Where to go stargazing in South Africa

Posted by Melanie van Zyl on 18 June 2014 Tags:, ,

South Africa has its fair share of superstars – the Big Five, Robben Island and Charlize Theron – but its real fame is found twinkling above the most remote landscapes. Here are seven of the best spots to go stargazing in South Africa.

See: things to do in Cape Town this month

The Karoo night sky
Photo by Hougaard Malan

The thermometer reads minus-two degrees. It’s cloudless, breathtakingly dark and my toes had gone numb an hour earlier. Stargazing conditions couldn’t be better. Noticing me shuffle around to try and bring some warmth to my frozen extremities, a fellow stargazer smiles knowingly. ‘Tonight I put on two pairs of socks,’ she says.

I’m one of three die-hards left at midnight during winter in Sutherland (the others had gone home after a mid-session coffee break). It’s one of South Africa’s best night-sky destinations and also one of the coldest, as my feet are reminding me. Yet something keeps me staring at these unfamiliar heavens. The cloudless sky, unhampered by moonlight and divorced from excessive urban light pollution, unleashes a nocturnal rainbow of white-hot diamonds that has me mesmerised.

Peering through the telescope, I can see the rings of Saturn, hanging in the sky like a hat at a jaunty angle, and a thought strikes me: stargazing is the ultimate form of travel, taking the observer through space, time and place. It doesn’t matter whether you’re spotting red flecks in the bowels of the Jewel Box (regarded by those in the know as one of the most spectacular objects in the southern sky), or simply locating moon craters, sightings are intoxicating, injecting a healthy dose of insignificance into cognitive observers. And even though Earth’s atmosphere muddies our view so stars aren’t as clear as they could be and planets seem relatively colourless, there’s something terrifically real about peering through a telescope. It tugs you closer to the stars, delivering a glimpse of heaven that feels just as romantic as it sounds.

Discovering Saturn’s rings for the first time blew my socks off (perhaps I should have worn two pairs like the other lady); I guarantee it’ll do the same for you when you leave the city lights behind.

 

Stargazing in Sutherland

SALT in Sutherland
Photo by Melanie van Zyl Home to the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope and impressive views of the Milky Way, this small Karoo town tops the list of prime stargazing territories. Sutherland’s dry climate means cloud-free nights for 80 percent of the year and the flat landscape flaunts an unobstructed sky.

 

Where to stay in Sutherland

With 32 guest houses, you’re spoilt for choice. Kambrokind Skrywershuisie is a cosy cottage with thoughtful touches such as a hot-water bottle, electric blanket and heater. Hosts Jurg and Rita Wagener also own a caravan park with secluded stands, a charming sandstone farmhouse just outside town and a B&B guest house. Costs from R395 a person a night sharing and camping is R100 a person a night.

 

Things to do in Sutherland

The fascinating South African Astronomical Observatory (Tel 023 571 1205) is worth an afternoon’s visit, if only to learn how quickly astronomy overwhelms the brain. You can stargaze there, but rather join Jurg Wagener (Tel 023 571 1405) later in the evening for a more intimate experience and even darker skies that offer better sightings.

You can also start in Prince Albert and take a two-day stargazing bus tour to SALT in Sutherland. It incorporates lectures, observing practice in the Karoo using a telescope and a visit to the South African Astronomical Observatory.

To eat, head to the Sutherland Hotel (Tel 0235711096) for wholesome lamb curry. I also recommend the lamb shank at the fancier Cluster d’Hote Restaurant (Tel 0235711436).

 

Stargazing in Pafuri

Pafuri River Camp
Photo by Melanie van Zyl Pafuri is where South Africa meets Mozambique and Zimbabwe in the northernmost part of Kruger National Park. It’s far from the city, has no cellphone reception and Pafuri River Camp uses only gas and solar power, so light pollution isn’t a problem.

 

Where to stay in Pafuri

Camp or sleep in tented tree houses at Pafuri River Camp. Each unit is equipped with self-catering facilities (store food in solid boxes as bushbabies have worked out how to get into snacks), but dinner and breakfast are available on request from a local chef. Camping from R120 and tented units from R375 a person a night. Tel 0827850305.

 

Things to do in Pafuri

Book a stargazing session with experienced astronomer Kos Coronaios at Pafuri River Camp (book in advance with the camp or call him on Tel 0791484934).

Explore the baobabs in the north of the Kruger National Park from Pafuri Gate; the area is alive with elephant, nyala, rumours of leopard and exemplary bird life. Pack a breakfast basket and spend some time at the Pafuri Picnic Site on the Luvuvhu River with on-site field guide Frank Mabasa – he’s been based here for 14 years and is a twitcher’s best friend.

 

Stargazing in Makhado

Mashovhela Bush Lodge
Photo by Melanie van Zyl Previously known as Louis Trichardt, this town is surrounded by lush bushveld beneath the Soutpansberg Mountains, in an area teeming with butterflies and birds. It’s close to the lights of Makhado, but Mashovhela Lodge has a unique hammock camp to sleep under the stars and the sky is still gorgeous.

 

Where to stay in Makhado

Mashovhela Bush Lodge on Morning Sun Nature Reserve (15km north of Makhado) offers Venda-style chalets, safari tents and exclusive campsites with self-catering and fully catered options to suit all budgets. Tel 0129916930.

 

Things to do in Makhado

Walk to the sacred Mashovhela rock pool and the waterfall just beyond it. Take a butterfly book with you – the property is home to 300 species – and do a guided bird tour.

