You might come to Sutherland in the Karoo, South Africa, for the stars or the snow, but there are lots of other things to do and see in this little town 110km north of Matjiesfontein on the R354. We found ourselves enjoying it as much for the history and people as for the clear night skies that make it famous. Here’s my pick of 15 things to do in Sutherland.
1. Visit the historic church
We’ve all heard of the sieges of Mafeking and Ladysmith during the Anglo Boer War, but did you 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. There’s also a rather beautiful organ from Germany.
2. Go stargazing and on a tour of SALT
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 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.
You can also do a day tour (Monday to Saturday, 10:30 and 14:30). This is a chance to discover 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 or visit the SAAO’s website (link above).
3. Other places for Sutherland stargazing
Let it not be said stargazing isn’t a major draw card in Sutherland. This is largely because of the dry, cold air with very little light pollution – the ideal conditions for seeing the night skies. Apart from the Sutherland observatory and SALT (see point 2), here are a few other places to make the most of the starry skies.
Sutherland Planetarium is a privately owned digital planetarium. You’ll find the 30-seater planetarium on the corner of Piet Retief and Sarel Cilliers streets in town. It’s open seven days a week showcasing a wide range of full-dome films for the whole family to enjoy. There’s also an astro amphitheatre with two Celestron telescopes for viewing the night sky.
Sterland, just outside Sutherland on the Matjiesfontein side, also has stargazing sessions every night, with the clear, cold Karoo air giving excellent viewing of the constellations. The show starts with an indoor presentation before you get a chance to use one of six telescopes to find constellations like the Southern Cross, the Milky Way, the Magellan Clouds and others. Remember to dress warmly because evenings in Sutherland can be cold in summer and glacial in winter.
There’s also an amateur observatory with two telescopes at Blesfontein Farm (see point 10).
4. Admire the buildings
5. Experience Sutherland snow
The area gets heavy snow several times each winter, mostly in July and August. 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; there are stacks of guesthouses and B&Bs in the town, but they get snapped up very quickly every time it snows.
6. Spend time in a graveyard
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 Spanish 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.
7. Visit the Louw Museum
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. You need to phone the number on the gate to arrange access.
8. Tackle the Skurweberg 4x4 trail
Other activities on the guest farm – which also offers rooms and camp sites – include hiking, mountain biking, swimming in the river and stargazing. You don’t have to stay on the farm to do the 4x4 trail, but you do need to book ahead.
9. Hike a volcano
10. Go horse riding among wildlife
Feel the breeze on your face as you go horse riding among wildlife on Blesfontein Farm 28km southwest of Sutherland. The joy of being on horseback among animals like duiker, springbok, steenbok, black wildebeest and zebra is that they accept you as just another four-legged creature and aren’t skittish or shy. You don’t need to be staying at Blesfontein to enjoy this experience, but you do need to book ahead.
Blesfontein Farm also offers mountain biking and accommodation in converted old farm buildings and stables. The benefit of staying on the farm is that you might get the chance for a guided stargazing in the private amateur observatory with two telescopes.
11. Go mountain biking
Two other farms suitable for mountain biking are Skurweberg (see point 8) and Blesfontein (see point 10).
12. Go bird-watching
Despite the arid Karoo environment, birding around Sutherland is good. Look for raptors like martial eagle and black-chested snake eagle, as well as arid area specialists like Ludwig’s bustard and Sclater’s lark.
Believe it or not, there are water birds too. 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 stomping at the ground under the water to stir up yummies to eat. You might even be lucky enough to see pelicans too.
13. See Permian Age fossils
Do all things palaeontological fascinate you? You’ll enjoy the dual experience of a guided game drive to see animals like gemsbok, eland, black wildebeest and mountain zebra on the way to Rogge Cloof’s Permian Age Fossil Field. (Again, as with point 9, you need to be staying at Rogge Cloof to participate in this activity; day visitors aren’t allowed.) This part of the Karoo used to be a floodplain some 260 million years ago, when mammal-like reptiles called therapsids used to live here. You’ll get a chance to see some fossils lying where they have been found.
Choose from an early morning or late afternoon tour of three to four hours. Wear comfy shoes, a hat and comfy walking shoes to explore the fossil field.
14. Look for small animals
If you keep your eyes open on your drives, cycles and hikes in the veld around Sutherland, you may spot one or two of the five different species of tortoise that live here, such as the tiny common padloper or parrot-beaked tortoise. Another very special resident of the area is the highly endangered riverine rabbit, though you’d have to be especially lucky to spot one. Not sure whether you’re seeing a scrub hare or a riverine rabbit? Look for the diagnostic black stripe that runs from the corner of the mouth over the cheek and a white ring around the eye.
15. Drive a pass or two
Another pass worth driving if you approach from Calvinia or the Tankwa Karoo is the Gannaga Pass. It descends nearly 550m from the plateau at Middelpos through the Roggeveld Mountains to the plains of the Tankwa Karoo. It has 45 bends and a few hairpins, providing expansive views of the Tankwa Karoo stretched out below. If weather conditions are good, you don’t really need a 4x4 though high clearance is a good idea. If it has been raining or snowing, conditions will be super slippery so check locally before you go.
The tarred R354 from Sutherland to Matjiesfontein also makes a scenic drive across the Roggeveld and over the Verlatenkloof Pass. Started by Thomas Bain in 1874 and finished the following year by William Hesketh, it descends almost 670m in altitude over 14km. Along this route you’ll get wonderful views over Karoo valleys and a shed-load of wildflowers in spring.
Sutherland accommodation: where to stay
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