Winter evenings in South Africa can be chilly, but if you spend all your time inside, you’ll miss out on one of winter’s famous attractions – the night sky. The clear, cold winter nights of the Southern Hemisphere often offer perfect conditions for stargazing.
Shaun Pozyn, Head of Marketing for British Airways (operated by Comair) suggests the following places to do some amateur astronomy, as well as other attractions for each:
Just over three hours’ drive from Port Elizabeth, this small town in the Amatole mountains of the Eastern Cape often has snow in winter and is frequently misty, but because of its many very clear nights and very few artificial lights, it can offer good stargazing opportunities.
Some visitors say Hogsback reminds them of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings books and movies, and the area is said to have inspired the more idyllic, pastoral parts of JRR Tolkien’s epic works. While you’re no more likely to see short people with hairy feet there than anywhere else, it does have many other attractions.
Mountain-bikers love the trails in the area. There are also hiking-trails to suit any fitness level and local restaurants offer everything from pub-grub to fine dining. See www.hogsbackinfo.co.za
Star-gazing can be very rewarding with just the naked eye and a flask of something to keep you warm, but if you want some technology on your side, you can head to Sutherland, about four hours’ drive from Cape Town. Sutherland is world-famous for its stars and its SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), one of the biggest optical telescopes in the world.
The SAAO (Southern African Astronomical Observatory) has set up several telescopes for visitors, and the Sterland guesthouse, for example, offers telescopes for guests’ use. Day-time attractions in the area include hiking and four-by-four trails. See www.sutherlandinfo.co.za. Sutherland is often one of the coldest places in the country, but that hasn’t stopped a steady flow of visitors going there to stare into the universe and to, appropriately, give the experience 4.5/5 stars on www.tripadvisor.com
Away from its towns, Namibia has very little light pollution. The desert climate boasts very few clouds, allowing for excellent stargazing. In fact, alongside Hawaii and Chile, Namibia as among the world’s best places to do so. There are many guided tours and a number of guesthouses have telescopes for guests’ use, like Hakos Guest Farm and Tivoli Southern Sky Guest Farm.
Straddling the border between South Africa and Namibia, the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park has a starkly beautiful mountain-desert landscape and is essentially uninhabited. This means no light pollution, or pollution of any sort, creating ideal conditions for astronomy. Visitors have also found the lack of cell phone coverage liberating. (Also see our post about Digitial Detox). There are plenty of campsites, but you’ll need a four-by-four vehicle to traverse the park. The Orange River has some excellent fly-fishing too.