Ever since sleeping under the milky way on the banks of the Orange River (this sounds like the start of a Wilbur Smith novel), 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!