On a hilltop outside the Karoo hamlet of Sutherland, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) focuses its giant African eye on our universe.

Did you know?

Even quasars can be picked up by the Southern African Large Telescope.

The reason the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was erected outside the town of Sutherland, some 370km from Cape Town, is because it is one of a handful of locations in the world that is ideal for stargazing. 

Its remoteness, elevation (2 000 metres above sea level), the cold and the absence of light pollution, ensure clear, cloudless skies essential for research.

Tourists who visit SALT during the day can book a guided tour of the interpretive visitor centre and a selection of the research telescopes, including SALT, located on an elevated plateau overlooking a vast expanse of the Karoo. 

And while the SALT facility is closed to the public at night, visitors can experience the thrill of astronomy by booking a stargazing session at the visitor centre where two dedicated visitor telescopes, a 16″ Meade and 14″ Celestron, are located. 

Nobody is allowed to drive up to the dome facilities on the plateau at night as astronomy research is light sensitive and that's when local and international scientists are at work.

The stargazing session lasts about 90 minutes, but may be cancelled due to inclement weather conditions. Booking is essential.

SALT is an extraordinary international collaboration and has put South Africa at the forefront of 21st century scientific exploration. Such is its magnification that it can see the light of a candle on the moon.

One of the first light images taken by SALT was of 47 Tucanae, an ancient cluster of several million stars about 15 000 light-years from earth. The stars are 10 to 12 billion years old and among the oldest stars in our Milky Way galaxy, which makes them the perfect laboratory for the study of the life, birth, and death of stars.

Astrophysicists are currently unable to explain about 96% of the universe, notably dark matter and dark energy, and they believe images and information gathered from SALT may trigger a revolution more dramatic than the leap from Newtonian to quantum physics. 

SALT will assist them to look deeper and more clearly into the dark heart of time and tackle unsolved questions about the universe and our place in it. This means giant leaps for not just those who make it to Mars, but for the whole of humankind.

It is managed by the South Africa Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). 

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Tour bookings at SALT
Tel. +27 (0)23 571 2436
Email: suthbookings@saao.ac.za

How to get here

The town of Sutherland is a four-hour drive from Cape Town. The Observatory is 15 km outside of Sutherland. From Cape Town turn off is at Matjiesfontein. From here Sutherland is just over 100 km away.

Around the area

In Fraserburg visit the Paleo Surface which has some dinosaur footprints. Williston has fascinating historic gravestones.

Tours to do

Try to book a night tour. In winter they start at 6pm and in summer as late as 8pm.

Get around

Self-drive is the best way to tour the towns in the area.

What will it cost

It costs R30 per person for a self-guided day visit, and R40 for a guided tour of SALT. A star gazing session costs R60 per person. The tour fees go towards the Southern African Astronomical Observatory's funds for education, public outreach and socio-economic development.

Length of stay

Overnight in or near Sutherland to take full advantage of the experience.

What to pack

Pack some warm clothes if you are visiting during winter (May-August) as Sutherland is one of the coldest places in the country and temperatures regularly fall below freezing. 

Where to stay

Accommodation is in the town of Sutherland and ranges from B&Bs, guesthouses, guest farms and a hotel.

What to eat

Try the popular Karoo lamb, provided by most restaurants in Sutherland. 

Best buys

There are shops selling astronomy souvenirs in Sutherland.

Related articles