Image credit:Guido da Rozze: Flickr
It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the jaw-dropping, earth-bound beauty of South Africa while on an overlanding adventure. From tawny savannah plains teeming with untamed wildlife to paradise beaches and towering mountains. This truly is a place of a thousand different landscapes.
But, when you’ve stopped to take a breather, be sure to look up! While it’s true that an overland tour through Southern Africa is the best way to travel Africa, the region’s oldest and most captivating myths and tales come from the sky.
Sadly, we can’t take you on a tour through the galaxy…yet! Although the Southern Hemisphere offers perfect conditions for land-bound celestial escapades. And, although Africa’s iconic sunsets often steal the limelight, the real magic happens after dark. This is when the Milky Way swathes the sky in a stunning, celestial treat.
Stargazing is one of Southern Africa’s most underrated pleasures and you don’t have to be a “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fan to be dazzled.
Whether you’re trying to flag down a spaceship to take your African overland tour to new heights or are just after a nighttime safari like no other, here are the best stargazing spots to visit in Southern Africa.
Sutherland, Northern Cape
While the plethora of archaeological sites, fossils, San paintings, wildlife and some 9000 plant species are enough to warrant a visit to this remote location, it’s the pollution-free skies that make Sutherland a bucket list worthy stargazing destination… well that, and the fact that it’s home to the largest telescope in the Southern hemisphere
Long before Galileo even thought to peep through a telescope, it was the Khoisan people who had a remarkably extensive knowledge of the stars. Although much has changed since then, Sutherland’s pollution-free night skies and high elevation makes it the perfect site for the South African Astronomical Observatory.
If this wasn’t cool enough, the observatory’s single optical telescope is capable of picking up the light of a single candle… on the moon! Let that sink in.
Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public (I mean, I really wouldn’t want anyone touching my 30 million dollar toy either) but thankfully the region boasts cloudless nights around 80% of the year and a flat landscape which allows unobstructed views of a surreal night sky even with the naked eye.
Image credit: South African Tourism Flickr
The Waterberg, Limpopo
Ahhh, Limpopo! Home to South Africa’s most significant Iron Age site. Also boasting terrific wildlife and ancient landforms drenched in spiritual history. This underrated province is abounding with epic travel experiences.
Named after the serene river that flows along the northern border, the Limpopo province is often looked over for South African hotspots such as Gauteng and Cape Town. But, what it lacks in popularity is more than made up for with a diverse landscape. Limpopo is rich in wildlife, spectacular scenery and a wealth of historical and cultural treasures.
Away from the concrete, streets and bustle of people, the vastness of space in the inky Waterberg sky is just one more reason to go overlanding in Africa. With the surrounding bushland, baobabs, Marula and fever trees setting the scene, the full splendor of the galaxy drapes across some of the darkest skies in the world.
Kglalagadi Transfrontier Park
Regarded as one of the darkest and least polluted places in southern Africa, the Kglalagadi Transfrontier Park is a rare treat for galactic travelers.
Far-flung from pollution of any kind. This vast wildlife reserve in the Kalahari Desert region of Botswana and South Africa will make you feel like an aspiring Nicolaus Copernicus.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. You might not feel like the father of astronomy but you definitely will walk away feeling as if it’s your first time seeing the stars. And, if the extreme lack of pollution and the star-studded sky is not enough to draw you in, then the traditional San skylore definitely will.
Legend has it that many lifetimes ago, the Khoisan people of Africa’s Kalahari Desert created the stars. One evening a lonely little girl was dancing around the night fire when she threw glowing embers high up into the sky.
The embers remained as a wide shimmering pathway (the Milky Way), illuminating the once pitch-black sky and allowing the girl to visit distant villages when the moon was not shining.
Pafuri River Camp, Kruger National Park
Think ‘Kruger National Park’ and images of the Big Five are sure to spring to mind. I don’t blame you as it is one of Africa’s most iconic safari destinations.
This safari hotspot is among the world’s greatest wildlife-watching destinations. All of the continents iconic safari animals – elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and zebra – share the bushveld with about 137 other mammals and over 500 species of bird.
Sure, it is touristy and you will probably wait in line to get a peek at that pride of lions but it is popular for a very good reason.
However, there is more to a safari in the Kruger National Park than the thrill of Africa’s big cat lurking in the distance. In the far northern reaches of the Kruger National Park, the Pafuri River Camp beckons star-gazers with minimal light pollution and inky black skies.
The best part is that you don’t need to have a state of the art telescope to get a good view! Lay back and listen to the sounds of nature all while gazing up at a few of our galaxy’s finest. From the Southern Cross to the Coalsack Nebula and even two of our neighboring galaxies some 180,000 light years away.
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Cederberg, Western Cape
Whoever thought that wine and wilderness don’t go hand in hand has obviously never been to the Western Cape’s Cederberg region.
Just two hours away from the bustle of Cape Town city, the dramatic landscape of Cederberg lures adventure travelers. With pristine natural beauty and scenic landscapes primed for rock climbing, hiking and surfing. Top it off with a glass of wine while watching the sunset and you’ve found yourself in paradise.
It’s easy to think it can’t get any better than this, but once the sun dips behind the horizon, the region’s pollution-free mountain air sets the stage for a dazzling stargazing experience. The best seat in the house is at the Cederberg Astronomical Observatory which is open to the public. Also featuring three powerful telescopes that bring the distant stars into clear, sharp focus.
But, a trip to the observatory is not always necessary, as on clear nights, thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye.
Image credit: Matt Biddulph flickr