Groundbreaking science and steadfast traditions collide in this farming community

 
 
 

The desolate terrain is unabating. Wind whistles past the snaking dirt road. It’s an endless stretch of red dust and swollen rocks. No people. No trees. No phone reception. Could anything ever survive here? On the surface, the Karoo is cold, arid and uninhabitable. The white spire of a church juts out over the hills – a sign of life. Since the 1850s, one remote town has weathered the formidable landscape. For the stalwart community of Sutherland, this place is their source of pride. They understand that the harsh environment is not to be feared, but respected.

The town, home to roughly 3 000 people, can be explored within a day on foot. While small, it plays an integral role in South Africa’s agriculture industry. Sheep farmers settled in the area in the 19th century. They learnt how to work with the land, developing farming methods still used today. The herbaceous vegetation gives the renowned Karoo lamb its sought-after flavour, and the meat is exported globally. A quintessential part of traditional Sutherland cuisine, the lamb is often served with a side of preserved quinces.  

Though the town is rooted in heritage, it’s also the centre of scientific advancements. Minutes outside of Sutherland, the South African Astronomical Observatory conducts groundbreaking research into the cosmos. The lack of pollution and artificial light in the Karoo makes it the optimal location for stargazing. At the observatory, multiple white domed telescopes dot the barren landscape, resembling an alien planet out of a sci-fi movie. Here, the Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT, is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. This is Africa’s giant eye on the universe, an anomaly in the dusty dorp.

If Sutherland is a place of paradoxes, it’s also one of extremes. Temperatures have dropped to -16°C, making this one of the coldest places in the country. Every winter, snow cloaks the stark environment, creating a singular experience of the landscape. It’s one of many perspectives of the town. At Blesfontein Farm, majestic appaloosa horses gallop across the plateau. A drive down the Ouberg Pass provides panoramic views of the primal escarpment. Yet even the distinct beauty can’t hide a harsh reality. Sutherland’s natural wealth is under threat.

A prolonged drought has destroyed the vegetation. With nothing to feed on, sheep turn to poisonous plants in desperation. This kills them – if starvation doesn’t get to them first. Even if it rains, it will take years for farms to recover. In the face of this unprecedented crisis, the people of Sutherland stand by one another. A group of residents crochet and sell toy sheep to afford more feed, while farmers share what little resources they have. In October, communities gather to celebrate their annual Dankfees, or Thanksgiving Festival. Locals host their fair of food and games at the Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1899. It’s not only a time to unite, but to give thanks. For even though the very survival of this town is in jeopardy, they are grateful to call this place home. Beyond the stars that shine above, it is the very warmth of this community that continues to draw people in.