The Southern African Large Telescope. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
The Southern African Large Telescope. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

Anthony Mietas grew up in the rural town of Sutherland completely unaware of the astronomical activity taking place on an ice-cold plateau just 14km away.

The dark, dry and virtually cloudless night skies of the Roggeveld Karoo create the ideal conditions for observing the stars, and Sutherland has for decades been home to the primary optical and infrared telescopes of the SA Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

Today Mietas is no longer a stranger to astronomy. He is the science engagement manager for the SAAO in Sutherland, home to the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), and is seeking ways for the local community to benefit from the international science being practised on its doorstep.

It took five years to build Salt, at a cost of US$36m, the result of a partnership involving SA, Germany, New Zealand, Poland, the UK and the US. It was inaugurated in 2005.

Many locals were disappointed to find that the construction phase of the project created few jobs, as the engineering firms brought in their own specialised work crews and had little need for semiskilled labour from the townsfolk.

Picture: SALT Foundation
Picture: SALT Foundation

Even so, hopes ran high that it would boost tourism and inspire youngsters to pursue scientific careers. At the time, an SAAO study predicted that up to 30,000 visitors a year would travel to Sutherland, which is 347km from Cape Town, to see the telescope and observe the night skies.

Despite barely half that number of visitors trekking to Sutherland each year, the dusty town has reaped the benefits of star-struck tourists. As a visitor drives into town along the R354 from Matjiesfontein, signs that advertise star-gazing and accommodation can be seen scattered all over the landscape.

"In September 2001 the first tourism office opened in Sutherland, and 18 people came to visit," says Mietas. "We now have 14,000 visitors a year. In 2001, there was one guesthouse. Now there are over 50, and at least 300 jobs have been created."

Three hundred jobs may not sound like a lot, but the effect has been profound in a town as small as Sutherland, which is home to a mere 5,000 inhabitants, Mietas says. Until the tourism industry kicked off, the local economy was almost entirely dependent on sheep farming.

An outreach programme has helped leverage funding from the department of science & technology to create a community centre that provides a safe, quiet environment where schoolchildren use computers, study or get help with their homework.

In a community in which literacy levels are low and few homes have Internet access, the centre provides the kind of academic support many children simply can’t obtain at home, says Mietas.