Sutherland: shooting stars, chained dogs and a telescope

With its population of 2 840 inhabitants and its freezing cold temperatures, Vanessa Smeets explores a different side to Sutherland in the Northern Cape, through its fascination with weird names, chained dogs and famous telescope.


lost child

CHILD's PLAY: Children in Sutherland's township are often found wondering alone. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I’ve known about Sutherland’s existence since I was a little girl, when my mom would comment about each city at the end of the news, during the weather. “I feel sorry for those Sutherland people. It’s cold all year there,” she would repeat season after season.

So, when our class was told we were to go there for a short weekend of star-gazing, I felt a little apprehensive. Unfortunately, my warmest clothes had already been sent back to Pretoria. Thus, my duvet and pillow were my first priorities.

After a delicious ‘high tea’ of scones, koeksisters and cookies in Matjiesfontein, my Journalism class and I drive for another hour and a half to Sutherland.

As we arrive, searching aimlessly for the Sutherland Hotel, I’m fascinated by the original names around each corner: “Jupiter’s Café,” “Galaxy World,” “Sterland,” “Saturn’s rings” and “Shooting stars.” It’s like being on our own galaxy quest. My friend Jean and I make a game up of who can spot the next most interesting name. We get tired after the thirtieth one.

Each street looks exactly like the next one: white, dusty and abandoned. It’s like a scene straight out of the X-Files. The opening song resounds in my head the entire afternoon.

The tired faces we see now and then look different to the ones in Stellenbosch. People here don’t look stressed, worried or anxious about getting somewhere. They carry on walking in the middle of the streets, alien-like in their expressions. We smile and wave, but most do not respond. The few that do acknowledge us, come right against the windows.

“Who are you looking for? Who do you work for?” says one man with a missing tooth. His hand touches the car just slightly, making you wonder if he’ll open the car door. We tell him we’re looking for him. “How do you know me?” he asks confused. We smile and tell him we’re just exploring. He walks away, still as confused. Obviously, there can’t be much to explore in Sutherland…

As Jean and I walk into the liquor store, the owner stares at us with owl-like eyes: large and dark. He never looks us in the eye and blinks very slowly.

SALT OF THE EARTH: The South African Large Telescope's beauty lies in her immense size and power.

“Will that be all?” he says, rustling a plastic bag that is too small for our bottle. “Gosh…it’s all I have.” He forces the bottle inside. The bag tears a little. “There…there…” He says to us, or the bag; I’m not quite sure. He expects us to leave then, but I turn around out of curiosity. “Is this really the coldest town?” I ask, trying to make chit-chat, see his reaction and testing if he’ll blink faster. He stutters, grunts and then quickly replies: “No… you are mistaken, girl. Try Grahamstown.” I smile and thank him. He doesn’t respond.

It’s finally time for the ‘star of our excursion:’ SALT (the South African Large Telescope). I’ve read about her in books, newspapers and friends’ Facebook entries and here she finally is. Immense, grey and serene.

Thousands flock to her each year and yet, as she stands there, you begin to ask yourself why… Well, Sutherland’s arid climate, small population and remote location 1 450 metres above sea level, give it one of the clearest night skies in the world. Unfortunately, we aren’t given the chance to touch or use SALT, the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. We arrive late and are hurried back to our cars.

SALT satellites

GOING NOWHERE SLOWLY: SALT is surrounded by various other satellites, with the white ones being owned by South Africa.

The freezing night temperatures turn our excited class into a lazy bunch. That night, we look at the stars from behind our hotel windows. And yet, they sparkle brightly over the dead town. There’s something mystical about this place…

That night, I dream about the chained dogs I saw that day in Sutherland’s township. Some sat on cardboard boxes or near doll houses, waiting for their owners to return. Most of them had their hair mangled around chains attached to cars, racing wildly as they saw us, mistaking us for their owners.

I also dream of the children I saw playing in the streets with toys made by their own hands. A little boy falls over his tin car and laughs. Another beats his friend at a spinning top game. I see the little girl with mucus running down onto her lip. Her brother gently wipes it as he sees the camera. I hear the dogs howling my name again. I wake up in a sweat. Sutherland will haunt me.

The trip back is an interesting collection of all seasons. There is rain, wind, sun, thunderstorms, waterfalls and rainbows as we head home.

The howling in my head has stopped and is replaced by hooting taxis and the shouting of Bergies walking in the streets of Stellenbosch. What a comforting welcome to the land of civilization…

Interesting facts:
• Sutherland is home to the endangered Riverine Rabbit.
• The average yearly temperature is 10, 6C and an average minimum yearly temperature of 3,4C.
• The coldest recorded temperature recorded was -16,4C on July 12, 2003.
• Sutherland is the second coldest place in South Africa, after Buffelsfontein in the Western Cape.

PUPPY PRISON: Dogs are often found chained to various objects.


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