Cape Town is a wonderful place, but (when load-shedding isn’t in effect) it suffers from the same problem experienced by cities the world over – light pollution. While in the CBD, one cannot truly fathom the extent of the cosmos around our tiny blue planet by looking up into the night sky.
And what a truly awe-inspiring sight it is to see.
It was on the second day of our Cape Karoo trip (which included closer-to-home Matjiesfontein) that we found found ourselves in the small, Victorian-style Groot Karoo town of Prince Albert, a town that not only boasts an impressive 77 bed and breakfast establishments, but also unparalleled views of the stars in the night sky for travellers from all over the globe.
Now this is by no means Sutherland, the famed town with its world-famous telescopic equipment, but husband and wife duo Hans and Tilanie Daehné from Astro Tours certainly do know how to introduce you to the universe around us.
The tour company (based in Prince Albert) specialises in astronomy, but more specifically in conducting guided tours through the Karoo to witness the gobsmacking views of the night sky in this part of South Africa. But it goes deeper than that – before the tour a workshop is conducted by Hans and Tilanie, during which they break down constellations and general stargazing information. In this instance, we completed our workshop at The Swartberg Hotel where we were staying (and yes, it is a notoriously haunted locale – more on that later).
Our first leg of the stargazing tour led us to a beautiful, open space about a 10-minute drive outside Prince Albert, where we were given solar eclipse glasses to witness the sun setting into the Karoo landscape. Sherry and snacks were handed out by Hans and Tilanie as I stood in awe of my first Great Karoo sunset. Not long after Venus came out, then Jupiter and then several more stars, before we headed back to the hotel for dinner.
Coming back to that ‘haunted hotel’ – The Swartberg. I’d like to point out that there are no official ‘ghosts’ who take up a permanent residency here, but there have been accounts of the paintings in the dining area changing before patrons’ eyes, floating vases and a late-night poltergeist in the corridor. At first I thought about not writing about these as they don’t do the marketing efforts of The Swartberg Hotel any favours, but then I realised that actually it would be doing them a solid – making the trip from Cape Town with a group of friends in the hopes of experiencing a ‘ghost’ in a hotel is a rather attractive option.
The hotel is in the middle of the incredibly picturesque town (which dates back to 1792) and is charming to say the least. While the utmost consideration has been taken to preserve the original look and feel, there are newer chalets behind the complex that are more modern.
The back area of The Swartberg also includes an inviting pool and well-kept gardens – it was in this area that Astro Tours gave us an unforgettable stargazing experience after dinner. Through the use of a high-quality telescope, I got to see the brooding planet of Jupiter and several of its moons, Saturn and its rings, a distant Red Giant star and so much more.
It is with thanks to Hans and Tilanie that I know now know how to point out constellations in the sky – it’s just a pity not much can be seen from here in Cape Town and I can’t put my newfound stargazing skills to good use. It is a fact that the stars are best viewed in winter, so I guess I’ll have to be back soon!