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The Karoo Star Shrine

Nuclear explosions, ice-cold kisses, fish fossils, James Bond, eight thousand new galaxies, white guys getting up to mischief in township shebeens … the Karoo town of Sutherland, home to the Southern African Large Telescope, ain’t as sleepy as it looks.

Original publication: Sunday Times Lifestyle, November 28, 1999.

Image courtesy of Adam Welz

When India and Pakistan detonated nuclear bombs in 1998 and resurrected the prospect of global catastrophe, the blasts – these flashes of star-like energy – caused seismic waves that were registered thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the planet, and in the most unlikely of places: in the pebbly hills and scrublands around the Karoo village of Sutherland, population 2,005 and situated 110 hot, winding, utterly lonesome kilometres from the N1 turn-off. More precisely, the shock waves were recorded some 20 km out of town, along a dirt road where the dust in one’s rear-view mirror swallows up houses and wind pumps, koppies and bush, as one pursues the silent nuclear trail. The landscape’s mood is unnerving, crawling with desert jitters, with echoes of Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, the Roswell Incident, UFOs, alien visitors …

Ahead is a mountain, on top of which one sees white, domed structures resembling colossal eggs in colossal cups. These are the telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), all sited at an altitude of 1,800m and government-funded through the National Research Foundation. It was here that a seismograph, one linked to an international network operated from San Diego, detected the atomic blasts and helped to identify their origin.

If this routine feat of seismography intimates just how total the effect of nuclear warfare would be, it also illustrates the converse proposition: namely, that there is no place on earth, however peripheral, that does not reverberate somehow to the thunder of distant events – events, one should add, which are not only human or local to our planet, but cosmological as well.

Given its altitude, its uniform weather conditions and relative absence of light pollution, Sutherland is a zone that, since the observatory’s opening in 1973, has been marked off as a laboratory for investigating the reverberations – the earthly tremors, the light-emissions from stars – that enter its confines. It is an antenna, an eye opened onto space to catch light; in religious terms, it is a shrine, inviting heightened awareness of ethereal powers and influences.

There is an air of other-worldly enchantment that hangs about this dusty Karoo region: something mysterious is happening, but it’s hard to say what is, and the village of Sutherland itself – silent and reclusive, seemingly pointless – only adds to the mysteriousness.

Visitors to the observatory often ask if there is life out there; one could ask the same of Sutherland. The R354 sweeps in at one side of the town, passes a cluster of shops and rock-brick houses (galvanised steel roofs, benches on the verandas, prickly-pear gardens, silver diamond-mesh fences) and sweeps out several hundred metres later past the historically coloured township (shacks, shoebox houses, clothes billowing on washing-lines), to vanish into the vacancy of the Karoo.

Hardly a soul is in sight. Bakkies stand parked on the roadside; smells of conifers drift down the street; a tractor chugs along, carrying farm-hands. In an area averaging only 14 wind-free days a year, the windows stay habitually closed. ‘Is there life after death?’ asks a signpost on a gate: ‘Break in and find out.’ Verily, a place for brooding on the metaphysical, as many of the town’s retired sheep farmers probably do.

Adam, the photographer, wants some still-lives of small-town still life, so he and I go strolling. When we meet the town clerk, a young Capetonian called Aletta Van Sittert, she surprises us by pointing to Adam’s cameras: ‘It’s good that you’re taking pictures now,’ she says excitedly. ‘In five years’ time you’ll be struck by a huge difference.’

Beneath its apparent somnolence, Sutherland’s once again reverberating to the history’s march, but this time history’s happening not in India or across the galaxy. It’s happening down the road, and it has a name: SALT, or Southern African Large Telescope, an innovative structure utilising 91 adjustable one-metre mirrors. Once construction begins in the year 2,000 it will be the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, and it promises to boost Sutherland and the Northern Cape Province as a whole.

SALT’s modelled on a telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas, but the resemblance doesn’t stop there. Like the SAAO, McDonald is orbited by a tiny satellite town, and if Sutherland attracts only 10% of the 100,000 tourists who annually visit its US twin, this will be a vast increase on its current 500 per year. Pivotal in the town’s development plan, Van Sittert explains, is a multimedia visitors’ centre that will become a major tourist and educational destination.

If it’s hard to imagine Sutherland going overboard and reinventing itself as a neon-lit Babylon along the lines of a Las Vegas, it’s even harder to picture the probable influx of New Age stall-holders massed around the town’s Dutch Reformed church, so timelessly South African does this former Boer War fort seem, with its cypresses and sandstone.

