NC Episode 2 – Sand and SALT in Sutherland

A short drive from Matjiesfontein is Sutherland – although it could be on the moon given its remoteness and slightly out-of-this-world feel. In my excitement leading up to this epic trip, whatever I imagined Sutherland to look like didn’t come close to it. To say it’s a one main road town is apt yet doesn’t begin to describe the place. Calling it a remote landscape is an understatement… read on!

To further add to this otherworldly feel, we were staying at Blesfontein farm, which is about 27 kilometers on a corrugated dirt road 3 kms before Sutherland. If I’d know this beforehand I may have opted to stay in town instead! Every drive in and out was a free chiropractic realignment.

That said, the hospitality, cozy and comfortable accomodation and pretty fields of white bushes of flowers more than made up for what the dirt road lacked (tar!).

The fact that it was also situated on the edge of the escarpment overlooking Tankwa just added to the charm of the place.

We also had the pleasure while bumping (4x4ing) over to see the escarpment, to see the very very rare Star Tree in a remote corner of the farm. Its so called because of the starlike shapes of its fine-needle leaves. I nearly lost the underside of my SUV bumping over giant boulders to get to see this elusive tree. Apparently Blesfontein hosts the only fragile star tree of the Karoo for 100km on this remote area of the farm – preserved for future generations (with good 4x4s to get there to see it!)

No stay in Sutherland is complete without the prerequisite night and day visits to SALT, aka Southern Africa’s Largest Telescope.

South African Large Telescope is situated just 15 minutes outside Sutherland on the highest hill in the area and far enough away from excessive urban light pollution. It is a must for any budding or serious astronomer or idiot brave enough to visit Sutherland.

This collaborative project delivers accurate photographs of the deep space visible from the southern hemisphere and is manned by a mini UN of nations living on site

The observatory hosts a number of telescopes: tours include a visit to SALT, the museum, and observations of the night skies through powerful telescopes. 

We did the night stargazing tour which had two powerful telescopes in a outdoor room where the ceiling rolls back and opens up so that you have an unobstructed view of the night sky. We sat around the telescopes and got to observe obscure and famous stars and planets on a bitterly cold but cloudless evening. The moon was a bit brighter than we wished for but the stargazing was still good. Discovering Saturn’s rings for the first time was a real buzz!

Before the tour we got to wander around the interesting museum and goof around with the free photo booth, which superimposes you onto planets etc. sadly for the museum we were so early we hogged the booth for a full 30 minutes having fun! The other fun had that night (not) was getting lost on the dirt road back to Blesfontein. Even the gps was confused!

The next day we did the daytime tour of the actual SALT facility and that was freakin awesome. It would have been even more awesome if I didn’t start feeling ill at the facility and hurl my guts out on the narrow road down and out of SALT. After that I was laid low for 2 days.I’m still convinced an alien radiated me or something… true story!

While I was laid low and sleeping in the back of the car, my mates did a tour and sun watching at the
Sutherland Planetarium, which is the only privately owned digital planetarium in South Africa (owned by the farmer who owns Blesfontein). Located in the centre of town and hard to miss as it’s two igloos or domes almost in the middle of the main road, the planetarium showcases a wide range of full-dome films and houses a powerful sun telescope in the back.

Ahem – don’t be fooled by the photo above. There’s no actual mall in Sutherland. Just a little shop posing as a mall! What was a sight to behold as the sun set was the 150+ year old NG church in town – and I got the perfect shot of it.

Again, don’t be fooled by the photo. I actually took a SA flag to the Moon with me!

Anyway my memories of Sutherland are great Karoo lamb chops (I’m hoping to become best mates with the butcher’s wife, as she regularly comes to SW to see her son, hopefully with a cooler full of Karoo lamb chops for me!), sand, sand, lots of dusty roads, stars, glorious stars and being sick at SALT. All in all an interesting 3 days in SA’s premier stargazing destination.

Coming soon – Namaqualand and the fab flowers!

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