The Sutherland Observatory
In South Africa we have the perfect site for stargazing in the southern hemisphere. On a rocky hilltop in the middle of a plateau there is an international observatory. The skies are clear most of the time and this is where we have the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. It is called SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) and even looks like a salt shaker! The huge mirrored surface inside the building has a diameter of 11 metres. It has 91 hexagonal mirrors. It captures the images in the sky. Data is relayed to computers and monitors downstairs where the pictures are seen.
On the other side of the SALT building a number of smaller observatories. Most of these are maintained by international research institutes.
A visit to this region is not always at the top of the list of anybody visiting South Africa because the priority destinations are to Cape Town, Durban, Gauteng and of course our game parks. People want to see the big five in the flesh and take home souvenirs. (Hopefully these do not include items made of ivory and rhino horn.) If you have more time to spend in South Africa and your itinerary is flexible then I would recommend a week-end at Sutherland. Even if you are not a serious astronomer it is a pleasant and unusual outing.
Guide Tours around the complex for day or night excursions are available. There is also a visitors centre and an excellent museum. Make sure you arrive in time and try to book in advance if you can or buy your ticket before wandering around the hilltop. We made this mistake the second time we visited the place, so if you are a serious star-gazer take note of exactly how you plan to spend your time. As you will see from the pictures of our guest farm and the delightful animals we met, it was too easy to get carried away. We forgot how quickly time marches on when you are having fun with people, family and other animals.
Welcome to Blesfontein Guest Farm
Blesfontein is rambling sheep farm with plenty of accommodation. Choose between self-catering stone cottages, rooms or a cute round hut. All accommodation is provided with private bathrooms and kitchen facilities. If you would liketo have your meals cooked for you the charming hosts will gladly oblige. It is important to bring along all your food and beverages because there are no shops on the farm. Sutherland is the closest town and that is a few kilometres away, along a dusty road. It really is a remote and pristine area.
Make a roaring fire to keep you warm throughout the night. Firewood is cheap and plentiful and adds a cosy atmosphere to the room. Looking out from the verandah, you can almost touch the stars.
Marina and Nicol Van der Merwe run the guest farm as a side line to their sheep farming. The best time to go to Sutherland is when there is no competition from a full moon. We also found that out the hard way on our first visit. Nicol our host is a passionate amateur star-gazer and he has built an observatory of his own on the farm. He presents a show for the guests at 8pm in the evening and shares his knowledge of the heavens with them. He has many amusing anecdotes to tell and although it is cold we were well entertained. Make sure you take a lot of warm jackets, hats, scarves, blankets and especially gloves with you.
Also remember to take binoculars. To get the bigger picture of stargazing Nicol uses a powerful laser pointer that he beams up at the night sky. This gave us a direct and easy introduction to the heavens and current stellar events. It is easier to watch him through your binoculars. Then we all had turns with his telescopes to take a closer look at the constellations, stars, planets and other heavenly bodies in more detail. We found it was better to orientate ourselves to the particular contellation with the binoculars and then see the magnified images through the telescope.
The chilly early morning sky before dawn
When the wind blows it can chill you to the bone, regardless of the season. If you wish to see the 3:30 am sky this is seriously off-putting. If you ask Nicol for an early morning session before going to bed he will gladly oblige. But you must be ready and then go and wake him up yourself. Once you have upset the dogs outside his window this is easy enough! Not many people are willing to get up and experience the full dawning of a new day and prefer to snuggle down for a few more hours. We were keen to see the Pleiades and so we took up Nicol's offer. It was an unforgettable experience.
But the second morning when I woke up nobody wanted to join me although they said they would. So I sneaked out of bed alone at 3:30 am. I am usually awake at this time anyway. There were still a few glowing coals in the kitchen hearth. I peeked out of the window and saw the heavens gazing down at me. I felt like a thief in the night, after the jewels in the sky.
I sat on the ground and stared up at the glittering array of stars, planets and often what looked like shooting stars. Some of them were satellites or various man-made objects but it made no difference to me. The wind was howling so I huddled against the stone wall and peered over the barn roof to look for Orion. It is always easy to find the three stars on his belt. I peered at the area where Nicol had showed us how to find the Pleiades but they were not easy to find. Suddenly a bright shiny object swept over the area. Was it a shooting star? I followed it with my binoculars and found the stars I was looking for. Is there a bond between these stars and our life on earth? “You are as the stars are.”
A sunny day with the animals at Blesfontein
You are never alone as you wander around the farm. All kinds of animals come to greet you, beg for food or demand a cuddle. It all began with the big black pig. He knocked on our front door with his snout and demanded to come inside. His friend the chicken was perching on his back. Bacon and eggs! Sorry, we don’t serve “breakfast”. The chicken trotted around to inspect our room. I offered the pig an egg and he ate it all, including the shell.
After that two sheep popped in to say good morning. We spent the day with three friendly meer cats, horses, rabbits and even a tame zebra.
The most striking newcomers to the farm are the alpacas. They look like tall sheep but are covered in a lot more wool. They all have names, but did not respond when we called them. We watched the ostriches do love dances and wave their wings about. They pranced, trotted and pretended to be feather dusters. The day was warm and sunny and the fields were covered in spring flowers that had popped up after an early shower of rain the week before. We love taking pictures and all the cameras were out clicking and zooming into the gorgeous splashes of colour. The animals also got their share of the limelight.
A trip to the escarpment
Nicol and Marina take people on a 4 x 4 trip to the escarpment nearby so that visitors can view the sunset and verdant valley below. During the coldest months of the year they have to transport all their sheep to these lower regions to avoid the extreme cold. This time we decided to hike there. After feeding the huge friendly koi fish we set off with hats, a few apples and a bottle of water. We crossed fields and fields of flowers and eventually we reached the rocky cliffs. It is a beautiful place and one needs time to just sit on a rock and gaze out into the blue.
So if ever you plan to visit South Africa try to squeeze in this unique, special treat. Feel at home and chill out with the stars. Now you can watch a two-minute movie and share our experience.
A two-minute guide to the stars and animals of Sutherland by Sue Visser
Here is a quick two-minute movie to give you an idea of the countryside and the unique animal life at Blesbok farm. It is close to the Sutherland Observatory complex but do make sure you make your bookings in advance and arrive on time for the tour. The observatory on the farm is more casual, with a presentation given by Nichol at about 8pm. Don't expect much if it is a full moon! But you will enjoy the entertaining stories he tells.
Starstruck by Sutherland
Blesfontein is 27 km SW of Sutherland
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