The general response to our statement that we were spending the night in Sutherland was, “oh I’ve always wanted to go” or “flip it’s going to be so hot/cold there”. While I understand that it’s a pretty long drive from anywhere in South Africa, I want to urge you to make a plan to visit it at least once in your life.
My sister-in-law lives in London and she has missed seeing stars since moving there and, if you want to see all the celestial bodies in all their glory, Sutherland is the place you want to visit. I mean, it is the home of SALT and the Square Kilometer Array so it’s fairly obvious what Sutherland’s “selling point” is.
We left home at about 6am on Saturday on clear, quiet roads and cool fresh air and the kids were happy to entertain themselves in the backseat for the first 80 kilometers or so. When they started bickering we pulled into a garage in De Doorns where we had a toilet break and went to see if the bakery had taken anything fresh out of the oven recently. As it was 7:30am it was too early so we carried on a little further. I’d heard about Veldskoen padstal but I was expecting it to appear later in the trip. As a result it caught me unawares as we left De Doorns and zoomed past too quickly to stop. I know where to look out for it next time and will make a point of stopping to check it out.
Our next stop was Touws River where the toilets were disgusting but the café was reasonably priced and there is a play area and aviary to delight the children. It’s a good place to stretch your legs and fill up with fuel as the next stop is Laingsburg which is about 25kms after the turn off to Sutherland.
We made plans to meet the rest of our family in Laingsburg as it was around lunchtime and we were running ahead of schedule for check in at the Sutherland Hotel. Service at the Steers left a lot to be desired but we managed to fill up tummies and take a break from driving. It wasn’t long after that that we hit the road again and watched as so many people overtook trucks and taxis as if they had 9 lives and with no regard for the safety of others on the road.
We decided to take the road less travelled and chose the first turn off to Sutherland that you see when you are driving back up the N1 from Laingsburg. About 5kms in we realized we were on badly flood damaged roads and we prepared ourselves for a long 19kms of 3rd gear and loads of potholes.
I’ll spare you the details of the last 110kms of mountain passes and beautiful views because you have to see it for yourself. We are privileged to live in an exceptionally beautiful country. Northern Cape isn’t called “sheep country” for nothing so the kids watched eagerly for flocks of sheep in neighbouring farms and that kept them entertained while they endured the last few kilometers in the confines of a car.
By the time we pulled into Sutherland we were still an hour too early to check in so we explored the Sutherland “Mall” next to the hotel that literally had EVERYTHING you could think of. From 2nd hand books and homebakes to Christmas decorations and evening wear, you could kit yourself out with anything you may have accidently left at home. The shop closes at 2pm on a Saturday and doesn’t open on a Sunday. This is the rule for 98% of places in Sutherland so plan your outings carefully.
There is an OK minimart that is open until 6pm but other than that; everyone else takes their weekend very seriously. I realized that my car’s “distance to empty” reading said I had 111kms petrol available at 8am on Sunday morning as we were about to leave and then I found out that Sutherland’s little petrol station only opens after church at 11am and then closes again at 1pm. This led to a very tense trip back to Laingsburg 140kms away as I coasted down passes to conserve enough fuel. I can’t explain my elation when we made it to the petrol station safely!
My father-in-law had made bookings for us to do some star gazing at the South African Astronomical Observatory and that is where we spent our Saturday evening. I was disappointed to find out that you can only visit the telescopes during day tours from Monday-Saturday and the night tour was held in a small enclosure with two smallish telescopes. It was a tight squeeze as about 8 families squeezed in and then formed lines for each telescope in rotation. The guide was well informed but the tour took about 2 hours in total probably because there were so many people who each had to take a turn to look through the telescope as the telescopes where calibrated in between for individual stars and clusters. Prepare yourself for lots of standing and queuing so wear comfortable, closed (the army ants are ruthless outside) shoes and a healthy dose of patience.
If you break the trip up into 80-100km sections it actually doesn’t seem too far to go and it is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. You won’t see stars and experience small town living quite like this anywhere else in South Africa and you will find it refreshing to exchange the manic pace of city life for something with a slower, more relaxed and very, very quiet.