Go stargazing with Abel Maano (Tel 0822120700, [email protected]), who operates at a number of lodges in the area, for R150 a person; specify stargazing in your booking.

 

Stargazing in Anysberg Nature Reserve

Anysberg Nature Reserve
Lovely off-the-grid cottages at Anysberg Nature Reserve. Photo by Melanie van Zyl Roughly four hours from Cape Town, Anysberg Nature Reserve offers tranquillity, breathtaking night skies, a telescope and knowledgeable guides. Its off-the-grid location makes for ideal stargazing.

 

Where to stay in Anysberg Nature Reserve

Anysberg Reserve has impeccable camping grounds under towering gum trees and five equipped self-catering cottages. Self-catering from R630 a night and camping from R240. Tel 0214830190.

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Things to do in Anysberg Nature Reserve

Tackle the Planet Trek to Tapfontein in your 4×4 or on horse and overnight in one of the more rustic units. Kayak on the old farm dams or rent a mountain bike for the day, then top it all off with an evening of stargazing from a raised sky platform.

 

Stargazing in the Waterberg

The bath at Ant's Hill
Photo by Melanie van Zyl The dark, quiet bush makes a captivating astral stage. Resident astronomer Dr Philip Calcott projects his telescope view onto a screen, so you won’t have to fight other guests for a good view.

 

Where to stay in the Waterberg

Smart and luxurious, Ant’s Nest is great for younger families, while Ant’s Hill is set high on a cliff overlooking the Waterberg and offers luxurious honeymoon suites. Tel 0147553584.

 

Things to do in the Waterberg

Organise a night sky safari with Dr Philip Calcott (Tel 0835522119); he operates in the whole Waterberg area and rates vary depending on group size. Stop at the Black Mamba before leaving Vaalwater en route to Ant’s Nest – the shop offers more than your average curios – and pop into the quirky Bush Stop Café (Tel 0737010543) for a prego roll. Saddle up at Ant’s Nest and horse ride in the bush for a close wildlife encounter or go on a bush walk to find rhino.

 

Stargazing in the Cederberg

Sanddrif Holiday Resort
Photo by Melanie van Zyl Just two hours from Cape Town and sheltered from light pollution, the Cederberg is a stargazer’s haven. The Cederberg Astronomical Observatory ([email protected]) has been operating for more than 20 years and is open every Saturday, except during full moon. Alternatively, book a few nights at Kagga Kamma and make the most of their sky deck; the guides here have an excellent grasp on celestial affairs and encourage you to trace over constellations with a powerful emerald laser so you’ll always remember where to find them.

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Where to stay in the Cederberg

For a budget option near the observatory, try the well-equipped, riverside self-catering cottages at Sanddrif Holiday Resort (Tel 0274822825). Kagga Kamma (Tel 0218724343) has comfortable family cottages, lodge-style rooms or even sleep in a comfy bed under the stars on a rocky outcrop.

 

Things to do in the Cederberg

The Cederberg is known for its hiking trails and there’s an option for everyone – buy permits and suss out the difficulty and route lengths before heading off. Good maps are available at most accommodation establishments and from the CapeNature offices at Algeria.

If you’re interested in more sedate undertakings, go wine-tasting at Cederberg Private Cellar (Tel 0274822827).

 

Stargazing in Carnarvon

Rhenish Church in Carnarvon
Photo by Melanie van Zyl Carnarvon teems with specialised scientists working on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multinational cooperative effort that will see a network of radio telescopes stretch across Africa and Australia. Once fully operational in the early 2020s, the SKA will be the most powerful, sensitive and largest radio telescope ever constructed. While there are no stargazing facilities open to visitors yet, the expansive sky in Carnarvon is good enough for astronomers and bound to leave you star struck. Owner of the Lord Carnarvon Guest House, Pieter Hoffman, says, ‘It’s not your typical polished tourist town. You’ve got to look between the litter and talk to people, hear their stories. That’s the Karoo.’

 

Where to stay in Carnarvon

Try Lord Carnarvon Guest House (Tel 053 382 3268) which has been beautifully restored with 14 air-conditioned rooms, as well as satellite TV, and a lounge with fireplace. Self-catering options also available.

 

Things to do in Carnarvon

There are no designated stargazing spots or guides in Carnarvon, so you’ll have to go it alone – find a spot during the day and take your binoculars later to see the stars.

Count beer cans in Blikkies Bar – it has a collection of 5100. Tuck into gourmet wood-fired pizza at the stylish De Meerkat (Tel 0533824651).

 

Top 7 reserves for stargazing

South African wilderness fundi and photojournalist Scott Ramsay recommends these parks for their night skies.

 

Astromony clubs in South Africa

Try your hand at stargazing at an astronomy club near you.

  • Kroonstad Astronomy Club meets once a month. Tel 082 443 3246 or 0562122535.
  • University of Cape Town Astronomy Club meets every second Tuesday. Email [email protected].
  • Join the Friends of Boyden in Bloemfontein. Tel 0514367555.
  • Port Elizabeth People’s Observatory Society meets every two months. Tel 0413639040.
  • Soutpansberg Astronomy Club meets just outside Makhado. Tel 015 516 3110, email [email protected].
  • West Rand Astronomy Club arranges weekend star parties and caters for all levels. Tel 0823351983.

Tankwa Karoo
Photo by Scott Ramsay

This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine. Please note that all prices and tour packages are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please be sure to check current rates before travelling.