Yet fixity is an illusion. Technology will accelerate the still-life town into fast-forward – and indeed, every advance in astronomical knowledge has the same disorienting effect of melting away the familiar world before one’s eyes, of melting away the church’s oak pews and vaulted ceilings, and scattering the portraits of its ministers into ever-unfolding vistas of space.

Not only is earth rotating and orbiting the sun, it’s inside a galaxy that is itself in motion, like billions of others: the ground below falls away. And at the SAAO, instrumentation is being installed to measure the earth’s geodynamics, its land tides. In one tidal period, the South African land-mass rises and sinks by five metres.

One can suffer vertigo while merely standing in Sutherland church; and when the caretaker turns on the organ, a majestic sound thrums in the air and resonates in the floor, as if giving body to the superhuman forces all around.

On the mountain slopes outside town, in the observatory’s complex of pseudo-Cape Dutch houses and workshops, the monks of the new world are preparing for another session in the Karoo star shrine: they’re having a lunch, or rather a noon-time breakfast, of cornflakes, since they’ve just awoken after having cruised the universe’s hotspots from seven the previous night to about four a.m.

Ending their game of pool in the lounge, the windows of which open onto veldt dotted with springbok, the monks retreat to the hostel refectory. Between mouthfuls, Drs David Kilkenny and Patrick Woudt chat to Adam and me about sport and, of course, the astronomer’s life.

Kilkenny’s a big, grey-bearded man in jeans and t-shirt. In an accent like Sean Connery’s, he explains that when he and his SAAO colleagues are not in their Cape Town headquarters, they come to Sutherland for week-long stints. It’s a battle to adapt to the nocturnal working life, particularly during the long, often snowy, winter nights. ‘By the time I’m used to it,’ he says, ‘it’s time to go home again.’

In addition to the observatory’s permanent staff and their families – two night assistants, support crew, a mechanical and electronic engineer – the four big telescopes are operated by visiting astronomers, whether local or foreign, like Patrick Woudt, a young Dutchman who, for his doctorate, discovered not one but 8,000 galaxies.

Facts like these make it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not; for astronomers they’re commonplace, and Kilkenny modestly downplays the awe with which laypeople regard his profession. Nope, he’s never seen UFOs; nor can variable stars (his speciality) rival the satisfaction of a monthly pay cheque.

But Kilkenny concedes he’s aware of something mind-blowing rippling beneath the scientific data. ‘Discovering objects nobody’s seen before is very exciting,’ he says. ‘If you’re lucky, those discoveries give you the tools to make others.’

For Pieter Fourie, working over the past 12 years as the observatory’s on-site electronic engineer has helped him realise how miniscule day-to-day troubles really are. ‘People think you’re blasé about problems on the outside,’ he says, ‘but you’re just putting it in perspective.’ Fourie has designed much of the observatory’s instrumentation – ‘sometimes I even forget how my older things work,’ he jokes – and after lunch we drive to the mountain plateau to see the main telescopes.

Three of them are mounted in domes and ranked before the fourth and largest one, housed in a huge silver drum. As we enter it, Fourie demonstrates the perspective astronomy has given him. With blasé aplomb, he reaches for a canister of liquid nitrogen, temperature -200°C, which he decants on his hand; sizzling globules race over the linoleum. I try it myself. No big deal: I’ve kissed colder lips. ‘We use this to cool our instruments – and our beers,’ he laughs.

The tower inside resembles a James Bond villain’s HQ: the telescope is a latticework of girders, and as its mirror weighs a ton, even heftier machinery, taking roughly the form of a titanic dumb-bell, is needed to swivel it about.

‘People assume astronomers sit looking through a telescope: that doesn’t happen,’ Fourie explains. ‘A telescope doesn’t show you a picture. It’s a light-bucket using mirrors to collect light. Computers reduce this data to a coherent form – like a graph, for instance. With SALT, astronomers won’t even have to be here. They can sit in an office and have data e-mailed to them.’

The church organ in town provides the fiction of a visceral experience of divinity; technology on the mount offers scientific truth, but the closer it takes one into the cosmos, the further it must necessarily sublimate these discoveries into purely e-mailable abstraction.

When, later that evening, I had a chance to look through an eye-piece at Saturn and a cluster of millions of stars, I naively hoped to be transported out there, to feel the thunder directly without needing recourse to the artistry of a George Lucas. But Saturn looked like a comic-book sketch; the globular cluster was as incomprehensible as a snowflake seen under microscope. Blemishes on my eye kept criss-crossing the view, this reptilian eye puzzling at the sky from underneath a rock.

