Over 25 000 years ago, the KhoiSan or Bushmen people who inhabited this region knew that time is in the stars. They had a remarkably extensive knowledge of the stars and wove this wisdom into the rhythm of their lives. The 19th-century scholar Dr Wilhelm Bleek, who studied their languages and analysed their legends, found evidence that the Bushmen had observed the movements of the planet Jupiter and its four main moons with the naked eye. These Bushman legends date back to before Galileo made his observations with his first telescope.
Like the earliest people, we are still awed by the mystery of the stars, planets and distant galaxies. Today, the extraordinary clarity of Sutherland’s cloudless, pollution-free night skies and its high elevation above sea level makes it a prime star-gazing destination and the perfect site for the South African Astronomical Observatory.
The observatory houses the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Based on the design of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, it consists of a primary, hexagonal mirror 11 metres wide made up of 91 individual hexagonal mirrors, each one metre wide and weighing about 100kg.
This great eye probing the universe is sensitive enough to pick up the light of a single candle on the moon – but its main job is to scan deep space, witnessing the birth and death of planets, gazing into distant galaxies and recording the scale and age of the universe, stars, galaxies and quasars billions of light years away.
The telescope cost about US$30 million, of which South Africa contributed a third and international partners the balance.
The emergency number is 076 9000 308 (in case lines are down). Visit http://www.saao.ac.za/about/visting/sutherland/ for updated information.
Alternatively contact Jurg (082 556 9589) for a more personal stargazing experience at ‘Sterland’, a privately owned and managed establishment. Bookings for this very popular activity are still essential to avoid disappointment.
The show at Sterland at 20:00 lasting two hours. The stargazer is first treated with an indoor presentation on a three meter big screen explaining all the constellations and sizes in the universe.
Inside the dam are numerous posters of Astronomy and books to be read. After that the stargazers are taken outside to the Muisbos Amphi theatre and first treated with an explanation of how to find South, with the aid of the Magellan Clouds, Southern Cross and other stars. They make use of a very powerful laser so that each stargazer can see what they are talking about.
All the relevant constellations, stars, planets and objects to be observed are then explained before looking through the eye piece of the telescope.
At present they make use of 5 x 11 inch (280mm) Celestron Go-To telescopes, each with its own GPS. Each telescope is operated by a knowledgeable person. Every stargazer gets enough time to enjoy the object to be seen. The show normally lasts two hours at the cost of R100-00 per person.