A Sky Full of Stars

I’m standing huddled in a ditch in the absolute black of night with a dozen people I barely know, staring up at an imposing dome on the horizon.  The only light we have is from the stars themselves, which is the real reason I find myself in the coldest place in South Africa.

Sutherland is home to SALT, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere and we have come to photograph star trails away from the light pollution of the city.  It may be summer in the rest of South Africa, but I have three layers of clothing on and I’m willing the hours away as I’ve forgotten my gloves and beanie back at the guest house.  But my oh my the photographs are worth the torture.

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The next day our host, Jurg Wagener – a fascinating man with an infectious zest for life – tells us nonchalantly that although the temperature dropped to 7 degrees celcius the previous evening, the chill factor levelled it out to an effective zero degrees.  Little wonder that at one point I was so frozen it felt like my fingers could snap off and the no white light policy around the observatory meant risking tripping over rocks and tripods and camping chairs to try and locate the bottle of red wine I had carted all the way up the hill for medicinal purposes along with the rest of my gear.

The next night we find ourselves in a field on a derelict sheep farm on the outskirts of town as the light fades slowly.  A lesson well learned from the night before, I have thick socks on my hands, a beanie under my hoodie and that treasured bottle of red.  Collectively we watch the sky fade from cornflower blue to violet and like kids around a Christmas tree we await the first stars before the time release capture begins.

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In the distance the head and tail lights of a few passing cars add to the background ambience of the photographs.

Later in the evening as the cable released cameras click away, I stare up at a sky so dark it’s like a blackboard decorated with glitter.

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The silence is punctuated only by the old windpump creaking arthritically each time the wind comes up, the bleating of two irate sheep who object to our presence throughout the night from a field behind, and a cacophony of frogs looking for love.

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Footnote:  Massive thanks to Peter Haarhof, photocoach extraordinaire, who helped set up the picture of SALT. The rest is my work entirely.


Sutherland Streets

The streets are wide and often deserted, but the hospitality in this small town is huge.  Everywhere I went the locals greeted me with a ready smile and schoolchildren posed like …. well stars actually, often giddy from their antics.


Along the main street and surrounds you’ll find reminders of what a small town Sutherland is and what keeps the economy ticking over apart from sheep farming.

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Then, in an unkempt graveyard on the outskirts of the town, more reminders – this time of those from another land who died on foreign soil  more than a century ago.


Here and there among the dusty cottages and plots I found splashes of pretty and an abundance of roses that grow surprisingly well here and with minimum effort I’m told.  “They like the cold”, more than one resident told me.23-IMG_0977 26-IMG_1001A word of caution if you intend on experiencing Sutherland yourself:  Pack warm clothes aplenty, wind down the pace a notch or thee and don’t expect to find much open from midday on a Saturday through to Monday morning, apart from the restaurants.  Sutherland is that much of a sleepy hollow.

And if you run out of petrol don’t try and fill up in a hurry on a Sunday for a quick escape back to the city.  You’ll face a long wait until the church service is over and the proprietor ambles home, Bible under his arm, changes out of his suit and shiny shoes and takes a leisurely stroll across the dirt road from his house to the petrol station to attend to the line of waiting cars.  One by one. All on his own.  Such is small town life :-)

The heart of Sutherland

After a long and frustrating recovery from foot surgery, I’m happily back on my feet, camera in hand and this time my wanderlust has taken me to Sutherland, a small town in the Northern Cape about 4 hours drive from Cape Town.

Situated in the Karoo, an area renowned for it’s barren and arid landscape, and home to less than 3 000 people, Sutherland boasts the coldest temperatures in South Africa all year round.  It’s also home to SALT, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere: It’s dry climate means cloudless skies and together with it’s flat landscape, it’s unobstructed skies make it one of the top stargazing spots in the country.  And indeed, it is the stars that have coaxed me to this chilly dorpie*, just as summer finally arrived in Cape Town.  But more about my stargazing escapades in a later post.

A walk around town before breakfast confirmed that in this typical dusty Platteland** townlife is simple, from the succulent plants to the architecture and décor:

02-IMG_063204-IMG_0646Sandstone buildings, corrugated iron roofs and faded paintwork add to the charm of a town where the Dutch Reformed Church was used as a fort by British soldiers during the Anglo Boer War. The metal roofs are seldom painted, so the harsh glare of the sun can be blinding, not to mention playing havoc with photographs!06-IMG_0665 08-IMG_067416-IMG_0747And then there is the omnipresent wind pump, synonymous with Platteland towns.24-IMG_0990

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* small town

** flat land

Cape Bulbul

With their punk rocker hairdo and distinctive white eye ring, these are the noisiest birds in my garden.  Surprisingly they are the most skittish compared to the garrulous white eyes, the southern boubou and the sunbirds who don’t take flight if I approach.  Patience and a tripod required :-)


Fish Hoek Mornings

Fish Hoek is a much loved seaside village famous for its family-friendly beach, lifesavers, early morning swimmers and trek net fishermen.  It’s often referred to as the largest retirement village in the world.  It’s a great place to be at daybreak, especially in high season before that holidaymakers arrive with everything bar the kitchen sink.

