General Notes for Observers visiting Sutherland


The village of Sutherland is located North-East of Cape Town, about 370 km by road. The observatory is about 18 km to the East of the village, at an elevation of 1798 m. The precise geographical position of the 1.0-m telescope is 20° 48´ 38.5´´ E; 32° 22´ 46´´ S.

From Cape Town, the N1 National Road is followed for about 250 km to Matjiesfontein where one turns left on to the Sutherland road. The speed limit on the N1 is 120 km/h. From Sutherland, vehicles should follow the road to Fraserburg for the remaining 14 km to the observatory gate, which – with its somewhat incongruous avenue of pine trees in the desert – is difficult to miss. The route is depicted on the map below.

If petrol is required en-route, it can be obtained at Komkyk Motors (green sign) or the Petroport (red sign) where the N1 passes Touws River, at about the halfway point. Drivers refueling observatory vehicles must do so at the Petroport. Snacks are available at either establishment at any time, though most observers stop for fast food lunches at the Petroport. An alternative is to stop for lunch at the turn-of-the-century resort of Matjiesfontein (The Laird’s Arms serves pub lunches and snacks all day from 10:00; a coffee shop is open from 09:00 to 17:00).

Route to SAAO, Sutherland

Route to SAAO, Sutherland


The main telephone number for the Observatory is 023 571 1205. During office hours calling this number will ring through to the switchboard; if no answer, or after hours, calls will be directed to an Interactive Voice Recording and the caller will be able to enter an extension number to reach their destination.

Calls to the outside world can be made from any of the domes; visitors should request a telephone PIN number from the IT Department ( Call duration is monitored and calls will be charged to the visitor’s account. Some of the domes have an outside line and can receive calls from outside the observatory without going via the switchboard:

1.9-m: 023 100 0221

1.0-m: 023 100 0222

IRSF: 023 100 0223

Other domes amy also have direct numbers. If so, this number will be displayed on the telephone.

There is a fax machine in the reception at SAAO Hostel. Faxes are not printed by default, rather they are delivered via email to the receptionist. The fax number is 023 571 1413.

Data links to the Internet are available from a PC in each dome and from one in the hostel library. Visitors are encouraged to connect to their home institutes via the Internet, but for an extended stay, a private account on the SAAO system can be arranged. If you need such an account, please contact the SAAO IT Department ( in good time to request an account. Connectivity is provided in the form of a 1Gbps link directly to Cape Town and then out to the internet over our fibre link to our ISP, TENET. Current international bandwidth is 17Mbps so please use with consideration and throttle the speeds of any large data transfers.


Transport of observers and their equipment to Sutherland normally leaves Cape Town on Tuesdays at about 10:00 (arriving at the site at about 16:00). The returning transport officially leaves Sutherland at 14H00 on Wednesdays but this time various at the discretion of departing astronomers. Transport of visiting observers on these scheduled runs is free of charge. Should visitors request a special journey, the Observatory reserves the right to ask for reimbursement from the visitor or his parent establishment.

Accommodation and Catering

Accommodation is available for observers on-site, about 1 km by road from the telescopes. Rooms with private bathrooms are provided in two chalets and a hostel with 17 single rooms (which are now all en-suite), a communal sitting room, reading room and dining room. Smokers will need to step outside into the brisk (especially in July) Karoo air.

Three meals per day are provided:

Breakfast: 07H30 – 09H30
Lunch: 13H00 – 14H00
Supper: 17H00 – 18H00 depending on time of year

Observers requiring lunch at 13H00 should write their request on the blackboard in the hostel dining room by breakfast time. “Night lunches” will be prepared for each observer to collect from the kitchen and take to the telescope each night. The contents of the night lunch should be arranged with the kitchen staff on arrival at the hostel. Observers with special dietary requirements (vegetarian, allergies, etc.) should notify the observatory in advance.

Accommodation Rates

Credit card payments can be made in Sutherland or in Cape Town. Please contact Samantha Fishley with any queries.

Dome keys, car keys and torches should be collected from Reception in the hostel foyer on the first day of the observing run, and should be returned before departure to Cape Town.

There are no general laundry facilities, but the hostel staff are prepared to do laundry on a private basis at rates similar to those charged by laundries in Cape Town. To arrange this, observers should speak to the hostel manageress, Magdalena van Wyk.

Office Accommodation

There are now internet connections in most bedrooms. There is a computer connected to the internet in the small hostel library, and at least one in each telescope dome. There are printers in each SAAO dome and a printer/copier in the Hostel Office.

Technical Assistance

Visiting observers who are unfamiliar with the telescope/instrument they are scheduled to use, and who have requested assistance on their telescope time application form, will be allocated a support astronomer. This will be either an SAAO staff astronomer, or an observer who is familiar with the instrumentation to be used, and whose name will appear below the observer’s on the rota. Typically, the support astronomer will be present at the telescope for as long as necessary on the first night of the run, in order to assist visitors in making an efficient start. Occasionally it is not possible to allocate a support astronomer, in which case the observer may be asked to arrive at Sutherland in sufficient time to spend e.g. 1-2 days overlapping with the previous week’s observer.

Resident technical staff will give assistance and tend to problems and faults where necessary. Electronic, mechanical and IT technicians are on call in case of breakdown of telescopes or equipment during the night. Their contact numbers are displayed in each dome.

