You might come to Sutherland in the Karoo for the stars or the snow, but there are lots of other things to do and see in the little town that’s 110km north of Matjiesfontein on the R354. We found ourselves enjoying it more for the history and people than for the clear night skies that make it famous. Here’s my pick of 8 things to do and see in Sutherland.
If you approach Sutherland from Calvinia or the Tankwa Karoo National Park, as we did, it’s well worth driving the Ouberg Pass, which winds up steep tracks to 1404m before levelling out to a plateau of pretty farmland. When we drove it in October, it was still drenched in spring flowers. Just be sure that you have a 4x4 vehicle with high clearance and low range, and check locally before you set out because the road can be impassable after rain.
The South African Astronomical Observatory offers night star-gazing tours. Make sure you take warm clothing because the telescopes you’ll be looking through – a 14” Celestron and 16” Meade, if that means anything to you – are in the open and it can be really cold even in October. Try to plan your visit for a time when the moon is small or absent altogether.
What you see depends on what’s visible at the time you visit. With a very knowledgeable guide, we saw Mercury, Venus, Saturn with its rings, the sliver of new moon with its craters, and some prominent stars. Starting time varies from 18:00 to 20:00, depending on the season. Tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays last about 90 minutes and cost R60 per person.
You can also do a day tour (Monday to Saturday, 10:30 and 14:30, R40 a person). This is a chance to look at the technology behind the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), with its giant mirror that gathers 25 times as much light as the previous largest African telescopes. Again, the guide was well-informed and could answer random questions, certainly not just sprouting from a cheat-sheet she’d learned by rote. If you can do only one of the tours, this would be my pick.
To book for both these tours, phone 023-5712436.
Drive out of Sutherland towards Matjiesfontein. After 7km you will see a turnoff to Merweville to your left. Turn onto this road and about 8km further on you’ll come to a lake on both sides of the road. When we visited it was full of spurwing geese, teals, ducks, blackwinged stilts and even some greater flamingos raking the water's surface with their bills to siphon up some breakfast. You might be lucky enough to see pelicans too.
Some 4–5km further you can see Salpeterkop, 1767m high, on your left – the youngest active volcano south of the Equator. Don’t worry, it last erupted 66 million years ago, leaving the kilometre-wide lava ash field that you can still see today.
Sutherland is a one-horse town, not much more than three roads deep and around 1800 people. Wander the streets with your camera at dusk or dawn for great shots of old grey-stone houses with lacy Victorian stoeps. I liked that some of them were a bit weathered and ramshackle. This wabi sabi – the Japanese acceptance of transience and imperfection – makes for much more interesting photos than prim and pristine buildings.
The stone Dutch Reformed church on the main road (inset above) has an interesting history. Built in 1899, it was supposed to be consecrated in October 1900, but a diphtheria epidemic meant it had to be postponed. By then, the Anglo Boer war had come to the Roggeveld and martial law was declared. In Sept 1901 the minister had to hand over the keys of the church to the military to be used as a fort and barracks.
We’ve all heard of the siege of Mafikeng and the siege of Ladysmith during the Anglo Boer War, but I didn’t know that Sutherland experienced its own mini-siege when a Boer division of about 250 men showered the British-occupied town with gunfire for about ten hours.
You can still see graffiti in the church today, courtesy of bored and disrespectful British soldiers. Consecration finally took place only in April 1903, after the war ended.
Sutherland is fiercely cold in winter, the coldest place in the country with night time temperatures well below freezing. On 12 July 2003 it reached minus 16.4 degrees, the coldest in 33 years! This may seem tame for places like Canada or Siberia, but for South Africa it’s almost unconscionable.
The area gets heavy snow several times each winter (mostly in July and August), so if you want to see the snow-covered landscape and experience warm Karoo hospitality while huddling around a log fire, keep your eye on the weather reports. Be quick, though; although there are some 30 B&Bs in the town, they get snapped up very quickly every time it snows.
When we visited, we chose the Galaxy B&B and couldn't have been happier. Hosts Kobus and Betsie Muller were charming, friendly and helpful, their breakfasts worth getting up for. But more about that in another post.
When we visited in October, the Anglo Boer War cemetery was still awash in spring flowers, making the dilapidated gravestones look quite cheery. There’s a strange phenomenon here: two graves for one man. He’s David Barnett and he drowned in a flash flood in 1901. His comrades buried him, but when the Anglo Boer War ended, the British gave him a military cross, which was placed on a second grave with his name.
There’s also a Jewish graveyard in Sutherland, a town where many Jewish businessmen set up shop in the early 1900s. Among these was Barnett Perlman, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic, just eight days after he refused to lend a stretcher to a family for a funeral because he was afraid he'd get infected. Sometimes you just can’t dodge fate, no matter how careful you are.
If you’re interested in Afrikaans literature, visit the house where NP van Wyk Louw and his brother WEG Louw were born. Today it’s a literary museum, with artefacts of the two brothers, as well as another Sutherland poet DC Esterhuyse.
Other famous people born in Sutherland are also given some space. One is civil engineer Sir Henry Olivier who specialised in hydroelectric power projects, working on both the Gariep Dam and the Kariba Dam, among other projects.
There’s also a small agricultural museum with farm implements, furniture and clothes donated by locals. With a special Karoo quirkiness, a sign instructs you to phone the number on the gate to arrange access.
Sutherland produces some of the best Karoo lamb in the country, so eating out seems an obvious thing to do. Like so many establishments in Sutherland that are named for stars, constellations or planets, Halley sê Kom Eet in the main road is an unpretentious place for tea or lunch. We had toasted sandwiches and milkshakes which were tasty enough, but don’t stop here if you expect service at the speed of light.
Pick of the bunch is probably Cluster d’hote on the main road, Piet Retief Street. Run by Johann and Anelia Marais – Johann front of house and Anelia in the kitchen – it’s peaceful and restful and has jolly good food. We had the speciality, lamb shank, and it was one of the best we’ve ever had – ample, succulent and tasty. It came with rice and veggies (including my favourite, roast beetroot), as well as some mint and apple jelly and preserved quince, which was a perfect complement to the rich lamb. For dessert there was luscious lemon meringue pie with just the right degree of tartness.
If you’re looking for a restaurant with a bar, there’s The Jupiter in Jubilee Street or Perlman House on Piet Retief Street.