Sutherland is what you’d call a perfect winter weekend breakaway destination. 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.
Here’s the perfect itinerary for a snowy weekend in Sutherland:
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.
We advise doing 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.
When: Monday to Saturday: 10:30 and 14:30
Cost: R80,00 per person
Children 6 – 11: R40
Children under 6: Free
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 includes an indoor presentation that 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.
Where: Sterland Farm
Cost: R120 per person
Bookings are essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact Jurg for bookings 082 556 9589.
Times: always call to confirm starting times though
Jan - April: 20H00 - 22H00
May: 19H00 - 21H00
June - July: 18H00 - 20H00
August: 19H00 - 21H00
Sept - Dec: 20H00 - 22H00
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.
Where: Piet Retief Street
When: Doors open at 18:00
Booking is essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact the owners Johann and Anelia Marais at 023 571 1436.