Ever since sleeping under the milky way on the banks of the Orange River, I have wanted to visit Sutherland to see the stars. Unexpectedly, just before leaving South Africa, the chance arrived to drive from Cape Town to Sutherland. At 4h45 mins it’s not a long drive along the N1 (shorter than the 6 hour stretch to Plett) but fill up with petrol before you leave! We took the drive slowly so we could appreciate the small towns, the dramatic shift from the lush Western Cape fields to the desolate Northern Cape veld and in the hope of finding an accessible yet photogenic windmill. Show me a person who hasn’t stopped in the Northern Cape to photograph a windmill and I will show you a liar.
Veldskoen Padstal, Hex River Valley
There is an awesome padstal on the N1, just outside the gorgeous Hex River Valey, called Veldskoen Padstal which has everything you would expect including wine, dried fruits, Ouma’s soetkoekies and a very cute coffee shop. The Hex River Valley is definitely a highlight of the route and is breathtaking to look at, especially when the surrounding mountains are playing home to a light dusting of snow. I’ve been working a lot with a South African travel client lately – can you tell?
Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein
Matjiesfontein is the last quaint town you’ll stumble upon on the drive up and it was by far my favourite. It’s tiny, has a great coffee shop, aptly named The Coffee House, and is home to a relatively accessible windmill. If overnighting there, I recommend staying at The Lord Milner hotel – it looks exquisite and despite never staying there, I have only heard good things. I may have taken the windmill quest to the limit when we stopped in Matjiesfontein, as I insisted walking across a veld, along some train tracks (ignoring all warning signs) and clambering over a barbed wire fence to the amusement of boyfriend and two nearby donkeys, in an attempt to find a photogenic angle.
An accessible windmill in the Northern Cape!
After Matjiesfontein, the last stretch of the drive is full of Northern Cape farms, lonely windmills and one beautiful rocky pass dotted with sheep. If you didn’t fill up before you left and now need petrol en-route, you can stop at the Petroport where the N1 passes Touws River. This is the last place you’ll be able to get petrol.We soon spotted SALT and the other telescopes in the distance and realised we were close. For those who don’t know, Sutherland is home to some pretty high-powered telescopes, including SALT, which rather creatively stands for South African Large Telescope. On driving into the town, the first thing I noticed was how close the clouds were. On getting out of the car, the second thing I noticed was how cold it was. Dress warm – they’re not lying when they say it’s the coldest place in South Africa.
We had 2 days in the town and in order to avoid boring you with the details – I’ll give you the highlights package. After checking in at Primrose Cottage – a cute little BnB with lovely hosts Denise and David, who helped us with suggestions of places to eat and things to do – we explored the little town. I can’t put into words how quiet this town it. It is so quiet in Sutherland, that if you whisper on the east side of town, someone will hear you on the west side. It’s even quieter than Oranjemund. There were no cars, no people, most of the shops were shut and all you could hear was the occasional creak of a garden windmill. It was a Saturday and the only shop (to our knowledge) that is open on a Saturday is the shoprite – which was a lifesaver. Another important thing is that everything shuts down on a Sunday – even the petrol garage is only open for an hour.
Perlman House – great for dinner!
Our host Denise, recommended Perlman House (pictured above) for dinner and it was perfect. It’s on the main road and you can’t miss the red roof. Warm country soups, right by the fire with a glass of red – you can’t go wrong! We had booked a telescope tour that night, but as the weather was very poor, it was cancelled. You need to book your spot on the tour in advance and you can do so by calling SAAO or booking online. You can find all the details here.
The Moon – taken with telescope and iPhone
Lucky enough we were able to get a spot on the Sterland Stargazing session the following night. Thanks Denise! The stargazing is an amazing experience led by Jurg Wagener with the help of his telescopes. Jurg is scarily knowledgeable and by the end of the 2 hour session, you’ll be able to find South using the stars, identify Scorpio and wax lyrical on Alpha Centauri. He’ll also help you take a photo of the moon with your smartphone. Listen, before you go anywhere after nightfall – dress yourself in every item of clothing you own. Bring your beanies, your gloves and your thermal underwear because after two hours standing outside in the Northern Cape, parts of you will start falling off. Sigh, I miss that baby toe.
