The Upper Karoo – Gateway to the Stars

 

Lord Milner, Matjiesfontein

Imposing front of the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein.

It’s late afternoon in the Matjiesfontein graveyard, and I’m waiting on a ghost.

The dying sun turns the hillside plinths butter-yellow as the last winter chill of the season sets in. Gonna be a cold one. No one has bothered to tell Matjiesfontein that it’s actually springtime.

The ghost in question is a Brit who fell during the Anglo-Boer War more than a century ago. They say he wanders these parts and occasionally hitch-hikes in the direction of Laingsburg.

The soldier-spook has missed his appointment, so I escape into Matjiesfontein village for an Old School Karoo multi-course dinner and the refuge of a warm bed at the Lord Milner Hotel.

SALT, Sutherland

Star-gazing giants on a hill above Sutherland.

The next morning, after a breakfast that would have made Cecil John Rhodes proud, I drive 120 km up the R354 to Sutherland. I am now in the Northern Cape – Big Star Country.

The Southern African Large Telescope looms on a hilltop overlooking the village, its sun-glinting helmeted roof dwarfing the other telescopes in the complex.

Some time ago, I met Dave the Starman up here on the hill. He was an old hippy who liked to quote Bob Dylan. He said his favourite star in all the Universe was V652 Hercules, an extremely hot helium orb that swelled and then shrank every two hours. He’d been watching old Hercules for 25 years.

“Hot stars are cool, man.”

We spoke about space debris, those many thousands of labs and junked satellites and rockets floating around Earth, making occasional drop-ins through the atmosphere. I remember being a bit concerned about this, because I’d heard that a giant ball-bearing almost as big as a grown man had landed somewhere near Wellington in the Cape.

“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “Most of them burn up in the atmosphere. As far as I know, the only space debris casualty has been a cow in a field in Cuba.”

Middelpos, Tankwa

Serving sweets the Old School way in a Middelpos shop.

I continue up the R354 to Middelpos, where I buy a twist of boiled sweets at the trading store. If I’d wanted to, I could also have bought groceries, pantyhose, girdles, bolts of cloth and some fizzy drinks. This trading store is the main deal in the middle of nowhere.

The road from Middelpos up to Williston lies draped over the flowered hills like a dusty shoelace. I leave the settlement shimmering in my rearview mirror, and pass a brimming vlei (wetland) where little children dance in and out of the shallows.

The rolling veld shines with purple vygies in full cabaret spangles. Exuberant perdeblomme are popping up everywhere, dancing in the sunny breezes. Yellow stinkknopies surround the stone ruins of a farmhouse. Orange Namaqua daisies lace themselves around strange dolerite rock formations. The hillsides are purple with doringvygies, like a drunken clown’s lipstick smear.

I stay over at Die Ark at the Williston Mall, in a room called Slopie se Kooi (Slopie’s Bed), and in the evening I sit with the owners, Pieter and Elmarie Naude, outside in a gazebo complete with fire and red wine.

It’s Sunday morning, and I must be on my way. First, a couple of aspirin and breakfast. I can’t seem to rise from my bed. Then I hear the  Crash!Boom!Siss! of the Williston Youth Brigade Band in full cry as it makes its merry way up the hill towards the Verenigde Gereformeerde Kerk van SA church building. I hide under my pillow until there is silence again.

On the way east on the R63 to Carnarvon, I pass a number of old corbelled houses, round stone igloos once inhabited by the early colonizing pioneers. You can stay over in corbelled houses on farms these days. It’s very comfortable and kinda fun, like sleeping in a little bread oven made of piled stones.

Corbelled houses

Corbelled houses of the Upper Karoo.

Sundowner time is spent in the Carnarvon Nature Reserve across the road from the airfield, because the light falls delicious on two perfectly poised windmills creaking away as the only soundtrack to a gently peaceful evening in the Upper Karoo.

The next morning, I drive the 80km up to the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), one of the most exciting developments in the Karoo since, oh, the arrival of windmills.

Just imagine this: thousands of huge radio telescope antennae in the shape of dishes will stand here, swiveling about and pointed at space.

The SKA aims to find out about things like dark energy, how the galaxies evolve, is there extra-terrestrial life out there, how black holes are formed, what generates giant magnetic fields in space and was Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity on the money?

Right now, as I stand here, there are only seven Karoo Array Telescopes to be seen, yet even they make quite an impressive sight. It’s wonderful to think of all the scientists coming here and all the positive world attention focused on this place.

 

Victoria West, Northern Cape

Main road, Victoria West.

I continue to Victoria West, a gracious village, its streets lined with Karoo cottages harking back to the Victorian era. I stop at the Anglican Church to see the famous stained glass windows depicting the horrendous flood of the night of February 27, 1871. Although no accurate death toll was ever achieved, it was estimated that close to 100 people died. Despite their state of disrepair, the stained glass windows capture a moment during the flood.

On, on to Loxton, one of the Karoo’s most beloved oases. They make movies here, a famous crime novelist has a retreat here, musicians often pass through and play here and the local farmers’ wives go out of their way to brighten up the lives of the many under-privileged children in the area.

With a couple of toasted sarmies and coffee under the belt, I drive off to my last stop on this Upper Karoo Safari: Fraserburg.

Gansfontein Farm, where the Paleao Surface was found in 1968 and opened to the public in 1990, is barely ten minutes’ drive from the little town of Fraserburg.

There is a fossilized river bed on this farm that reveals tracks and imprints dating back 250 million years, just before a massive and mysterious extinction that ended the Permian era and snuffed out 96% of all life on Earth.

Paleo, Fraserburg

Bradysaurus print on a farm outside Fraserburg.

The single most mind-blowing sight here is of a footprint that shows where a Bradysaurus walked, so clear it might really have been made yesterday.

Head brimming with wonder at all these matters of heaven and Earth, I slip back onto the N1 highway and head towards the lights of Cape Town. The Upper Karoo is a very cool place, man…

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