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Slowing down time …..

Occasionally we all need to turn things down a notch or two.  To take time out to smell the flowers as it were.  Or in this case, to switch to super slow shutter speeds to catch the Kalk Bay harbour sentinels flashing simultaneously.


It isn’t as easy as it might look as the lighthouses aren’t synchronised, but in doing so, I also managed to capture my first ever “misty wave action” effect :-)


Woodstock – its Art and its People Part II

Sunday morning and Woodstock is filled with sights and sounds as I walk the narrow streets searching for street art.  It’s easy to find because it’s everywhere, depicting anything from South Africa’s dark past, to more colourful themes.15-IMG_9417Sometimes there is a message, often one of hope.  Other times, a reminder of how far we have come as a nation and as individuals.56-IMG_9561Or something profound and complex in its simplicity.27-IMG_9469Other times the message is quite surprising:  A suburb also sadly tainted by drugs and crime and hardship and litter, Woodstock is the last place I expect to be reminded about the dwindling numbers of South Africa’s national bird.35-IMG_9486Friendly locals pause on their way to church, happy to direct me to yet another piece where artists from all over the world have left their mark on Woodstock’s walls.11-IMG_9403Children play games on patches of bald earth while their mothers toil their way through a piles of washing.  Others are content to do very little.52-IMG_953958-IMG_956855-IMG_9554And among all of this colour and activity, nature makes its own art, like these grasses clinging to life through an old grille.64-IMG_9594

Beauty in Negative Spaces – Exploring Woodstock’s Street Art

My unexpected discovery of abundant street art in Cape Town led to my exploring Woodstock, a suburb on the fringes of the city that is fast becoming Street Art Central.08-IMG_9373


Situated between the Table Bay docks and the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, Woodstock is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity that has had a long history of being run down, teeming with drugs, crime and litter, and while none of this will disappear overnight (oh that litter!), the last decade has seen a dramatic facelift with innovative businesses and trendy eateries converting and revamping abandoned buildings and warehouses.


Almost every conceivable space is covered.  You’ll find works of varying quality on most street corners and adorning even the simplest of homes.



And although Woodstock is high density living among the surrounding industry, it’s dotted with loads of Victorian semi-detached houses with a feel for yesteryear.  Many have been beautifully restored, while the neglected look of others is adorned with colourful pieces or art from scraps of wood.



An additional treat is the omnipresent and iconic slab of mountain Cape Town is famous for as a backdrop.




Around Harrington Street

Living and working in the southernmost suburbs of Cape Town, my forays into the city centre are rare. When I do head that way, more often than not, I’m focused on staying alive (dodging the ubiquitous ‘law unto themselves” minibus taxis) and avoiding pedestrians, traffic jams, busloads of tourists et al.  Taking in whatever else is going on in my own beautiful city is seldom an option :-)

Saturday mornings though, I recently discovered, are the perfect time to slip into the inner city and take in the sights and sounds that are normally hidden by congestion and the weekday pandemonic hustle and bustle of what is probably the prettiest major African city. In fact, the streets were practically deserted when I attended a photographic workshop a few blocks up from Parliament this weekend.

Equipment-wise, I was unprepared. My camera was at home charging, but I followed the urge to set off on foot with my cellphone and I was pleasantly surprised at what could be found traversing a few blocks around a single street – in this case Harrington Street.

Graffiti is prolific and exceptionally good in Cape Town and I’ve been itching to photograph some for a while, so I was delighted to stumble across some really good pieces in the immediate area that weren’t obscured by people and traffic.

Given that xenophobia has recently reared its ugly head again, it was a meaningful coincidence that this piece was the first I stumbled upon. We could all learn something from taking a good look at this beautiful graphic depiction by Boa Mistura, a Madrid-based art collective.


What would Cape Town be without a quote from Madiba?


I love how dozens of buttons fill in this key.


Architecturally along Harrington Street, the old blends with and the new with several buildings dating back to the start of the 20th century.  Next door to a historic double story, New York Bagels served a delicious Saturday special for only R20 – a bagel filled with salmon trout and scrambled egg.  That, as we say in these parts, is for “mahala“*.  And did I mention it was absolutely delicious?

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Around the corner I found the interestingly decorated Ons Plek (Our Place), Cape Town’s only residential Child and Youth Care Centre specialising in developmental and therapeutic services for girls who have lived, worked or begged on the streets of the Mother City. The mural is the work of Faith47.


And finally, the decorative landmark home of yumminess, Charly’s Bakery.  I’m looking forward to many more Saturday mornings of being a tourist in my own city.


*South African slang meaning for free, gratis or for nothing.