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Sutherland – The Coldest Place in South Africa

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 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 a hexagonal mirror 11 meters in diameter. SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) is where astronomers from around the world come to study our universe. Gathering more than 25 times more light than any existing African telescope, SALT can detect objects as faint as a candle flame on the moon.

A quick 350km on a good tarmac road from Cape Town had me arriving in Sutherland around 5:00 p.m. Friday. A very beautiful drive through the Karoo with huge open plains covered in low scrub vegetation decorated with breathtakingly beautiful patches of spring flowers of oranges, purples, whites and yellows. Rolling hills and mountains reveal fascinating folded rock formations.

I met my parents at our self-catering guesthouse, Rooikloof, where we used to spend the weekends together, a lovely 3 star guesthouse on a sheep farm just 2km from Sutherland. It was clean, very basic 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 total) and to enjoy a tour of our universe with a professional astronomer. SALT is located on a hill about 18 km from Sutherland at about 1798 m above sea level. A guided tour of the observatory can be taken Monday to Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and must be booked in advance. During the day the observatory is obviously not in use and can be visited, but at night no visitors are allowed as international astronomers work hard to gather scientific information about our universe. There is a visitor center about 1 km away where you have to meet to go around. The center depicts a fascinating history of astronomy, recent discoveries, photographs and illustrations of our universe – the kind of things that are being learned by our astronomers in the current 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 used for and what information could be gathered with each telescope and how. In the evening at 7:00 p.m. we return to the visitor center where we would experience our guided tour of the universe. Having been warned of the extreme temperature we would have at the observatory at night, we dressed in our best winter woolens, padded with winter jackets, beanies and scarves. When we got out of our car, we saw it in this freezing wind chill of about -4 degrees Celsius! Apparently, the wind is continuous throughout the year on the hill, creating a wind chill, which has always caused the air temperature to drop drastically. An astronomer met us and led us to a building where the visitors’ telescopes were. Unfortunately, SALT is not seen at work, but these small telescopes are still of considerable size and have made our observation fascinating. The roof of the buildings folded back leaving us enclosed between 4 walls and therefore less encumbered by the wind, which made the cold a little more bearable. At 8:30 p.m. we were dying to get out of the cold and into a warm building lit by a fire with hot food in our bellies. We returned to Sutherland to one of the 3 restaurants for dinner. The food was nothing out of the ordinary. We then returned to our little cottage and after a quick last glass of old brown cherry, we climbed into our cozy warm beds.

Besides the observatory, Sutherland offers beautiful scenic drives. After breakfast, we prepared a delicious packed lunch and set off for a 140 km scenic drive. The colorful spring flowers had us stopping every two miles to take photos 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 perilous descent down the steep slope. The view was breathtaking!

We continued our drive north towards Calvinia following a good gravel road through sheep farms, hills, shrubs and more beautiful flowers. Being avid birdwatchers, my parents and I savored the number of bird species we saw, such as black eagles, kestrels, kestrels, fish eagles, black-breasted serpent eagles, goshawks pale singing, black harrier, black stilts, South African shelduck and many more. Following. We are still old school on the names of these birds. Many of them have now changed names and I couldn’t give you the new ones!

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

It should be remembered when visiting Sutherland that none of the shops, restaurants or accommodation establishments accept credit cards and there are no ATMs in town. Most of them do, except checks as there is a standard bank in town, but don’t forget to bring cash.

Back home, we stopped in the small historic village of Matjiesfontein just 110km from Sutherland, for a quick lunch at their 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 road, the only road, is 300m long and is dominated 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 depict its history and are quite interesting to visit. The Blue Train, Rovos Rail and the Shosholoza Meyl stop here for about an hour so guests can enjoy a short tour of the village with a “born and bred Matjiesfonteiner” named John. John is the artist Matjiesfonteins. Dressed in a black waistcoat and bowler hat, his jovial manner and Charlie Chapman gait make everyone laugh as he leads them through the village telling them his stories before returning them to the train.

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