Stargazing near Cape Town in Sutherland has been on my bucket list for about 10 years, can you believe it? A group of friends gifted me a stargazing weekend in Sutherland, which is the best spot for stargazing near Cape Town, for my 40th birthday only to ‘postpone’ it and of course it never happened. Then last weekend, this bucket list item of stargazing near Cape Town in Sutherland suddenly was ticked off my bucket list in the most epic way.
For one of Rosie’s school friends, Sutherland is their 2nd home. The parents, the wonderful Carolina and Kevin, work closely with S.A.L.T. ( = South African Large Telescope) and they were keen to share their passion for the stars, galaxies, moons and planets with all the other school families of their kids’ grade. How lucky can you get! We couldn’t have wished for more knowledgeable and passionate guides. Sutherland IS the best spot for stargazing near Cape Town.
Once I heard about this amazing trip to see the stars in Sutherland, I signed up Rosie and I to be part of this great stargazing tour near Cape Town with many of her school friends and parents.
So last Friday it was once again time to pack our car, stock up the cooler box, pack my warm jerseys from Peru and my Basotho blanket from Lesotho to go on an off the beaten track South African road trip to Sutherland, the coldest town in South Africa and best stargazing spot near Cape Town. Road tripping in South Africa is one of our favorite things to do. Read HERE about another South African Road trip we did to Krugerpark and Swaziland.
This time we were a group of 62 parents, kids, grand parents, teachers, friends and babies and not just Rosie and I. And we not only went stargazing in Sutherland. Community outreach, karaoke and an important history class were part of it too!
Keep on reading to find out more about Sutherland and this super memorable weekend we spend with great families.
Where is Sutherland? The best stargazing spot near Cape Town
Sutherland houses the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and of course this can’t be set up in just any place. To be able to study the galaxies and our skies, a place had to be found with no light pollution, a steady climate during the year of very clear skies and it needed to be high up to get as close as possible, Sutherland offers exactly that.
Sutherland is located in the Northern Cape about 4 hours drive from Cape Town. It is located in the Karoo which is a semi-desert. We saw the turn-off for the Tankwa Karoo which each year hosts ‘AfrikaBurn’.
You basically drive about 240 km straight on the N1 from Cape Town and turn left at the sign ‘Sutherland’. If you turn right you get to ‘Matjiesfontein’ which we visited on our way back.
From the turn of off the N1 it is about 100 km until you get to the town of Sutherland. Send out your last message before heading onto this road because the next 100 km you will not have cell phone reception. See below the map of this pretty straight forward off the beaten track South African Road trip.
Some history and facts and figures of Sutherland
Sutherland is a small town with about 4.500 inhabitants. There are 2 public schools, a primary school and a high school. Most people from Sutherland are descendants of the Khoisan. Under Apartheid they were classified as ‘coloured’. Like most places in South Africa, Apartheid is still very visible where white people live mostly in the well off areas and people of color live in the less resourced areas. Unemployment in Sutherland is high and a history of alcoholism remains a challenge. The economy mainly consists of sheep farming and since 2006, Sutherland is focusing on developing as a tourist destination which has resulted in a variety of accommodation options.
The attraction of Sutherland is the South African Astronomical Observatory which hosts the South African Large Telescope. This is situated 18 km out of town. SAAO has developed a program of activities to enhance education and community development.
Our school visit stargazing tour to Sutherland was the first one that SAAO hosted and it included a great afternoon of meeting the kids of Grade 1 of the public school as well as a ‘braai’ with the teachers in the evening. They hope to attract many more visits of schools who are looking for a fantastic star gazing tour near Cape Town and helping the local community through an outreach program.
Where to stay when you go stargazing in Sutherland?
Sutherland offers a few basic but good accommodation options. Since we were such a big group, the only option for us to all stay together was the Sutherland Hotel which offers about 25 rooms, a bar, a dining room, a lounge with a cosy fire place and a braai area outside. Rooms are pretty basic but most importantly have HOT showers and electric blankets which is absolutely necessary. The temperature was a few degrees below 0 during the night. And like in any other hotel in South Africa, there is no central heating, nor double glazed windows so the nights are COLD, I mean COOOOOLLLLLDDD! Be prepared for this! I had brought my Basotho blanket as well and I wore a beanie during the night because my head and face was simply too cold. Rosie slept like a Rose, as always…
The folks of the Sutherland Hotel are super friendly and were very organised. They didn’t blink an eye when 32 kids were using the floor of the dining room as a big slide and just kept the food orders coming.
The Sutherland Hotel is a perfect base for a group accommodation in Sutherland. The web site is www.sutherlandhotel.co.za through which you can contact them.
The following 2 were recommended to me. Friends of mine stayed in self-catering cottages, The Perlman House, which they really enjoyed. They don’t have a web site but through the link you will get to the booking.com site and it looks really pretty. It is situated almost next to the Sutherland Hotel.
Check out rates and availability for The Perlman House, HERE!
Another colleague from the travel industry stayed at The Blue Moon which they really enjoyed. It offers free WiFi and has an onsite restaurant as well. The hosts are very helpful in recommending what to do in the area.
Check out info and rates for The Blue Moon, HERE!
So these are 3 types of accommodation in Sutherland which we can recommend. There are several other ones in case these 3 are not available. Sutherland tends to get booked out over long weekends so we do recommend that you make bookings in advance. The next town is 100 km away remember…
Since a couple of months there’s a supermarket in Sutherland which covers your basic needs. In case you have special diets or allergies, I would recommend you bring supplies with you.
