Friday, November 7, 2008

The hidden treasures of Sutherland

The past weekend I was priviledged to travel after more than 40 years, to one of the almost forgotten towns of my childhood days - Sutherland. Sutherland is a small Karoo town, situated on a plateau area called the northern Roggeveld. During my high school years at Calvina, which is 120 kilometers northwest of Sutherland, we used to travel there once every year to play rugby and netball.

From the outside, Sutherland does not immediately attract or impress. At a first glance it looks like a dreary and deteriorating place. But for those who are interested and keep their eyes open, Sutherland has some unique features. It can, as ever when one looks beyond the most obvious, offer unexpected surprises. First of all, the sun-baked town has been recognised as one of the coldest places in South Africa. In fact, tradition has it that there is not a month in the year in which, at some time or another, snowfalls have not been recorded in the town.

Sutherland is also the birthplace of one of South Africa’s most famous artists, the writer and poet NP van Wyk Louw. To introduce and celebrate his work together with that of his brother Gladstone and a number of other memorable son’s and daughter’s of the community, the family house where they grew up has been turned into an intruiging little museum. Sutherland is also part of an area where quite a collection of rare and exquisite veldplants can be found. You can’t help but notice them when you enter the town - if not because you see them, then because of their herby fragrance. And there is Salpeterkop, the last of the active volcanoes southern Africa knew, and its inevitable traces left in the geology of the area.

However, during the weekend I was struck by another feature, an almost hidden treasure, of this simple little town. Given its unique location on the still and higher plains of the Karoo where little atmospheric interferences are experienced, the stars at night are more visible, much clearer and brighter than in most other places in the country. It is no accident that the biggest observatory in the southern hemisphere has been built here. Looking up into the sky on our first night there I not only noticed, as if for the first time, the stars in all their virginal splendour - I also understood much better the sense of amazement and wonder the psalmist must have had when he wrote: “When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places - what is a man that you think of him; mere man that you care for him?”

Perhaps that was the biggest gift of Sutherland over the weekend: the awareness that we are not as Fredrick Bauerschmidt wrote, primarily the masters of the universe. “We receive the world as God’s gift, just as we receive ourselves as God’s gift…”. What is more - we often discover this, where and when least expected.

NP Wyk Louw expressed it well when he wrote: “To be a child in these surroundings of town and farmland is perhaps the richest treasure that can be offered to a youngster. I become impatient when I hear about limitations, the monotony of such a life, deprived of all cultural commodities. For a receptive child, a child with imagination, it is a rich fulfulling life”.

Carel Anthonissen

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