Sutherland, South Africa:
Sutherland is well known for being the coldest place in South Africa. With temperatures easily dropping below 0°C, one can easily see why they think this way for a country that usually has fairly warm weather.
Sutherland is home to the South African Astronomical Observatory or SAAO, where some of the telescopes have been operating since the early 1970’s, and are situated about 1800 meters above sea level.
Driving along the N1 from Cape Town, you turn toward Sutherland just past Matjiesfontein. From there it will take you around 90 minutes to complete the 113km drive through the Karoo. On this stretch, there is hardly any cell phone reception. So for those who do like to stay connected, this might not be the trip for you.
When you first arrive, you are greeted by a very historic and simplistic town. You immediately realize that you have left the city life far behind. Most of the main buildings along the main road (the only properly tarred road in town) are built out of stone, one of which is the local police station. Shopping is something best done early in the day, as stores are not usually open after general working hours. The local petrol station is made up by two fuel pumps on the side of the road. You literally have to park on the side of the road to fill up your vehicle and then notice that the owner casually walks across the road from his house to assist with the old machines. On a Sunday morning the petrol station only opens for one hour after the local church service has been dismissed, so planning your fuel consumption is a must.
Sutherland’s people are generally friendly and if you look around, you can usually find a restaurant or coffee shop with freshly baked selection of food and drinks.
We had the privilege of staying on the SAAO base, as we were visiting a family member that works on the premises. The base is located another 40kms outside of Sutherland. There are no street lights, once the sun sets and darkness closes in you will be greeted with a view of the stars unlike any other. Light pollution can be a major problem to the astronomers working with SAAO, which is why this location has been chosen for their base of operations.
The Town: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutherland,_Northern_Cape
The terrain around Sutherland is a mixture of rocky and dusty clay soil, which generally can be a good experience for those who enjoy the Karoo and the great open plains. The Karoo terrain usually does not have trees for miles around, and consists of small bushes and rocky terrain, mostly plants that can survive the harsh temperatures which Sutherland is known for.
Sutherland is renowned as a very cold and dry place, however days before our trip there was strong rainfall in the area. According to the locals this is unusual for the area and gave us a very different experience than what we originally set out to see.
We started the morning at 8am. Sutherland lived up to its name, as we were greeted by ice all around. Every puddle turned to ice during the night and we were started off to a true Sutherland experience. Our guide took us on the local trails, in the hills and valleys on the outside of the town itself. None of the routes are actually marked, so unless you prefer exploring on your own, it is best to connect with one of the locals who know the areas well and have permission to cross the farms in the areas.
Sutherlands landscapes are truly breath-taking and for those who enjoy exploring new places and some cross country trails, this is the place to go. The trails will take you through valleys and over hills overlooking the town in the distance. The roads are fairly easy to ride, and the few steep climbs will always reward you with great views when you reach the top.
This day in particular was unlike anything our guide has seen in the past. Because of the immense amount of rain in the days leading up to our visit, sections of the trails to become a mixture of very sticky mud. During these sections it seemed as if your bike was standing still on one place while you tried moving forward, and at the same time collecting as much mud on the go as possible.
We finally crossed the muddy section and got to some great downhill sections, down into a lush green valley. The flow of the road on the way down was very enjoyable and it was easy to pick up speed. The bottom of this particular valley was home to a small farm that still had ancient walls packed out with stones right around as they did in the early years of farming in the area. This stone wall forms a kraal right around the whole farm to keep the sheep safe.
Because of the large amount of rain, our exploring was cut shorter than we planned and certain sections the mud was so deep and sticky you needed to get off and walk. Our trip was closer to the end of winter, but this is definitely a trip I would plan in the spring or fall, as the trails should be dryer than our experience, but you also do not want to be out in the scorching summer heat all day with no trees or shade in sight. However, if you are set on experiencing the cold and possible snow, go in the winter, as the rainfall usually should not have been an issue according to the locals.
Overall Sutherland offers large sections of almost untouched terrain to explore and you can easily set out to do a ride of a 100 kilometres or more. Sutherland is truly a beautiful place in its own right and a rider that is willing to take the time to explore, will be rewarded by some of the most beautiful views and experiences the Karoo has to offer, which will truly make for an unforgettable experience.