Things to do in Sutherland with kids
Our visit to Sutherland was organised with Rosie’s School, Grade 1 parents and teachers. We were so lucky that all we needed to do was to sign up and rock up and all the organising was done.
The first night, the Friday night everyone arrived between 5 and 8 pm and food was ordered upon check-in. The area of Sutherland, The Karoo, is famous for the delicious Karoo lamb so we highly recommend that you order one of the lamb dishes. I ordered the lamb chops for Rosie and me which was good but I had a bit of food envy when I saw the lamb shanks. I will certainly order that next time in case I visit Sutherland again.
A lot of the guesthouses have telescopes for their guests so it will be easy to watch the stars at night from your guesthouse. It is June which is considered winter in South Africa so the sun sets early and by 8 pm you can watch the stars. It was a clear night and the moon was very small which makes for an ideal night to go stargazing in Sutherland.
Friday night is also Karaoke night at the Sutherland Hotel which some of the parents enjoyed very much. The bar at the Sutherland Hotel is a popular place for the locals so it will sometimes make for interesting conversations.
Saturday morning we drove up to the visitors centre of the South African Astronomical Observatory which is located about 18 km from Sutherland. We had a tour of the visitor centre by Kevin with many explanations about the planets, the galaxies and stars and how it all became to be. There was a fun photo booth where some of us took pictures on Mars or the Moon. There was also a skeleton of a dinosaur, a meteorite and many other interesting things to do and see.
After this we drove a bit further up to the large telescope where we learned more about this amazing project. It is a collaboration of partners from South Africa, Poland, U.S., Poland, Germany, U.K. and India. Usually no kids are allowed inside the S.A.L.T. but our group was granted special access. Of course the children needed to be briefed to not touch anything which to all our surprise went pretty well. I guess they were all just mesmerised, like all of us, of the enormity of the telescope and how it operates.
If you go to the SALT web site HERE, you can find out about tours and visiting hours. NOTE: at night the research area is not accessible. If you book a night tour, you will visit the visitors centre and close by the telescopes are set up.
After our very informative and interesting morning, we went back down to Sutherland where we were going to meet the Grade 1 kids of the public primary school in Sutherland. The community centre was made available for this and we had brought hot dogs for everyone to enjoy for lunch.
Activities included the painting of a wall, ice breakers and ball games as well as singing songs with each other. The Sutherland kids sang a few songs, then the kids from the French school sang a few under the guidance of Myriam. The last song they sang the South African National Anthem together.
After lunch we went for stroll across the road up the mountain to get a better look of the entire town of Sutherland. We learned about the Apartheid history and how the ‘coloured’ community was moved 2 x during those years. The whole area was littered with pieces of glasses that were left after the houses were demolished. Kevin pointed out where the well off area of the White population is and then where the ‘Coloured’ community was moved to which was much less resourced. Apartheid is abolished. However in the lives of many people not much has changed when it comes to having access to quality education and job opportunities.
Kevin and Carolina explained that during Apartheid they could have never been a couple because of the different colors of their skin. Just like Rosie and I are a family now. This would not have been possible during Apartheid. Luckily this horrible system is now no longer law and we can be friends and hang out with anybody, no matter what their skin color is or their background. We should always be reminded that we are all humans and we are all unique in our own way but no one is better than the other one. Skin color doesn’t define intelligence.
Wow! That was an amazing morning and afternoon and now we could rest and chill for a bit. I went back to our room and just crawled under the blankets. Rosie played with her friends.
From about 5 pm we were back at the community centre to meet the teachers of the primary school and enjoy a braai together. It ended up being a dance event where some of the kids showed off their incredible dance moves. Some completely in trance! We also handed over the donations to the teachers which they can divide amongst the children. The teachers know best what each kid needs.
If you want to give donations to an organisation it is always best not to give it directly to the children but rather to a person with authority who can hand it out to them in a responsible and respectful way. I’ve seen on my travels when I was guiding where tourists gave a few pens directly to the children because they wanted the ‘cute picture’ and didn’t hear what I had explained to them.Of course there weren’t enough pens for all kids which then resulted that the kids were fighting over the few pens. This sadly is poverty. Where a pen can mean the world to a child. It is hard to understand for us where we have never been in such a situation so we need to be aware of this. This as a side note..
It was now time to head back up to the SAAO. It was a perfectly clear night with a small moon which meant that it was perfect to watch stars and planets from the telescopes at the visitors centre. We all got back into our cars and drove the 18 km up the hill. The stars were amazing of course. 2 big telescopes are set up outside of the visitors centre. Although it was freeeeezing we all wanted to see Jupiter surrounded by 4 moons and Saturn. We also saw 2 stars that were circling around each other. The viewing we had to do quickly because we were so many and we were all getting a bit cold. Nevertheless, it was super special to be up there and watch these planets and stars.
Back at the hotel we quickly put our kids in bed which was a piece of cake after such a busy day and then I headed back to the fire in the lounge for a glass and to heat up a bit.
The next morning we all left at our own times after breakfast and many of us still met up at Matjiesfontein on the way back. The Lord Milner is the biggest landmark in tiny Matjiesfontein, a one street town with all historical buildings and a stop for the super luxurious train Rovos Rail.
Really a weekend full of great memories that we will often think back of!
If you would like to organise a school trip to Sutherland with your kids’ school, please do get in touch with me via email and I will put you in touch with Kevin and Anthony who organised the weekend entirely.