There are quite a few things to do in and around Sutherland if stars and telescopes aren’t your thing. There are some beautiful nearby drives and hikes, as well as a riding centre and wherever you stay will be able to recommend them all. There are also some great photo walks you can take around the tiny town – the cemetery is a great starting point . I went to see the stars, satellites and planets and they were everything I expected and more. This town is peace and quiet personified and the stars are so close that you can almost pluck them out the sky. Primrose Cottage was the perfect spot to stay, but if you’re after something a little bigger, give Skitterland a try.
If you’ve always wanted to take the trip, just go already – it’s worth it!
And rest assured, if you’ve never seen a falling star in your life, you will see one in Sutherland!
Picnic Spot on the scenic drive
After a police inspection, a border crossing over the narrowest bridge in existence and killing time at Namibian immigration reading posters advising against bat consumption (TIA) – we were in Oranjemund. It had been a long, albeit beautiful drive from Cape Town to Namibia and Dad and I were happy to finally see the Orange River. If you haven’t paddled the Orange River, you need to add a trip to your lifetime bucket list – it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Gemsbok run this town
This was my first time in Oranjemund – a town that exists purely to serve the diamond industry. I’d been told to expect a small, lush oasis where gemsbok roamed the streets, the golf course and caused general mayhem if they got into your garden. Driving along the river and past the salt flats, we spied the fertile patch of green trees and manicured lawns in the middle of the Namibian desert, that is Oranjemund. I had laughed off the gemsbok talk, so you can imagine the surprise when we turned into town and found the above welcoming committee. The tales were true, around every street corner and upon every grassy patch, you could expect to find a sleepy-eyed gemsbok dozing in the sunshine. Apparently they pop into the Spar from time to time to check out the specials, or so the locals said.
Small town streets, Oranjemund, Namibia
We spent 3 days in Oranjemund and it was absolute bliss. It’s so quiet in that town, that you can hear a pin drop in Zimbabwe. The air is so pure and you find yourself so relaxed that you’re climbing into bed at 8.30pm and having some of the best sleep of your life. Days are made up of morning tea, walks on the giant sand dune, watching a family of gemsbok frolic in the desert, tracking jackals on the golf course (found one) and laughingly looking for diamonds on the beach.
Hiking to the giant sand dune
We had several days and it is a tiny town, so I was able to take in most of the Oranjemund tourist attractions. These include the sand dune (a quick hike, but take water), the golf course (home to Oranjemund’s wildlife), the lake, the town museum (great exhibits on the history of the town and the diamond trade) and the beach.
On the way to the river mouth
The town is also home to stories about hopeful diamond prospectors like the man who moved in and started digging up his garage floor in an effort to find the next Cullinan. I admit, walking along the beach, even I got a touch of diamond fever – especially on hearing that the diamond boats weren’t able to process diamonds over a certain size, so unceremoniously threw them back into the ocean. Naturally I imagined tons of giant diamonds floating around the ocean with nowhere to call home. Halfway along the beach however, we realised we had no idea what a rough, uncut diamond looked like and abandoned the hunt.
Scenes from the beach. Sadly no diamonds, only trees
I loved visiting this small, sleepy diamond town and it was the perfect way to end off a crazy 12 months of work. The people are friendly, the gemsbok are like the local town watch and it’s incredibly peaceful. The diamond history is interesting and everyone has a story to tell about the quaint mining town. The security in that area is understandably tight, which means you need an invitation from a town resident in order to visit.
If you can wangle an invite, or the chance ever comes to visit Oranjemund, take a roadtrip up and go for it!