‘Astronomers talk about millions of kilometres or billions of light years,’ Kilkenny says, ‘but I don’t think we have a better appreciation of it than other people. I don’t think the human mind can grasp those distances and sizes. You can’t imagine them, they’re just a numbers.’

But no shrine worth its SALT promises easy access to sublime mysteries, and as night begins to fall, the silhouetted domes take on the guise of a modern Stonehenge. This is ancient land, populated millennia ago by dinosaurs, and fish fossils have been unearthed at nearby Saltpetrekop, the youngest extinct volcano in South Africa. The twilight hush is broken only by the hum of domes rotating and view-slits opening; from their interiors, classical music drifts over the veldt, over the grazing springboks.

The darker it grows, the more movement there is on the mountain. Cars come and go, their headlights dipped; honchos from the SAAO arrive from an official meeting in town, upbeat after having finalised SALT-inspired regional development plans; the two night assistants also appear, getting down to their research duties.

After two decades at the observatory, these night assistants have become almost purely nocturnal beings. ‘Day-time doesn’t exist for me,’ says Francois Van Wyk, a diminutive fellow born in Sutherland. While taking readings from a small telescope in the open veldt, he describes the majestic fireballs he’s seen, the other-worldly escape his work offers him.

‘Look at the stars and you look at a part of yourself,’ he says, invisible in the darkness. ‘They’re millions of light years away, but we’re all made of the same substance. We’re stardust.’

In an observatory nearby, Patrick Woudt is studying a computer screen, analysing data that has taken six billion years to reach earth. Trying to look intelligent, I listen as he talks about Red Shift, Dark Energy, the Cosmological Constant … from which I deduce that I need a drink.

With Adam playing Agent Scully to my Mulder, we head off to the now utterly desolate town; even the police station is closed. But like truth, the beer is Out There, and in quest of a shebeen, we leave the tarmac and turn onto the sandy roads of the town ghetto, of Sutherland gangland.

We abandon the car and take to the empty roads on foot: under the glow of the amber streetlights, the car looks as inconspicuous as a Jumbo 747 or the Millennium Falcon. Adam and I are the aliens, and in an amusing reversal, it’s the two white guys who get barked at by every dog in the hood.

Music, shouting, and the gentle crack of a pool-cue being broken alerts us to a party in a garage ahead. We approach some men in the driveway: Take us to your leader, bro. The music inside abruptly stops; Adam and I have been mistaken as Boere. A guy called Langes comes weaving out, urging his fellow-revellers to ‘kiss my mother’s white ass’, and tells us there’s no beer for sale – never was, never will be.

But he’s sympathetic to our alcoholism, and leads us on a peregrination through this unfamiliar amber-lit world. Dogs are barking, people are coming outdoors; Langes, a local gangland kingpin, yells at them, characterising them as reproductive organs, and casually lobs rocks onto their roofs. He bangs on a door: ‘Ek soek bier vir twee whiteys!’ A voice shouts back: ‘Is jy befok?’ (‘I’m looking for beer for two whiteys.’ ‘Are you fucked in the head?’)

Suddenly, in this encounter between mutual aliens, there’s a moment of recognition. A group of men has surrounded us: some, it turns out, work at the observatory, on the construction site of a new telescope. Yes, of course, they’ve seen us before! A man in overalls says elatedly to Adam: You’re the guy with the camera! He turns to me: And you’re the larney who had a smoke with old Piet Fourie! Bloody hell!

Among them is a SALT site surveyor. ‘Sorry, guys,’ he says. ‘Everybody thought you were cops on a raid. You can’t trust anyone.’ A gold tooth flashes in his smile, and then, standing in this teeming backyard shebeen, he says to me, a little incongruously: ‘By the way, you’ll catch Saturn on the meridian at eleven tonight.’

Langes bids goodnight, entrusting Adam and me to two fellows whom he hospitably promises to kill should anything befall us. ‘They’re my guards,’ he says. ‘They’ll look after you.’

Sutherland is a star shrine, a place of monks and guardian angels which is resonant with mysterious influences from far and near, and on the mountain a dark wind has risen, rattling the blinds on the observatories and engulfing the plateau in noise that seems to come from a long-lost sea, or the glittering abyss up above. Inside the domes are the astronomers, lightkeepers with computers and oscilloscopes, watching for a sign.

 

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