Stargazing is slowly becoming a very popular outdoor activity. Whether you are alone, with a group of friends or as a great family activity, there is always something to see in the mysterious night sky. Constellations as Orion or Scorpio, the famous Milky Way, finding south with the Southern Cross, the stars and planets are a great and fun way to observe the universe above.
South Africa is one of the top places for stargazing in the Southern hemisphere due to its geographical location and the amount of unpopulated places. The best place however for stargazing is in Sutherland, a tiny village in the middle of the Upper Karoo in South Africa.
Sutherland in South Africa
Sutherland was established in 1855 around the Dutch Reformed church. The area was perfect for sheep farming and large farms established themselves with Sutherland and it’s church and market town as a base. It is located 350 kilometres from Cape Town at an elevation of around 1550 meters.
Sutherland has a huge astronomical advantage; the area is pretty unpopulated with hardly any light pollution and very remote. Also due to its location at high altitude, combined with being in a semi desert area with low rainfall and cold temperatures, which makes that the night skies are clear and cloudless nearly year round. This makes Sutherland on of the best places for stargazing in the Southern hemisphere.
Sutherland is also known as being the coldest town in South Africa, with an average yearly temperature of 11.3 °C and an average annual minimum temperature of 2.8 °C.
The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and SALT
The SAAO is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa. Their headquarters are located in Cape Town but the main telescopes are built just outside the town of Sutherland on a hilltop with elevation of 1800 meters.
Their prime telescope is SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope, which is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.
A perfect place for stargazing
Having the largest telescope in the Southern hemisphere, Sutherland is attracting a fair number of visitors (mainly from South Africa) to enjoy sessions of stargazing. Currently the town has just over 2000 inhabitants and it’s slowly becoming a very popular getaway for mainly south african tourists. In the area one can find in total 32 guesthouses.
It is possible to visit the telescope and the visitors centre. Unfortunately when we were there, the tours were fully booked, so we only visited the visitors centre. It’s important to book in advance, since they are very strict in the number of visitors. But even if you don’t manage to get on a tour, the visitor centre is worth a detour. They explain the evolution of life on earth based on what happened in the sky. Very interesting!
Both day and night tours can be booked, although during the night tours, it is not possible to look through the telescopes, since they are only used for research purposes.
However, by far the best way to enjoy the night sky, observe the stars and get a good explanation about it all is at Sterland. Jurg Wagener offers nearly every day of the year stargazing sessions at the Sterland caravan park, just outside of Sutherland. And this is a unique experience.
Jurg Wagener has 5 telescopes available and shows you during a session of around 2 hours stars and constellations that are hardly visible with the naked eye.
The most breathtaking highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the observation of Saturn and its rings. Amazingly beautiful!
Furthermore Jurg Wagener takes you on a tour of the Jewel Box, where you can see stars in different colours, the Magelhahn clouds, and various other star blobs, as he calls it.
Sutherland SAAO facilities
You can choose between either fully guided tours twice a day, 6 days a week or hourly tours which only take place on Saturdays and Public holidays.
More practical information about prices, timetables and booking info on the SAAO website.
Sterland Stargazing with Jurg Wagener
Sterland offers stargazing sessions nearly every evening of the year, in both Afrikaans and English. Each session will last for about 2 hours.
More practical information one the Sterland website.
When visiting Sutherland in winter, make sure you have enough warm clothes with you as the temperature frequently drops well below zero °C at night.