There’s nothing that fills one with the wonder of the sheer scale of the universe, and proportionally, just how small one really is, than a spot of stargazing on a clear night. Out in the middle of nowhere, where city lights can’t dull the heavens, it’s staggering to see just how many stars there really are lighting up the sky; suddenly, the Milky Way’s name becomes obvious.
By Will Edgcumbe
Unfortunately, stargazing can’t just be done anywhere – unless you’re content to only make out the Southern Cross or Orion’s Belt. The further one is from the light pollution of a big city or town, the more stars shine through the dark felt of sky such that it seems the entire heavens are glowing. The only thing to do is pull up a comfortable chair, drape a blanket over yourself and watch the stars slowly wheel across the sky, puncturing by the odd blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shooting star (which are really tiny bits of dust and rock called meteoroids falling into the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up) or the steady blinking of a satellite on its endless course.
You’re best bet for decent stargazing is a visit to a small town or national park with clear, cold nights. Chrissiesmeer, in the Highveld of southern Mpumalanga, is a tiny little hamlet surrounded by farms, lakes and pans. Its relative isolation and tiny size means there is practically zero light pollution, and if you stay up til late you’ll feel absolutely dwarfed by the universe. The stargazing is great all year round, but in winter the sky is clearest. The town hosts the odd stargazing evening, with astronomers on hand with telescopes. Bear in mind, Chrissiesmeer was not referred to as ‘New Scotland’ by the area’s early settlers for nothing, so bundle up warmly as it can get pretty chilly, even in summer. Stay at the Jail Bird, a tiny sandstone building which was the town’s original jail, now converted into a two-room self-catering guesthouse, with a kitchen and bathroom found in a separate outbuilding, which served as the jail’s Charge Office.
The skies are dark above the Waterberg plateau in Limpopo province, making them ideal for stargazing. Dr Philip Calcott is a resident expert on the stars of the southern skies, and his star tours are absolutely fascinating. Using a telescope and astronomical video camera, his tour of the skies brings the universe to you, up close and in colour. You’ll get to see the planets in our own solar system as well as staring into deep space at our neighbouring galaxies and clusters, and planetary nebulae. After you’ve taken in the depths of the universe, sleep well at Waterberg Cottages and enjoy some good old-fashioned Bushveld hospitality in one of their lovely self-catering cottages.
With their relative isolation, the country’s national parks make for incredible stargazing, and Golden Gate Highlands National Park, set in the western foothills of the Maluti Mountains close the Lesotho border, is no exception. The park is gorgeous day or night – by day, the sun strikes the sandstone cliffs and sets them alight, and at night the galaxies unfold in the crisp mountain air. You can appreciate the stars from the veranda of a SAN Parks rondawel or cottage, bearing in mind that it gets properly cold during winter.
Bringing out the big guns
You know you’ve come to the right place for stargazing when it’s home to a massive telescope. The small Karoo town of Sutherland is the perfect spot for looking at the stars, thanks to its conducive weather, light pollution-free skies and high altitude. The clarity of the skies makes it the ideal place for the South African Astronomical Observatory, which is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). And large it is; with a primary, hexagonal mirror 11 metres wide made up of 91 individual hexagonal mirrors, each a metre wide and weighing about 100kg, SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, and can detect the light from faint or distant objects in the universe, a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye – as faint as a candle flame would appear at the distance of the moon.
The observatory offers day tours from Monday to Saturday, comprising a guided walk through the Visitor Centre as well as a tour of selected research telescopes, including SALT. Night tours are also on offer and include viewing the skies through two dedicated visitor telescopes. Some serious research is conducted using SALT, so visitors cannot visit it or any of the other research telescopes at night, because the area around the telescopes is a ‘no-light’ zone as astronomy is a light sensitive science. Sutherland is often championed as the coldest town in South Africa, so it pays to stay somewhere warm. Skitterland Guesthouse has five luxury suites with all the electric blankets, down duvets and wool blankets you’ll need to take the chill off after an evening of stargazing.
High in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape is the Cederberg Astronomical Observatory. A privately owned, non-profit organisation, the observatory is a monument to passion, having been developed since the early 1980s into what it is today – a fantastic observatory with some serious telescopic power. There’s a 16″ Meade Newtonian telescope housed in a dome, a 300mm Meade Scmidt Cassegrain housed in a slide-off roof observatory, and a new dome, dubbed the ‘Sherman Tank’, houses a 12″ Cassegrain telescope. In other words, this is more than a backyard hobby. Visitors are welcome for a few hours on Saturday nights (except for when there’s a full moon, which makes the sky to bright for decent stargazing), and are given an introduction to the night sky through a slideshow, followed by a viewing through a telescope. Stay at Mount Ceder, which offers a range of accommodation to suit your pocket, from campsites, to rustic cottages to larger three and four star graded cottages set in a lovely river valley.
Stuck in the city?
If you can’t get out of the city, there is another way you can experience the wonders of the night sky. South Africa is home to two world-class planetariums: one in Cape Town and one in Joburg. The Iziko Planetarium Cape Town is on Queen Victoria Street and offers daily shows, its domed auditorium recreating the night sky utilising a complex Minolta star machine and multiple projectors. While you’re there, make sure you check out the three large iron meteorites on display.
Johannesburg Plantarium, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, is open every day except Sunday and offers a tour of the planets, stars and constellations of Johannesburg’s evening skies, with the shows adapted to reflect current conditions. It’s the second biggest planetarium in the southern hemisphere, accommodating up to 400 people, and offers different shows for children and teens to adults.
Chrissiesmeer Tourism (Marietjie Blignaut) – 082 929 1219 / www.chrissiesmeer.co.za
The Jail Bird – 082 929 1219 / email@example.com
Star Tours and Waterberg Cottages – 014 755 4425 / www.waterbergcottages.co.za
Golden Gate Highlands National Park – 012 428 9111 / www.sanparks.org
South African Astronomical Observatory – 023 571 1205 / www.saao.ac.za
Skitterland Guesthouse – 023 571 1115 / www.skitterland.co.za
Cederberg Astronomical Observatory – www.cederbergobservatory.org.za
Mount Ceder – 023 317 0848 / www.mountceder.co.za
Iziko Planetarium Cape Town – 021 481 3900 / www.iziko.org.za
Johannesburg Planetarium – 011 717 1390 / www.planetarium.co.za