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Open Features: Starstruck In Sutherland

...It’s sheep farming country with sparse vegetation and low, flinty hills, but Sutherland has a special secret that is only revealed when the sun goes down.,,

Jon Minster tells of one of the coldest places in South Africa.

It’s a busy Friday near the end of the winter school holidays and visitors pour into Sutherland. They pull over on Piet Retief Street and bundle out into the cold, stomp their feet and blow into their hands. Moms wrap extra scarves around children and dads compare temperature readings in their cars. It’s midday and the consensus is that it’s 4°C.

“Yisss, it’s cold!”

“Apparently last night it was minus seven!”

“Check that puddle – it’s frozen!”

Sutherland really is cold. In a country famous for sunny skies and flip-flops, the weather here feels more Siberian than South African. During winter the temperature rarely exceeds 10°C and, according to local historian Vernon Marais, summer isn’t much warmer.

“There isn’t a single month when Sutherland hasn’t recorded a snowfall,” says Vernon. “I remember a heavy snowfall in December 1970, a few weeks before Christmas. There’s been snow in January and February too.”

Popular opinion is that Sutherland is the coldest town in South Africa, but that award actually goes to a little place called Buffelsfontein near Molteno in the Eastern Cape, where the mercury once fell to -18,6°C – South Africa’s lowest ever recorded temperature (Sutherland’s lowest is a respectable -16° C). But it’s Sutherland, not Buffelsfontein, that makes the news every night, when the weatherman sweeps his hand over the Roggeveld plateau, sending a collective shiver through the country.

The town was named after Henry Sutherland, a minister who would trek from Worcester once a year to conduct services for farmers in the area. Like most remote Karoo towns, the farmers eventually decided that they needed their own congregation and a town was proclaimed on a farm called De List. The first plots were auctioned in 1858.

It’s sheep farming country with sparse vegetation and low, flinty hills, but Sutherland has a special secret that is only revealed when the sun goes down.

As the sky fades from pink to burnt orange to a deep velvet blue, the temperature drops below freezing. Patches of frozen snow shine ethereally in the twilight. Most people are indoors by now, indulging in Sutherland’s favourite winter sport, sipping sherry by the fire, but I’m huddled on a hill 20 km from town with a few other brave people, waiting for the stars to come out.

Sutherland’s night skies are world-famous. At an altitude of nearly 1,500 m, with sparse rainfall and zero light pollution, it feels as if you could reach up and dip your fingers into the Milky Way. It’s for this reason that the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) chose a site close to Sutherland as its headquarters when it was formed in 1972.

We’re at the observatory now, waiting for tour guide Glenda Stoffels to fix her telescope on Saturn. Then we all take turns to peer through the eyepiece at the distinctive ringed planet, which looks exactly as it does in schoolbook illustrations of the solar system. This causes quite a bit of oohing and aahing.

“Saturn’s always a crowd pleaser,” says Glenda, before training the telescope on Jupiter with its tiny moons, and The Jewellery Box, a cluster of stars with three bright ones in the middle that glow like a celestial traffic light.

The observatory is also the home of SALT, Southern African Large Telescope, the most powerful optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. SALT lords over the high plateau like a prop from a Hollywood sci-fi movie, gathering data from specks of light a billion times too faint for us to see with the naked eye.

“Lots of people think they can look at the stars through SALT,” Grant Southey explained to me earlier. Grant is an electronics systems specialist who works at the observatory. “They expect Hubble-like visions of space, like the ones they’ve seen in Time and National Geographic. But SALT isn’t the kind of telescope that takes pretty pictures. Astronomers use it to decode the light received from distant stars, which helps them to understand the age and makeup of the universe better.”

But there’s more to Sutherland than cold and stars. It’s got some impressive architecture, cosy restaurants and an interesting museum.

In spring, the town is also a gateway to the flower paradise of the Tanqua Karoo to the southwest. Just don’t forget your beanie and mittens…


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