Instrument Changes and Response to Reported Faults

Instrument changes
Necessary instrument changes are generally carried out at Sutherland on Wednesday mornings. Normally, the largest telescope requiring a change is done first followed by the next largest and so on. Depending on availability of personnel, work may proceed on two telescopes at once. Usually, all changes are completed by lunch time. Occasionally a fault is discovered in the course of the change which is judged to require a lengthy effort to repair. The technicians may at that stage proceed to the next telescope, with a view to completing as many changes as possible before returning to repair the fault. As part of the instrument change procedure, technicians will carry out necessary tests to ensure things are working, all cables are correctly connected and that computers are working, etc.

It is up to the observer to make sure in good time that the equipment is working satisfactorily after the instrument change. This means that tests should be carried out on Wednesday afternoon. There should be no surprises (like an unexpected instrument, etc) when work starts on Wednesday night. At instrument change time, responsibilities are shared between observers and technical staff as follows:


  • Verify that basic functions of instrument work as expected
  • Set up and align IR cryostats
  • Establish that the required filters, gratings are in place (visitors should ask technical staff)


  • Install and certify correct operation of all electronic equipment
  • Check instrument control programs for correct operation


  • Install and certify correct operation of mechanical equipment
  • Pump down IR and optical CCD cryostats
  • Install/remove CCD filter boxes for observers

SAAO has agreements with some organisations that have installations at Sutherland to provide technical support. Occasionally there will be representatives of these organisations at Sutherland for a short period to carry out some specific installation, upgrade, etc. SAAO technical staff will usually be required to provide assistance to the visitors during this period. At such times there may be delays in obtaining technical assistance for the telescopes, though every effort will be made to ensure a telescope is fully operational at the beginning of the night. Observers will be kept informed of these activities, and are requested to curb their natural impatience in the face of such delays.

Fault response

For all faults they encounter, observers are requested to write a factual, unemotional account of the problem in the online fault forum page dedicated to each telescope. Symptoms should be described fully – it is not sufficient merely to cite the reference number of a previous similar fault – and observers should refrain from diagnosing the fault or describing at some length the technical work that was done to correct it. All major faults should be reported promptly to the relevant duty technician (phone numbers are prominently displayed in the dome). At night, every effort will be made to rectify the fault immediately, but if after several hours of work without solution or if the problem is judged to be too severe for there to be any useful progress made, the technician may suspend work until the next morning. Minor problems encountered at night that have little impact on observing should be reported in the fault forum and will be worked on the next day.

Once the fault is rectified the technician will add a note to the fault forum, indicating the action taken. Observers are encouraged to report back under the corresponding fault, on whether the repairs had been satisfactory.

On rare occasions a major fault may occur in one of the international partner installations that would jeopardise the entire operation if not attended to immediately (eg, threatened loss of coolant from the SAGOS superconducting gravity meter). Under these circumstances, the SAAO technician responsible, in most instances the electronics technician, may give first priority to rectifying the fault, in which case it is conceivable that astronomical observing time may be lost if a fault is encountered at the same time with a telescope or instrument, but every effort will be made to avoid this. Otherwise, SAAO telescope faults have priority over minor faults in the international installations.

Observing Records & Feedback Forms

Completed Observing Records (together with the bottom copy of each triplicate logbook page, in the case of SpCCD, GIRAFFE and SAAO CCD data) should be placed in the “End of Run” tray in the dome on the last night of the observing run. Please also fill in the online Observers’ Feedback Form at the end of your run. If you have any difficulties, please contact Hannah Worters.

Observing Conditions

The weather patterns at Sutherland are not highly seasonal, and the clear weather appears to be fairly uniformly distributed throughout the year. Approximately 50% of the available hours are photometric, and about 75% are suitable for spectroscopy. Temperatures (especially at night) tend to be unpredictable. Snow has been known to fall at Christmas in the heart of summer, and cold weather may occur at any time of year! Observers are strongly advised to bring cold weather gear (a winter jacket, hat, gloves, etc.).

Facilities in the domes

In every dome there is a kitchen equipped with a sink, kettle, coffee maker, microwave, toaster, snackwich maker, crockery and cutlery. Teas, coffees and sugar are provided.

Each dome now houses an iPod/iPhone-compatible music system with a radio and CD player, and which plays mp3s from a CD or USB stick. (Music not provided.)

There are wireless access points in the 1.9-m and 1.0-m domes.

Electrical Matters

Most outlets normally supply 230V 50 Hz current. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) are provided in the domes for sensitive instrumentation and computers. Almost all of the plugs are of the 3-pin 15A type (round pins, not the rectangular type used in the UK). Observers bringing their own equipment (e.g. laptops) should also bring their own adaptors. In the event of a power failure, the observatory has a 650 kVA generator.

Time Service

The central time service at Sutherland (installed October 1993) is a PC-based system with a mean time oscillator (ageing rate 1 X 10-9 per day) locked to signals from a GPS receiver once each minute. The resulting drift is no more than 1-2 microseconds per minute under normal conditions. Sidereal time is calculated from the mean time. Multiplexed time information is distributed to each dome via a fibre optic cable. In each dome the signal is demodulated and demultiplexed into separate RS422 signals (mean time, sidereal time, 1kHz pulse and 1 minute pulse). The RS422 signals are used by the instrument computer, telescope control system and time display. If you believe the time displayed is not correct, please notify the electronics technician.


The library at Sutherland is housed in the reading room of the hostel, with some publications shelved in the Visitor Centre. The library contains a small collection of charts, atlases (including the ESO B survey) and runs of journals. Observers using the SAAO network can access our e-journals. A suitably undistinguished collection of light reading for cloudy nights resides in the hostel lounge.

Visitor Centre and Shop

There are some interesting exhibits in the visitors centre and a shop selling souvenirs on-site.