Sutherland – The Coldest Place in South Africa

Lisa R. Parker

Sutherland, a little one-horse town in the Great Karoo was my next weekend escape. It is known to experience the coldest temperatures in South Africa due to its high altitude (1550m ASL) and its open clear 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 is the home to the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a hexagonal mirror stretching 11 metres across. SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) is where astronomers from all over the world come to study our universe. Gathering more than 25 times as much light as any existing African telescope, SALT can detect objects as faint as a candle flame on the moon.

A quick 350km on good tar road from Cape Town had me arriving in Sutherland at about 17h00 on Friday. A truly beautiful drive through the Karoo with huge open plains covered with low lying scrub vegetation decorated with breathtakingly beautiful patches of spring flowers of oranges, purples, whites and yellows. Rolling hills and mountains bared fascinating folded rock formations.

I met my folks at our self-catering guesthouse, Rooikloof, where we would spend the weekend together, a lovely 3 star guesthouse on a sheep farm just 2 km outside Sutherland. It was clean, very homely and had everything we needed including electric blankets for the very cold nights!

Our main reason for visiting Sutherland was to view SALT (and the other smaller observatories, 7 altogether) and to enjoy a tour of our universe with a professional astronomer. SALT is situated up on a hill about 18km from Sutherland at about 1798m above sea level. A guided tour of the observatory can be taken Monday to Friday at 10h30 and 14h30 and on Saturday at 11h30 and 14h30 and one must prebook. During the day the observatory is obviously not in use and can be visited but at night no visitors are allowed, as international astronomers are hard at work gathering scientific information about our universe. There is a visitor’s centre about 1 km away where one should meet to do the tour. The centre depicts some fascinating history of Astronomy, some recent findings, photographs and illustrations of our universe – the kind of things that are being learnt by our Astronomers in today’s age with telescopes as advanced as SALT.

At 14h30 on Saturday we toured the observatories with one of the astronomers (duration 2 hours). He explained what the different observatories were used for and what information could be gathered with each telescope and how. In the evening at 19h00 we return to the visitors centre where we would experience our guided tour of the universe. Having been pre-warned of the extreme temperature we would experience up at the observatory at night, we dressed up in our best winter woollies, padded thick with winter jackets, beanies and scarves. As we stepped out of our car we where it by this icy wind chill of approx -4 degrees Celsius! Apparently the wind is continuous throughout the year up on the hill creating a wind chill, which always dropped the air temperature radically. An astronomer met with us and walked us to a building where the visitors’ telescopes were housed. Unfortunately one doesn’t get to see SALT at work, but these smaller telescopes are still considerable in size and made our viewing fascinating. The buildings roof folded back leaving us enclosed within 4 walls and therefore encumbered by less wind, which made the cold a little more bearable. By 20h30 we were dying to get out of the cold and into a warm fire lit building with some hot food in our tummies. We returned to Sutherland to one of only 3 restaurants for dinner. The food was nothing to rave about. We then returned to our little cottage and after a quick nightcap of old brown cherry, we climbed into our cosy warm beds.

Besides the observatory, Sutherland offers some beautiful scenic drives. After breakfast, we packed a tasty lunch basket and departed on a scenic circular 140km drive. The colourful spring flowers had us stopping every couple of kilometres to take photographs of their incredible display. We travelled to the edge of the escarpment where the Roggeveld Mountains suddenly gave way to the Karoo valley 1000m below and the Ouberg pass started its treacherous descent down the steep slope. The viewpoint was breathtaking!

We continued our drive north towards Calvinia following a good gravel road through sheep farmlands, rolling hills, shrubland and more beautiful flowers. Being avid birders my folks and I relished over the number of birds species we saw such as Black Eagles, Lesser Kestrels, Rock Kestrels, Fish Eagles, Black Breasted Snake Eagle, Pale Chanting Goshawks, Black Harrier, Black Stilts, South African Shelduck and many more. We are still old school on the names of these birds. A lot of them have now had their names changed and I would not be able to 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 Fransplaas sheep farm, a dairy farm producing sheeps milk cheese, the only one in South Africa. Neither of them were open on the Sunday when we passed through so unfortunately I cannot comment on them. The scenic drive was well worth it though.

One should remember when visiting Sutherland that none of the shops, restaurants or accommodation establishment take credit cards and there are no cash withdrawal machines in town. Most of them do except cheques as there is a Standard Bank in town but one should remember to take cash.

On our return home we stopped at the historic little village of Matjiesfontein just 110km from Sutherland, for a quick pub lunch in their old English pub, The Lairds Arms. Matjiesfontein is a national monument and takes one back to 1889 when it was first declared a village. The main road, the only road, is all of 300m long and is looked on by a little coffee shop, 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 town, which depict its history and are quite interesting to visit. The Blue Train, Rovos Rail and the Shosholoza Meyl stop here for about an hour for guests to enjoy a little tour of the village with a “born and bred Matjiesfonteiner” by the name of John. John is Matjiesfonteins entertainer. Dressed in black waistcoat and bowler hat, his jovial ways and Charlie Chapman walk keeps everyone chuckling as he leads them through the village telling his stories before returning them to the train.

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