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Text: Jolene Du Plessis. Pictures: Jolene Du Plessis and Unio Joubert. Article from the April 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.

Sutherland’s environment and history make it one of SA’s more interesting dorps. And then, of course, it’s the home of SALT …

Sutherland welcomes you with stars and a bright yellow sign.

Winding up from the N1 near Matjiesfontein, the road to Sutherland draws you into a scenic Karoo backdrop. As you round the bends the blue and grey colours of the koppies play, emerging left and right as you pass. During the gradual ascent of Verlatenkloof Pass, flat-faced rocks frame the view – and on the dusty horizon, sleepy Sutherland appears. The last 10 kilometres feel like a dash to the finish line, with the town’s white church tower a beckoning beacon.

Sutherland - Northern Cape At first glance Sutherland seems less than ordinary with not a Checkers, Kwikspar or Pick’n Pay in sight. Only a few unfamiliar businesses line the main street: the art deco Sutherland Ko-op, a white-washed, flat-roofed building named Zellies se Winkel, and a stone building with red and green letters reading Roggeveld Handelaars. Upon closer inspection you notice a PEP and an OK at the end of town.

The dust and wind are constant reminders that this is the Karoo. In the distance the sign to the big SALT telescope, Sutherland’s main attraction, is overshadowed by the majestic stone Dutch Reformed church, marking the spot where Sutherland began.

Although famous for its large telescope and cold winters, Sutherland was founded in 1858 as a church and market town to serve the district’s sheep farmers. The town even owes its name to Dominee Henry Sutherland, who oversaw the religious well-being of the community.

Sutherland's dusty streets are a reminder that you're in the Karoo.Situated in the Roggeveld region of the Karoo, Sutherland stands 1 450 metres above sea level and thus enjoys clear skies – ideal for stargazing.The altitude also explains the sporadic winter snow. A number of astronomical telescopes adorn a large koppie just outside the town, but the biggest one, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere and understandably the main drawcard for visitors. I dare say that before SALT it was as if Sutherland did not exist in the world of modern tourism.

Few people know the history of Sutherland. The first Europeans to settle in the area were sheep farmers who got there via the Forgotten Highway (the road between Ceres and the Karoo), so called because it was the main highway to the north before the N1. Not necessarily intending to stay in the Roggeveld, these hardy pioneers survived on what they carried in their ox-wagons. Some, however, did decide to remain and make the best of the rugged territory. The land was not suitable for most forms of agriculture so they lived on potatoes and meat. Bread was a luxury. No wonder early travellers referred to them as ‘elephant people’ (most likely due to their size).

Local farmer Gerhardus du Plessis with his beloved sheepdog.Other travellers and scientists, such as Henry Lichtenstein, mention the pioneer settlers’ small, uncomfortable homes and the harshness of the land. Talking to the older generation in Sutherland today, you get the impression that surviving with only the  basics and depending on the environment is a lifestyle they’re used to and love – for most, a life filled with humble gratitude.

“People here are different, especially in the eyes of outsiders,” says Gerhardus du Plessis, 52, who was born and bred in Sutherland. The sun reflects off his glasses and draws attention to his snow-white hair “The Roggeveld Karoo is a tough area – not your playmate,” he adds.

You have to grow up in this semi-desert to know how to farm with sheep in it. Gerhardus says that every winter the farmers move their stock some on foot, others by truck, to warmer areas, then back to the cooler Roggeveld in summer “The custom dates back centuries, but it’s still how we farm today,” he says.

The Dutch Reformed Church marks the spot where the town beganThe ruggedness of the environment is reflected in the beautiful stone buildings standing strong in the streets of the town. Gerhardus walks me to the Dutch Reformed church, our footsteps crunching on the charcoal-coloured gravel road. Jannie du Plessis, who conducts church tours, meets us at the sandstone building. He tells us it was designed by Charles Freeman, who also designed the church at Graaff-Reinet, and built in 1899.

In spite of being a church, the building was used to house British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War. “It was taken over even before it could be consecrated,” says Jannie.

Graffiti in the form of names, manly figures and random words such as ‘up’ and ‘stairs’ on the wooden panels of the church tower provide an eerie reminder of that time. The German organ is special, being one of only two of its kind left. But besides the building’s interesting history, its timeless design is more than enough reason to visit it.

Elsewhere are other reminders of Sutherland’s past. In fact as you walk the streets you get the feeling of a town frozen in time. The best way to explore it is on foot, taking in the fresh air and soaking up the Karoo sun. In Jubilee Street, an elderly man with a beret-like hat waits to greet us at the entrance to his house. His posture is upright and his blue eyes sparkle.