In September, I took a drive on the N7 to Namibia’s diamond town, Oranjemund. It was a brilliant route and I’ve been meaning to share it, but a crazy travel schedule has complicated things. I left Cape Town on the 30th September and October saw me in Germany, Luxembourg, France and Greece, November saw me in England and Scotland, and now things have finally calmed down. Also it’s snowing outside, so today seemed like a good day for a cup of tea and a bit of a blog. On the 15th September, armed with a fresh flask of tea from my roommate, I got an early start and hit the N7 round about 6am. It was a gloomy day and the first 3 hours of the drive took place in complete fog. Clearly the weather hadn’t got my memo about the intended photo stops. However, as I climbed higher and higher up Piekeniers Kloof Pass, the fog finally lifted and I was greeted with the most spectacular view.
On through Citrusdal (stopping for pockets of oranges), past the orange farms and alongside the Olifantsrivier I drove. There were tons of stop and gos from Citrusdal onwards, so I got to truly appreciate that river. Roadworks aside, it’s a beautiful part of the country and with a naartjie in one hand and a camera in the other, there are worse places to be stuck. On through the roadworks and past the little citrus valleys I went, round the magnificent Clanwilliam dam to finally arrive in Vanrhynsdorp to meet up with my Dad.
If ever you need accommodation in Vanrhynsdorp, take a look at The Vanrhynsdorp Guesthouse. The hosts are lovely, the bath tubs are huge and it’s surrounded by poppies and desert daisies. Vanrhynsdorp is a great stayover point if you’re driving from Cape Town to Namibia. If you’re in Vanrhynsdorp for dinner, I’d recommend a bite to eat at the Zuid Afrikaanse Restaurant (ZAR) which you can find in the local caravan park (do not let this put you off).
Leaving Vanrhynsdorp and crossing the Northern Cape border, we started getting into flower territory. The Namakwa flowers are on show from July to September and August is the so-called best month to visit. Despite driving through on the very last day of Namakwa flower season (our timing is truly superb), we were able to catch some beautiful vistas. Violent purple, orange, yellow and red hues decorated the roadside and the surrounding desert landscape. It’s an incredibly dramatic contrast to see the bright desert flowers, against the dry, barren plains of the Northern Cape. I hope to one day go back and experience the flowers in full bloom.
There are a host of small towns dotted along the N7 and we chose to visit Garies, Kamieskroon and Springbok – as we drove upwards through the Northern Cape, so did the temperature gauge. There is something special about hot Karoo days. Those days where you climb out the car and immediately feel the heat dancing on your skin, hear the murmur of the beetles in a nearby tree and the smell of the desert lingers in the air.
The gift shop at Garies, an unexpected treasure trove of crazy cat paraphernalia and neon knitted cardies, offers up tasty toasted sandwiches and a newly-installed, coin-activated lock on the toilet that proves to be a lot harder to operate than one might think. Kamieskroon, easily the tiniest town in Southern Africa, consists of a street, a right turn, a petrol pump and a tourist office board that pointed towards the hills. These towns are tranquil gems tucked away from the noise of city living – they offer a taste of small town life and often a cellphone-reception free existence. Up through O’Kiep and then a right turn at Steinkopf onto the R382 and we left the flowers behind. There is a beautiful pass along this route that looks out over miles of desert, but apart from the pass, it’s one long stretch of straight road up to Port Nolloth. It’s a blur of telephone wires, crows nests, desertscapes and the odd windmill. Once you hit Port Nolloth, you catch your first glimpse of the sea and then it’s another long straight road and a haze of diamond mines, sandy coastline and exhausted sand mounds up to the Orange River – the natural border separating South Africa and Namibia.
The last hour can get a bit monotonous, but it’s a beautiful route through the Northern and Western Cape. Driving at night can be a bit tricky as there are no roadside lights, so be prepared for this. I’d recommend taking the trip over two days (if not more) and aim for flower season if you can.