 13 October 2012 for an exclusive three-day guided tour to Sutherland. Travel through the quaint and historic Karoo town of Matjiesfontein and visit the famous Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) to learn how astronomers use the sophisticated instrument to explore the heavens.

The package includes:
  • Two nights’ accommodation at the Victorian Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein.
  • Entertainment, including a short trip on an original red London bus.
  • Entrance to SALT.
  • All coach travel to and from Cape Town.
  • Two breakfasts, two dinners, a lunch and late- night snacks on day two.
  • The services of a qualified guide.

The coach package costs R2690 a person sharing. The self-drive option is R2390 a person sharing.For more details or to reserve your place, contact Margie on 083-778-6487 or Keith on 083-235-5142, email, website.

More info on the quaint town of Sutherland More info on the Upper Karoo area

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