The directions to Sutherland couldn’t be easier: take the N1 from Cape Town and turn left at Matjiesfontein. That’s it. Sheila, my Virgo companion, is convinced that there has to be more to a five-hour journey, so she invests in not one but two maps, neither of which is required.
Sutherland is a dry, undeveloped town. The church steeple dominates the skyline and although there are several guest houses offering accommodation, the wide roads are empty and quiet, even on a Saturday morning.
Activity is centred at the co-op, where the locals do their meagre shopping. Goods are expensive here, since everything must be trucked in from Worcester. Fruit and vegetables come in once a week, on a Wednesday, and what is on offer in the groentewinkel are three sacks of potatoes, a few bags of apples and grapes, some over-ripe bananas and a single rubbery cauliflower, browning behind glass.
The people swarming around the co-op look dispirited and downtrodden. There is evidence of foetal alcohol syndrome in many of the children’s faces. We see a frail woman squatting on the steps with a quart-sized beer bottle in her hand, a toddler by her side and a swaddled baby in the crook of her arm. The men look rough and scarred. They drink and shout at each other under the dusty trees.
What else is there to do? There doesn’t seem to be anything happening here; there is a school, but are there any prospects for its scrawny, barefoot pupils?
Sutherland’s raison d’etre, of course, is the South African Astronomical Observatory, 20km out of town. My astronomer friend, Patrick, does a stint there from time to time, so Sheila and I have the rare privilege of a private tour and stargazing opportunity.
Towards evening we drive up to the observatory, built high on a hill, with uninterrupted views in all directions. As the sun sets the shadow cast by the earth throws a blue band on to the horizon. We’ve been told that the best way to appreciate this phenomenon is upside down, so there we are, on top of the world, bending over with our heads between our knees.
There are a surprising number of telescopes, each housed in its own building, dotted around the stony plateau. But the main attraction in this strange, lunar-like landscape is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). Built in 2000, it’s the biggest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere; a towering silo standing against the deepening sky.
Patrick works inside a neighbouring structure that looks like an oversized metal can. His office is heated and made homely by the classical music he plays as he calibrates measurements in front of a bank of five computers, setting the telescope to focus on a remote binary star that is his current interest. Sheila asks if it has a name and he rattles off, ‘SDDS 3463429 … ‘ We think he is making it up, but he’s not.
Beyond the office door is the cold, cavernous space containing the telescope. We watch, awestruck, as the heavy mechanism holding a one-metre diameter mirror starts to hum and tilt into position. Simultaneously, the dome far above begins to rotate.
To the outsider, there is something massive and mysterious about this work of tracking the skies. It’s a fascinating, out-of-this-world realm that Patrick and his colleagues are steeped in, but it’s a lonely business to be in the middle of nowhere, pushing on right through the night if the weather is clear, directing the instruments’ gaze out into the vastness of space.
Occasionally, the astronomers will visit each other for a coffee break, venturing out into the dark with nothing but a bobbing red miner’s lamp to light their way from building to building. If anyone should need to drive down the hill, the rule is flashing hazards only, no headlights.
The big telescope can be left to do its thing for a while, so we wrap up warmly and go outside with a small portable one that we can actually look through.
The darkness is now intense. There’s no light filtering from anywhere, so there are no shadows, no washed-out tones of grey or charcoal. The night is solid black, but oh my goodness, overhead the sky is dazzling. Millions and millions of stars crowd the heavens; more than you can imagine. I look for easy-to-spot Orion, but I can’t find it; it’s familiar shape is lost in a sea of twinkling lights.
Patrick knows where it is, of course, and he focuses on a cluster of new stars being born in the constellation. We look at Saturn and our at closest galaxy, Andromeda. We gaze, transfixed, at a globular cluster, 14 billion years old, on the outskirts of our galaxy. We feel very small, very humbled, in the presence of all this grandeur. Out there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of planets around stars like our sun; planets that could theoretically support life. The implications are mind boggling; the scale and the mystery overwhelming.
It’s time to leave Patrick to get on with his work. He has a ‘lunch’ box to sustain him through the night, and we’ve added a few treats to make it more interesting. We feel apologetic starting the car; the noise of the engine seems so out of place. And then we are calling our goodbyes and lurching off into the darkness, our hazards giving us intermittent moments of light as we crawl down the hill. A long-legged hare is illuminated in snatches as it dashes in zig-zag panic ahead of us.
Sheila gets us safely to the gate and the zone where we can switch on our lights for the drive back to our B&B in town, where motorbikes and the sound of carousing from a nearby drinking hole keep us awake for a long time. Such earthly, tethered sounds, so harsh in contrast to the magnificent silence we have just witnessed.
In the morning we have a slap-up breakfast and then drive down the road to Matjiesfontein and turn right. We feel quite different about Sutherland as we leave. It may be dull and dry, but we agree that it’s actually one of the best places we’ve been.