Star gazing, cosy nights, good company, and fresh air are the makings of a great holiday getaway and the small town of Sutherland has all these ingredients. This Karoo town in the Northern Cape is a quiet town known for its snowy winters, striking landscapes, and clear skies for astronomy. There isn’t a bombardment of activities to do there but sometimes, relaxing under the stars is just what the doctor ordered.
Sutherland is a 4-hour drive from Cape Town mainly driving up the N1. We often find an interesting farm stall to stop off for lunch when travelling largish distances but this time around, we opted for stop off for lunch at the tiny village of Matjiesfontsein. The village is just before turning into the road that ultimately leads up to the Sutherland and is filled with all sorts of quirks and history.
Matjiesfontein is an interesting step back in time with period pieces, museums, and ghost stories. We had lunch on a rainy day at the Laird’s Arms Pub. The pub had a lovely fireplace, old fashioned till and in the corner an enthusiastic local belted a song on the piano with patrons joining in the chorus. I think it was rugby team lunch at the time. Even so, it felt as though we had stumbled into Frodo’s local pub on Middle Earth.
We traveled to Sutherland round about this time last year. Winter is a good time for stargazing but absolutely freezing, so a cosy place to stay was high on our list. We stayed on the Rooikloof Guest Farm at their Huis Harpuis. This is a spacious farm house with a small cottage outside. We were on a group trip with friends which included 6 adults and 4 children, there was plenty of room for everyone. The house was very well kitted with a full kitchen (including a mixer to bake a cake), electric blankets on the beds, a large dining table for the family, and of course a great fireplace to keep you warm and cosy.
During the day, we soaked in the sun on short walks in the area and explored the town. It’s not a long exploration as it’s a one street town. There’s an old church, a local watering hole and other guest houses. One of our anticipated stops was the Paulsen butchery where we ordered Karoo lamb for our potjie (and extra to take back home).
Sutherland is known for its astronomy. The semi-desert area with its dark nights makes for excellent observing conditions. A trip to South African Astronomical Observatory for a tour of the South African Large Telescope (SALT) – Africa’s giant eye on the sky is a must do activity. SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world. Its 11-metre array is made of 91 individual hexagonal mirrors. It’s made exciting discoveries like observations of new supernovae and “supermassive black hole at the center of a modestly sized galaxy.” It’s a fun and excited way to get excited about the universe.
We spent the evenings playing games by the fire, enjoying piping hot potjie stew made with local karoo lamb and on the final night a great star gazing experience. On a very cold night, local Dave O’Hearns came to give us a private talk and view of the universe through his telescope. We wrapped up tightly and those of us who could manage the dip in temperature got a “close look” at the Mars, Jupiter with its moons, and the glorious Saturn.
We also took the opportunity to dust off our astrophotography skills. Well, it was more like applying the skills we just acquired on YouTube. It may not be the award-winning, but we were quite chuffed with our results. However, I must say photography at night and at “golden hour” need some real commitment and this time around, layers of clothes.
Our short stay in Sutherland was a lovely family getaway. Good food, good company, and amazing stargazing delights literally in the middle of Nowhere!