Sutherland: Searching For The Stars

Nostalgia clouds and softens a memory of the first time I heard of Sutherland, a sleepy town too tiny to be called small. Of course, the man doing the telling was in himself an enigma, a learned man who had spent decades of his life looking towards the heavens. He worked in relative isolation and seemed to speak a language only he understood, but when he spoke of Sutherland I listened, marvelling at the unbridled enthusiasm in his voice. When he spoke of The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), two things became abundantly clear to me, astronomers are literal people (how else would you name the largest telescope in the Southern hemisphere?) and that I had to see this telescope for myself. I cannot adequately explain the pull or how South Africa housing this telescope inspired me, I just knew that one day I would make the journey. Many years later, Sutherland, my first taste of the Northern Cape would charm me with it’s startlingly clear yet biting cold days and unpretentious solitude. When I stood before SALT, the sun benevolent in a cloudless sky, I had to stop for a moment. It felt like magic. It felt like possibility.

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The Northern Cape!

Now, I’m not overly fond of the cold, I love the romance of a fire and a glass of red as much as the next person but when the car you’re driving beeps in indignation and indicates that the outside temperature is 4 degrees Celsius at the warmest part of the day, I tend to question my life choices. Yes, I did once meet a Canadian who faced an Arctic Winter with nothing but a smile, a bathrobe and flipflops, but my constitution is one that developed over warm winters during which my hometown would host an international surfing competition, so I’m slightly less equipped. Make no mistake, Sutherland is cold, so cold that I’ve managed to manufacture a “fact” about it being the coldest place in our country.  I could feel the weight of that “truth” in my bones, so I have no desire to modify it with what could constitute a fact. If you have any ideas about correcting me, you best leave those intentions well enough alone, thank you. Misery and melodrama aside, there is something beautiful about the cold. There is a brutal honesty about it, one that brings with it a startling clarity, an exaggeration of the brilliance within the barren landscape that surrounds you. A tree that grows on the Martian like landscape is not just a tree, it is a brave and noble seed that sprung from hostile beginnings to flourish in world that did not want or appreciate it. You cannot help but be inspired by it’s presence and as it stands alone, you stop for a moment to give thanks to it’s tenacity. You must marvel at it’s grandeur, it is all the more impressive in it’s isolation. Bright, clear days give way to a darkness that is absolute but not heavy, and night skies so adept at capturing an imagination that they seemed to be created for that sole purpose. Sutherland invites exploration, you look up towards the heavens, feel the crispness of a winter night and are driven to see more. You tug at your jacket to keep warm, but the night sky ignites something in you. All at once you are completely insignificant yet an incredible part of something much larger. And there is nothing you can do apart from grabbing hold of someone’s hand and marvel, revel in fact, at your insignificance.

 

I didn’t really expect much in terms of tourism at Sutherland (and even what little I did expect I was wrong about in any case). Besides, I had already convinced myself that I was taking the three and a half hour drive just to see the telescope. What I didn’t count on was having to fight off Swine Flu while visiting Sutherland in the middle of their coldest month of the year. We arrived at the SALT visitors centre in time for both the first tour and for me to feel incredibly sorry for myself. Not even my teddy bear/mutant cat named Guinea Bissau could bring cheer to my feverish mind (more on Guinea in another blog, I’m convinced he wants to take over the world but isn’t smart enough to do so). There was a point at which I felt like the cold was a personal affront to me, it mocked the frivolity of my layers and I took it rather personally that the weather could be so inconsiderate towards my suffering. I lasted a good ten minutes inside SALT before trying to curl myself into a ball and praying for death. After my imploring looks at Husband had failed and once our tour guide told us that the temperature inside the telescope was set to mimic the night temperature, I almost ran towards the warmth of the four degrees outside. Okay, I’m being dishonest here, there was no “almost”, I ran out of the telescope, emerging like a drowning woman gasping for air while (rather counter-intuitively) trying to wrap my hat around my face in the process (I know Swine Flu is incredibly glamourous, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

The tour cut short, we headed off to our bed and breakfast where I would find the bed, crawl into it with my boots still on and emerge a good six hours later. Strange is definitely a word I would use to describe this bed and breakfast, not just strange because there was a small dining table in the bathroom (where else would you put a dinning table?) but strange because it could have easily been the setting for a low budget horror movie and the darkness abound did nothing to quell my fears of vampires waiting to capitalise on this little (dark) town in the middle of nowhere. I guess this is the thing about Sutherland though, it is a small town and it can’t be bothered to convince you otherwise. You can find everything you need (as long as you don’t need a pharmacy or the trappings of a modern life) on one road quite simply because there is only one road in Sutherland. I love that the “Mall” consists of one shop and that the most popular restaurant is actually in a house that was converted to a B&B. Even better, said B&B is run by a woman who greets you as though you’ve just interrupted the most important thing she’s ever had to do AND you’ve tracked mud all over her favorite rug. The place is called The Blue Moon and I’m convinced the name reflects the frequency of the owner’s smiles or ability to be pleasant. We spent the better part of an hour there, I’m convinced that most of our time was spent standing in the hallway in that awkward moment between us greeting The Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and her showing us to our seats. Maybe it was because we had left The Blue Moon without a meal that we were able to hold out for the two and half hour wait at the next restaurant we went to. Just to be clear, it was a two and half hour wait from order to meal and by the time our meals are served, the owner looked exhausted and we felt like inconsiderate fools for still being there.

Small town, strange accommodation and shocking service aside, Sutherland has some sort of magic to it. I felt something akin to regret driving out of town. I wanted to stay longer. I wanted to spend a night under the stars. I wanted to brace myself against a Northern Cape winter and look up to the heavens in awe. And that feeling makes me believe that I’m not quite done with Sutherland yet, it makes me trust in another road trip towards the solace, the stars and the strangeness of Sutherland.