South Africa is famous for some huge stars, from political titans like Nelson Mandela to actresses such as Charlize Theron, but even these must take a backseat when set against the real stars of South Africa – those in the sky above the Cederberg Mountains. Wrap up warm, pack some provisions and set off one evening from the luxury oasis that is Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort and you’ll soon find there isn’t just a world to explore, but an infinity of heavens, too.
Just over a mile away from Dwarsrivier, a two-hour show starts at 8pm. It isn’t a concert or a piece of theatre, however, but a star-show. Thousands of stars; big, small, bright and dim, are scattered all over the canvas of the night in a manner that will force even the least inquisitive types to dwelling on the big questions in life. Some might ask why it matters – after all, surely stargazing can be done anywhere at night. The problem with most places on earth, however, is that other sources of light can interfere.
The celestial spheres of the Cederberg Mountains are different, however. Blessed with an obsidian sky that’s studded with coruscating flecks, nobody is obliged to be satisfied with faded imprints of Orion’s Belt in this patch of South Africa. And that’s largely thanks to the efforts of a British astronomer, Peter Mack. Once an employee of the South African Astronomical Observatory, he visited the Cederberg Mountains in the 1980s and quickly concluded that it was the perfect location for a new observatory.
Completed in 1988, in time for the Halley’s comet of that year, the observatory’s 16” telescope (as well as its little brother, known as the “Sherman Tank”) provide glimpses of a universe that cannot fail to impress. Try to identify planets, nebulae, clusters and galaxies, or trace the great constellations such as Andromeda and Cassiopeia across the darkness – and try to avoid mistaking satellites for anything else – as you slowly build your astronomical skills.
The only time the observatory’s not worth a visit is on the full moon, when lunar luminosity brooks no competition. Otherwise, it’s all hushed tones, sweeping star-scapes and breathtakingly dark nights. Be prepared for a bit of competitive star-gazing, though. Some might claim to see the ghostly rings of Saturn, while others may declare that they have the heart-stopping Southern Cross within their crosshairs. To trump all these highlights, however, try to spot the cluster known as the Jewel Box – containing over 100 bright stars, it really is the pièce de résistance of any star-gazer’s night.
If losing yourself in the magic of star-gazing sounds like a welcome prospect, why not book a place at Bushmans Kloof, an ecological retreat in the open plains of the Cederberg Mountains.