Sutherland, a small one-horse town in the Great Karoo, was my next weekend getaway. It is known to experience the coldest temperatures in South Africa due to its high altitude (1550m ASL) and clear open skies, and in winter one can experience -20 degrees Celsius and lots of snow and ice. It is also known as the “Gateway to the Universe” and houses the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with an 11-meter-wide hexagonal mirror. SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) is where astronomers from all over the world come to study our universe. Collecting more than 25 times more light than any existing African telescope, SALT can detect objects as faint as a candle flame on the moon.

After a brisk 350 km on a good tarmac road from Cape Town, I arrived in Sutherland around 5pm on Friday. A truly beautiful drive through the Karoo with huge open plains covered in low scrub vegetation decorated with breath taking patches of orange, purple, white and yellow spring flowers. The rolling hills and mountains revealed fascinating folded rock formations.

I met my parents at our independent guest house, Rooikloof, where we spent the weekend together, a beautiful 3 star guest house on a sheep farm just 2km from Sutherland. It was clean, very cozy and had everything we needed including electric blankets for the very cold nights!

Our main reason for visiting Sutherland was to see SALT (and the other smaller observatories, 7 in all) and to enjoy a tour of our universe with a professional astronomer. SALT is located on top of a hill about 18 km from Sutherland at about 1798 m above sea level. You can take a guided tour of the observatory from Monday to Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and it is necessary to book in advance. During the day the observatory is obviously not in use and can be visited, but at night visitors are not allowed as international astronomers are hard at work gathering scientific information about our universe. There is a visitor center 1 km away where one must meet to take the tour. The center displays a fascinating history of astronomy, some recent finds, photographs and illustrations of our universe – the kind of things our astronomers are learning in today’s era with telescopes as advanced as SALT.

At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday we toured the observatories with one of the astronomers (duration 2 hours). He explained what the different observatories were for and what information could be collected with each telescope and how. At night at 19:00 we return to the visitor center where we will experience our guided tour of the universe. Having been warned in advance of the extreme temperature we would experience at the observatory at night, we dressed in our best woolen winter coats, padded with winter jackets, hats and scarves. When we got out of our car, we were met with this freezing wind chill of about -4 degrees Celsius! Apparently, the wind is continuous throughout the year on the hill creating a thermal sensation, which always radically lowered the air temperature. An astronomer met us and escorted us to a building where the visitors’ telescopes were housed. Unfortunately, one cannot see SALT in operation, but these smaller telescopes are still of considerable size and make for fascinating viewing. The roof of the building retracted leaving us enclosed between 4 walls and therefore encumbered by less wind, which made the cold a bit more bearable. At 8:30 pm we were dying to get out of the cold and into a warm fire-lit building with some hot food in our bellies. We return to Sutherland to one of 3 restaurants for dinner. The food was not to die for. We then headed back to our little cabin and after a quick glass of stale coffee, we crawled into our cozy warm beds.

In addition to the observatory, Sutherland offers beautiful scenic drives. After breakfast, we pack a delicious lunch basket and set off on a circular scenic drive of 140 km. The colorful spring flowers made us stop every two kilometers to take pictures of their incredible display. We traveled to the edge of the escarpment where the Roggeveld Mountains suddenly gave way to the Karoo Valley 1000m below and the Ouberg Pass began its treacherous descent down the steep slope. The gazebo was awesome!

We continue our journey north towards Calvinia following a good gravel road through sheep farmland, rolling hills, bushland and more beautiful flowers. Being avid bird watchers, my parents and I enjoyed the number of bird species we saw including Black Eagles, Lesser Kestrels, Rock Kestrels, Ospreys, Black-breasted Snake Eagle, Pale Songhawk, Black Harrier, Black Stilts , South African jar and many more. We are still old school on the names of these birds. Many of them have had their names changed and I couldn’t give you the new ones!

Along this route there are 2 farms of interest to visitors, one is Koornlandskloof, a commercial tulip farm and the other is Fransplaas Sheep Farm, a dairy farm producing sheep cheese, the only one in South Africa. None of them were open on the Sunday when we passed by so unfortunately I can’t comment on them. However, the scenic drive was worth it.

One must remember when visiting Sutherland that none of the shops, restaurants or accommodation establishments accept credit cards and there are no cash withdrawal machines in town. Most of them do, except for checks, as there is a Standard Bank in town, but one must remember to bring cash.

On our way home we stopped in the small historic village of Matjiesfontein, just 110km from Sutherland, for a quick lunch at its old English pub, The Lairds Arms. Matjiesfontein is a national monument and dates back to 1889 when it was first declared a village. The main street, the only street, is 300m long and is surrounded by a small cafe, a post office, The Lairds Arms pub, the 3 star Lord Milner hotel and of course the train station. There are also four museums in the city, which represent its history and are quite interesting to visit. The Blue Train, Rovos Rail and Shosholoza Meyl stop here for about an hour for guests to enjoy a little tour of the village with a “born and bred Matjiesfonteiner” named John. John is the animator for Matjiesfontein. Dressed in a black waistcoat and bowler hat, his jovial manner and Charlie Chapman walk have everyone chuckling as he leads them through town telling their stories before returning them to the train.

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