Eddie Marais is considered a local historian and his house, quite suitably, resembles a museum. His enthusiasm for collecting antique artefacts and archives matches his eagerness to talk about the background of his home town.

We sit down in his living room, surrounded by old portraits, photos and antique furniture and I ask Eddie about Sutherland’s history and the Anglo-Boer War which left its mark throughout the area in the form of graves, forts and blockhouses.

On Rebelskop on the outskirts of the town are the ruins of a fort named after a Boer division of 250 men who took on the British force occupying the town. Under Commandant Abraham Louw, they fired into the town for 10 hours.The incident is one of many such clashes in the district.

On a snowy day, Oudag se Winkel invites you to enjoy a warm cup of coffee in front of the fireplaceAs with all former centres of conflict, Sutherland has a number of unusual war stories to tell. Such as that of the soldier who was buried twice, once in a communal grave after being drowned, then again after he was awarded his own grave in honour of his bravery. Or of the horses which were stabled in the church during the British occupation, and of the many unmarked graves of forgotten combatants in the town’s cemetery and on its surrounding farms. The graves are almost ghost-like, with no clue as to who is buried in them or where they came from.

The Anglo-Boer War was not the only thing that influenced Sutherland’s development. Eddie pulls out a dusty folder of black and white photos and points to a picture of a stone house with a typical Cape Dutch gable. “This was our house before it was transformed in the Victorian era, which saw many buildings changed from the Cape Dutch to the Victorian style,” he says. So, despite Sutherland’s old look and feel, it used to be quite a trendy place.

Interestingly, the museum is another example of what used to be a plain stone-gabled house, now boasting a Victorian veranda. Named the Louw House Museum, it’s a tribute to the family which produced the brothers N.R van Wyk Louw and W.E.G. Louw – big names in South African literature (especially Afrikaans literature). Both were born in the house and both were inspired by the environment they grew up in. N.R van Wyk Louw wrote many poems about Sutherland.

They were not the only writers to be inspired by the town and its environment either Anna Jordaan, Datei Pieter Jordaan and D.C. Esterhuyse were also born and raised here.

Another famous son of Sutherland was the civil engineer Sir Henry Olivier; who specialised in hydroelectric power projects. A tribute to him in the museum shows his accomplishments, such as being the chief engineer in the Kariba Dam project, contributing to building the Mulberry Harbours used during the D-Day invasion of World War II, working on one of the largest dams in the world on the Ugandan Nile, and engineering the Gariep Dam in South Africa.

SALT, the pride of the town. Jurg Wagener explaining the night sky during one of his stargazing tours.But the stars in the sky are Sutherland’s most famous ‘figures’ and at dusk I drive to the privately owned Sterland to have a closer look at them. Jurg Wagener offers myself and other visitors some sherry to combat the cold, then takes us on a tour of the heavens. The stars seem to jump out of their dark background and I almost hurt my neck while staring at the endless twinkling dots.Through a telescope I see Saturn’s rings, clusters of stars that are invisible to the naked eye, and ‘the jewellery box’, a colourful array of stars at the top of the Southern Cross.

For me, the secret of Sutherland’s people lies not only in their hardiness, but also in the inspiration they draw from their environment and history. That is why they write about, farm around and live in this seemingly less than ordinary town. It inspires poems, stirs the imagination, shapes and forms personalities and got countries from all over the world to invest in one of the largest telescopes anywhere to learn more about the night sky.

That is why Sutherland is extraordinary.

Footnotes
  • Sutherland is at its busiest in winter because of the cold, occasional snow and extremely clear night skies (except when there are snow clouds). However the skies are still clear in summer, making it a good time to go if you want to avoid the rush.
  • The nearby Tan kwa-Karoo is worth a visit in spring to see rthe magnificent wildflowers. The Dankfees Bazaar is a hive of activity during the town's annual Thanksgiving FestivalAlways take into account the phase of the moon, few stars being visible at full moon.
  • If you enjoy spring flowers, September is a good time to visit. You could then also explore the Tankwa-Karoo National Park, which has beautiful spring flowers and is just around the corner from Sutherland.
  • A Dankfees, or Thanksgiving Festival’, which dates back to 1905, normally takes place at the end of October or beginning of November It’s a great opportunity to participate in a local celebration as well as check out interesting craft stalls and enjoy plenty of food.
More info on the quaint town of Sutherland More info on the Upper Karoo area

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