SALT and the SAAOEnquire Now
20km from Sutherland
+27 23 571 2436 www.saao.ac.za/about/visting/sutherland
There’s been a lot of hype about SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) and rightly as it is one of the world’s largest telescopes. Constructed on a flat hilltop 18 kilometres from Sutherland, SALT is just one of a number of telescopes that make up the South African Astronomical Observatory.
Such hi-tech structures in the barren landscape of the Karoo gives an otherworldly feel, which in itself creates a futuristic atmosphere. You don’t have to be an astronomer to be able to visit the installation. Fortunately, there’s a well-developed programme for tourists allowing pre-booked day or night tours. Just be aware that under no circumstances do tourists get to look through SALT, which is fair enough considering it’s an immensely technical and very expensive (US$20-million) piece of equipment.
It is ultra-sensitive too and could detect the flicker of a candle flame on the moon. During the day, visitors join a guided tour of the observatory, including SALT, which is immensely interesting even though you can’t look through any of the telescopes.
At night you don’t visit the observatory itself because, understandably, it is in use - but you do get to view interesting objects in the sky through two dedicated visitor telescopes next to the visitor centre below the observatory.
Tour times are weekdays at 10.30am and 2.30pm, and Saturdays at 11.30am and 2.30pm, and there are four night tours every week. Tours are very reasonably priced. Booking is essential.
Three hours north of Cape Town, along the N7, lies Namaqualand, an area well known for its spectacular wild-flower displays in spring. However, it also encompasses the sublime mountain desert of the Richtersveld in the far north, and the wild and undeveloped coastline on to which the Atlantic Ocean breaks. To the east, from the heights of the Bokkeveld and Kamiesberg Mountains, the vast expanse of Bushmanland rolls, unbroken, to the horizon.
Because of the region’s striking floral displays it is often referred to as the ‘fields of dreams’. This description of Namaqualand may seem a tad optimistic during summer when the barren earth slumbers, waterless, beneath a sizzling sun. But come spring, the turnaround is nothing short of miraculous.
What makes this natural display stand out above any other is that Namaqualand is essentially a desert (50 - 400mm annual rainfall). However, unlike the paucity associated with most arid areas, Namaqualand boasts an abundance of more than 4 000 plant species, and no other desert in the world puts on a spring spectacle like this one.
The region is sparsely populated and its towns are small and spread out. Springbok, on the N7, is the biggest town in the region and is regarded as Namaqualand’s capital. It is a busy town and an important flower-viewing centre in spring, with the Goegap Nature Reserve nearby. Just south is the more laid back Kamieskroon and the increasingly popular Namaqua National Park. Along the coast, where diamonds are still mined in the sand and on the ocean floor, lie Port Nolloth, Kleinzee and Hondeklipbaai. This coastline is known as the Diamond Coast. Moving inland to the plateau above the Bokkeveld Mountains, Nieuwoudtville boasts more species of bulb plants than anywhere else on earth, and the area around Calvinia is rich in floral diversity.
Further east, Sutherland perches atop the Roggeveld Mountains and is well known as the coldest town in the country. It is home to the South African Astronomical Observatory and SALT (Southern African large telescope). In the far east of the region near Fraserburg the Gansfontein Palaeosurface takes visitors way back in time.
The landscape is characterised by granite domes and mountain ranges, long lonely roads and winding passes. In the Richtersveld and the Kamiesberg Mountains the Nama people follow a cultural way of life little influenced by modernity. Here their traditional matjieshuis (reed hut) and perhaps even the kokerboomhuis (quiver tree houses) can be seen.
Look out for
Flower viewing - during spring, flower viewing opportunities are diverse.
The Richtersveld in the far north contains the highest botanical diversity and rates of endemic species of any arid region on earth and supports more succulent flora than anywhere else in the world.
The Coast has many places where flowers grow literally onto the beaches of the rugged, unspoilt shore. The best displays are seen while driving along the coastal plain (called the strandveld) south of the diamond-mining town of Kleinzee, and around Hondeklipbaai.
Along the N7 gravel backroads loop into the mountains and farmlands providing plenty of day-drive opportunities. Near Springbok the Goegap Nature Reserve is often blanketed with petals. Further south near Kamieskroon is the Namaqua National Park with a large flower section, in what was formerly called the Skilpad Nature Reserve.
The Bokkeveld plateau - Nieuwoudtville and the surrounding area have more species of bulb plants than anywhere else on earth, adding another dimension to the flower spectacle. Further east along R27, Calvinia stands at the foot of the Hantam Mountains and its Akkerendam Nature Reserve is good for a drive or a walk.
Namaqua National Park - 22km from Kamieskroon is a developing park, which has grown to a present extent of 141 000ha including a stretch of coast between the Spoeg and Groen Rivers. The peak visitor season in the park is during the spring flower displays but any time of year is good for a drive around to see re-introduced game, take up the 4x4 challenge, or just enjoy the scenery. The park has few facilities, but they do have four fully equipped self-catering chalets for overnight visitors, all with electricity, indoor fireplace, and outdoor braai. Hikers can undertake two trails of 2 and 3 hours respectively.
The Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in the far north of Namaqualand is recommended for those who enjoy the bumps and grinds of off-road driving. The mountain desert scenery is sublime in its starkness and there are views that really leave one breathless. It is joined to the Namibian side by a pont over the Orange River at Sendelingsdrift. There are two wilderness camps and a number of campsites with very basic facilities.
The Richtersveld Community Conservancy - Adjoining the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park to the south is the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, a designated World Heritage Site. This incorporates the Nama settlements of Lekkersing, Eksteenfontein, Kuboes, and Sanddrift. It is one of only 34 biodiversity hotspots worldwide as recognised by Conservation International, and one of only two existing in a desert.
Tankwa Karoo National Park - This desert park is accessed off the R355, which runs south from Calvinia towards Ceres. It straddles the boundary between the Northern Cape and Western Cape and incorporates some of the Roggeveld Mountains and the arid low-lying areas to the south. At 130 000ha it covers a vast area of the succulent Karoo. Accommodation is in original farmhouses, purpose-built cottages and bush campsites that have no facilities.
Observatory - Outside Sutherland the South African Astronomical Observatory is home to a number of big telescopes. Guided day and night tours can be undertaken to the facility.
Palaeo surface - 5km from Fraserburg there are impressively clear trackways of large, four-footed, five-toed mammalian reptiles in the fossilised mud. The prints are of a Bradysaurus that passed that way approximately 190-million years ago.