Sutherland to Calvinia – the 'starry Karoo route'
Did you know?
The Southern African Large Telescope is powerful enough to detect a candle flame on the moon.
You’re about to travel through a barren, ancient land where you can practically touch the stars at night, where the horizon stretches forever, and where you are welcome at many a farmer’s dinner table.
This journey of starry skies begins in the small Northern Cape town of Sutherland, right outside the Art Deco farmers’ co-op, where we meet Sutherland’s primary champion, one Jurg Wagenaar. He tells us all about the upper Karoo region while he settles us into our rooms at the Kambrokind Guest House.
We’ve made an appointment for a night tour of the Southern African Large Telescope, which is on a hill outside Sutherland. It’s a fascinating 90-minute tour, during which we get to look at fascinating objects up in space through special telescopes dedicated for use by visitors. We don’t bother the busy astronomers, but our guide answers all our questions.
Some time spent with the stars up on that hill is definitely one of the highlights of any trip to the Northern Cape, and a great way for us to start this journey. (Just a note, if you're planning to do this tour, book well in advance, as they don't run every day).
The next morning we take a winding dirt road through the Roggeveld mountains to the small settlement of Middelpos. At the Middelpos Trading Store, where the interior could be a movie set depicting the 1950s, we buy old-style boiled sweets wrapped in paper cones and walk around the kennels full of boerbul dogs – one of the main Karoo breeds.
There’s a bit of a commotion down near the shop, and we wander past it, right into a sheep auction. We stay for a few minutes, drinking in the country atmosphere and having a look at the livestock on display.
We’re booked into the nearby Tankwa Karoo National Park for the night, one of South Africa’s driest reserves. This is not a game park like, say, the Kruger National Park, which is all about the Big 5 and game drives. The Tankwa is where you use your ‘desert eyes’ and learn to spot the small things in life – and then look up and gasp at the wide-angle space around you.
At sunrise the next morning, after a great evening spent at our lodge, sitting on the porch outside and drinking in the heavens, we catch the early light.
The succulents open first, and we record this with our cameras. Then the spiders finish their morning webs and trap breakfast for themselves, while a beetle leaves a drunken track in the sand.
We go for a walk after coffee and rusks, and suddenly, amid all this solitude, we understand why the Tankwa is such a beloved place. You’re about as wonderfully far from home as you’ll ever be.
At mid-morning, we check out and head north on the R355 to Calvinia, a true Karoo town and one of its most hospitable. We meet up with Alta Coetsee of the Hantam Huis guest houses, where we check in, and she shows us her herd of fluffy lamas. At suppertime we are well wined and dined, with our memory banks full of the wide spaces and night skies of the starry Karoo.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tankwa Karoo National Park
Central Reservations (Pretoria): +27 (0)12 428 9111 or +27 (0)82 233 9111
Call centre office hours (GMT+2): Mon to Fri: 07:30 - 17:00; Sat: 08:00 - 13:00
How to get here
Sutherland lies approx. 350km east of Cape Town (about a four-hour drive). Take the N1 and turn left at Matjiesfontein on the R354 for 110km.
Best time to visit
This area is best visited in spring (August to October) and autumn (April to May).
Around the area
If you’re in the upper Karoo in early September, don’t miss the Williston Winter Festival.
Tours to do
There are a number of tours to do in the Sutherland area – check with the front desk at the Kambrokind Guest House.
Your best travel bet is to hire a car from Cape Town and drive yourself.
What will it cost
Visits to the Southern African Large Telescope centre outside Sutherland cost R50 per person, and accommodation rates along this route are inexpensive. Rates at the Tankwa Karoo National Park are in line with regular SANParks rates.
Length of stay
Set aside three days for this journey if you can.
What to pack
Always pack something warm for the nights, which can get chilly, particularly in winter (May to August). Remember to pack binoculars if you have them; likewise take along the shortest, most macro-friendly lens for your camera.
Where to stay
Recommended are the Kambrokind Guest House in Sutherland, the park accommodation in the Tankwa Karoo National Park, and the Hantam Huis guest houses in Calvinia.
What to eat
You will be doing a fair amount of self-catering in the middle of the trip, but in Sutherland and Calvinia you will find wholesome and delicious meals.
Calvinia has a great meat festival in late August.