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We investigate the best places to go stargazing in South Africa

Stargazing In South Africa

By J.F. Klopper

We all know that our beloved South Africa has its fair share of superstars – the Big Five, Robben Island and Charlize Theron – but its real fame is found twinkling above in the skies of our most remote landscapes.

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,’ he 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 guy); I guarantee it’ll do the same for you when you leave the city lights behind.

Stargazing in Sutherland
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.

The fascinating South African Astronomical Observatory (023-571-1205, www.salt.ac.za) 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 (023-571-1405) later in the evening for a more intimate experience and even darker skies that offer better sightings (costs from R80 a person).

Stargazing in Pafuri
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.

Book a stargazing session with experienced astronomer Kos Coronaios at Pafuri River Camp for R120 a person (book in advance with the camp or call him on 079-148-4934).

Stargazing in Makhado
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.

Go stargazing with Abel Maano, who operates through a number of lodges in the area, for R150 a person; specify stargazing in your booking.

Stargazing in Anysberg Nature Reserve
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. Stay here 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 (arrange for a guide when booking – costs R65 for adults and R30 for kids).

Stargazing in the Waterberg
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.

Organise a night sky safari with Dr Philip Calcott; he operates in the whole Waterberg area and rates vary depending on group size.

Stargazing in the Cederberg
Just two hours from Cape Town and sheltered from light pollution, the Cederberg is a stargazer’s haven. The Cederberg Observatory 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.

Stargazing in Carnarvon
Carnarvon teems with specialised scientists working on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – set to be the largest, most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. 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 Hotel, 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.’

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.

Astronomy 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 056-212-2535.
  • University of Cape Town Astronomy Club meets every second Tuesday. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
  • Join the Friends of Boyden in Bloemfontein. Tel 051-436-7555, www.assabfn.co.za/friendsofboyden.
  • Port Elizabeth People’s Observatory Society meets every two months. Tel 041-363-9040.
  • Soutpansberg Astronomy Club meets just outside Makhado. Tel 015-516-3110, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
  • West Rand Astronomy Club arranges weekend star parties and caters for all levels. Tel 082-335-1983, www.wrac.org.za.


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