Sutherland is what you’d call a perfect winter weekend breakaway destination in South Africa. While it may seem like a sleepy town at first glance, it offers all the iconic Karoo charm plus a few extras.
Sutherland’s charm is linked directly to the weather. See, Sutherland is one of only a few places in SA that gets really, really cold. It also sees snow more regularly than other places, thanks to its exposed and high location in the Karoo.
Apart from being a cosy haven where you can snuggle by the fireplace, the weather is also very important for another uniquely Sutherland feature – star-gazing.
Sutherland is home to the South African Large Telescope – or SALT. This in itself makes it worth a visit, as it is the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.
It’s a marvelous thing to see, and if you have kids, chances are you’ll have an aspiring astronaut or astronomer on your hands after a visit to SALT.
In winter, it gets so cold at this remote location that the frozen grass and soil audibly crunches underfoot. I don’t know if the architects were being ironic when they built SALT, but it actually looks like a massive saltshaker, standing isolated and tall in the arid Karoo.
That it still stands is another incredible thing. The winds up there get so strong that you hear them howling from the inside of the building – even though it’s built in a round shape. But it stands, un-phased by the winds of earth and looks solely to matters of outer-space.
Since the early 1970s, the major telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory have operated on this hilltop, 1 800 metres above sea level, near the Karoo, about 370 km inland.
It’s best to do a fully guided day tour one Saturday morning. It includes a walk through the Visitor Centre as well as a guided tour of selected research telescopes including SALT. Hourly tours, which are self-guided, are also possible, but not nearly as insightful.
Night tours are also possible at the visitor centre, and this includes the viewing of interesting objects in the sky through two dedicated visitor telescopes, a 16″ Meade and 14″ Celestron.
NOTE: Visitors cannot visit any of the research telescopes at night, not even SALT. Astronomy is a light sensitive science and no lights are allowed up on the plateau in the evenings.
Much less risky to the global astronomy practice, and much more personal for star-gazing visitors, it the Sterland experience.
Jurg Wagener runs the show at Sterland, a privately-owned interactive star-gazing farm just outside of town. The show at Sterland starts at 20:00 sharp, and lasts two hours. First an indoor presentation will give you a bit of background on the area, the people and essentially, the stars, all the constellations and planets in the universe.
Then, you’ll head out to for some stargazing… and this is so much more exciting than what it sounds. Star-gazers are first taken into the Muisbos-Amphi theatre, a sheltered area where telescopes are propped up, ready for use.
Wagener uses 5 x 11 inch (280mm) Celestron Go-To telescopes, each fitted with its own GPS. The telescopes are clear, and very easy to use, and at each station, a knowledgeable guide will help you identify and understand the different things you spot. They make use of a very powerful laser so that each stargazer can see what they are talking about.
NOTE: Bookings are essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact Jurg for bookings 082 556 9589.
Eat the Karoo
Apart from snow and stars, Sutherland is famous for one other thing – Karoo lamb. The icy weather and barren Karoobossie landscape make for the most tender of lamb products, with that distinct Karoo flavour.
Added to this, lamb from this area is naturally free-range, hormone-free and 100% organic. If you’re after a first class Karoo meal, Cluster d’Hote is one of the best places in town to experience this. They serve the best lamb shank in town, and perhaps even in the country! Go early and have a sherry at the bar to warm you up before dinner.
NOTE: Booking is essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact the owners Johann and Anelia Marais at 023 571 1436.
Stay in Sutherland
If you’re going, Saffraan lodge on Middelfontein Farm just outside Sutherland, is a lovely spot to stay. This stone cottage has no electricity and is the perfect romantic winter getaway as it is very private and intimate.
The cottage also provides the perfect spot for stunning astro-photography. On nights when there is no moon, the Milky Way and Megallan clouds appear so close, as if you can touch it. Winter is the best time to go, as this is the time when Sutherland receives a lot of snow, and photography results are at their best.
*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.