Starstruck in Carnarvon
As the base camp of the SKA project, Carnarvon is now the coolest dorp in the galaxy. It's also home to bionic aardvarks, cosmic vetkoek and big dreams. Carlos Amato investigates
'Watch out for the aardvarks around Carnarvon," says Nimrod Vass, the proprietor of Emzini Wakuti restaurant. "They have very tough skin and these modern cars are soft."
His warning makes me imagine a bionic aardvark, with a fighter ace's tally of wrecked vehicles tattooed on its flank, barging into the Blikkies Bar and demanding witblits.
Nimrod is an earnest toppie in his late 50s with a touch of Great Karoo battiness. He returned to his home town four years ago, after decades of factory work in Cape Town, to open a little restaurant that serves traditional township cuisine. It's a popular lunch spot with construction workers from Gauteng, who come to munch on sheep's heads, mageu and stampmealies with beef.
A couple of rickety wicker chairs are arranged on the pavement outside his restaurant, but Nimrod gets the moerin when passersby sit on them and break them. To discourage such loafers, he has painted big signs on the cushions reading "Baboons Only", with limited success.
Emzini Wakuti serves the finest vetkoek in the known universe. Each deep-fried dumpling is a luminous planet of cholesterol, generously laden with fragrant, delectable mince. Munch one of these masterpieces for breakfast and you could drive to Cape Town non-stop.
Bionic aardvarks and paranormal vetkoeks are not the only unusual phenomena to be found in Carnarvon these days. The koppies are alive with the adenoidal mumblings of Harvard astronomers. Local drunks are dreaming of a future awash with single-malt whiskey and loose urban women. The town's 3G signal is stronger than Sandton's. House prices have smashed the R1-million barrier, and a swanky bistro, de Meerkat, has materialised on the main drag like a pesto-scented alien ship.
A week ago, Carnarvon became the most significant dorp in the cosmos: the terrestrial base-camp for a mind-bending journey into the origins of everything, being the town nearest the biggest site chosen for the mammoth Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, to be shared with Australia.
"You could call SKA the World Cup of science, but it will last for 50 years, not just a month," says Pieter Snyman, the project's stakeholder relations manager.
South African astronomers Sean Passmoor and Audrey Dikgale are already hard at work on the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) pilot project, a small radio telescope array north of Carnarvon that helped win the SKA.
"One of the SKA's goals will be to discover more about dark matter and dark energy," says Passmoor, whose field of research is the clustering of galaxies. "Some galaxies have too much gravity for the number of stars we can count in them - so there's this mysterious matter that we can't see, that is making up the rest of the gravity. We don't know what it is."
Passmoor dismisses my question about alien communication with the mild contempt it deserves. Some researchers will use the SKA's vast stream of data to listen out for intelligent life in distant galaxies, but it seems real astronomers haven't got time for such bollocks.
Carnarvon has an earthly kind of dark energy. The area was chosen for its extreme remoteness, dryness and lack of radio or light pollution - and the intense silence of the landscape is both invigorating and forbidding.
Barely anything happened here before SKA. Ever since it reluctantly appeared in 1860, Carnarvon has consistently failed to amuse itself, let alone visitors. "I wouldn't say it was a ghost town, but there wasn't all that much to look forward to," admits local estate agent Wilhelm Biermann, who seems a bit baffled by the space rush.
Carnarvon crouches like a scorpion on a vast plateau of beige scrubland between Prieska, Williston and Fraserburg. But now, deliciously, its nowhereness has made it somewhere.
The town's 6000-odd earthlings are cautiously anticipating a Milky Way of wonga, and you can hardly blame them. The total SKA budget, to be spent over decades, is some R15-billion, which translates into more than R2-million of investment per citizen of Carnarvon - a grossly misleading statistic, because most of those funds will be spent on building and installing the telescopes, but it gives an idea of the scale of the rejuvenation the town will experience.
The Australian outback village of Boolardy will also get a 30% slice of the space-perving action, but let's try to forget about those gatecrashing bastards. ("Boolardy, we have a problem. Voetsek!")
Since the Southern African Large Telescope was built in 2002, Sutherland has developed a small but healthy astro-tourism industry. While Carnarvon's remoteness will prevent the flow of weekend visitors that keep Sutherland busy, the steady stream of SKA researchers and officials will create plenty of hospitality jobs. The Northern Cape government is building a science centre and museum in Carnarvon, which will boast a full-sized radio telescope on its front lawn. But as things stand, the town's tourist attractions are few and odd.
There's a burbling spring just outside town, but hirsute women who haven't brow-scaped recently are advised not to take a dip there. Local legend has it that any female swimmers whose eyebrows meet in the middle are liable to attract the amorous attentions of a large water snake, an experience that may prove less fun than it sounds.
Dotted around town are corbelled houses. These mysterious, domed, stone dwellings, with Dogon-style scaffolds sprouting from their walls, were built by the first Trekboer settlers who ventured into the northern Great Karoo in the early 19th century. They are weirdly similar to the ruins of rural dwellings built in southern Europe 4000 years ago.
It's not clear how a bunch of semi-literate Boer nomads took such a shine to a pre-Christian, Mediterranean architectural style. But it kept them cool and chirpy, and it can do the same for you. One of the best-preserved corbelled guesthouses around is Stuurmansfontein, 30km outside Carnarvon on the road to Williston.
Slake your thirst at the Carnarvon Hotel's Blikkies Bar on Daniel Street, a biker's favourite run by the friendly Nicolette Fourie, whose family have run the place for 110 years. The pub is renowned for the massive collection of beer cans lining the walls: for 46 years, Nicolette's father Anthony Panos swapped South African empties by post with beer-can geeks all over the world. When you live in Carnarvon from cradle to grave, it's a sensible mental-health precaution to cultivate a harmless obsession.
For culinary options after sunset, look no further than de Meerkat on Victoria Street, right next door to Emzini Wakuti. Proprietor Breda van Niekerk moved up here from the Cape a few years back, betting that SKA would create a market for sophisticated food in Carnarvon. His astute gamble has paid off richly, and an ever-increasing clientele of astronomers, SKA officials and local civil servants are now hooked on de Meerkat's eclectic menu, which includes Ethiopian lamb tibs and springbok carpaccio. There's even a Moroccan-style chillout room, where you can smoke a hookah pipe and expound on the search for dark matter.
And when you leave town, keep an eye out for the towering weavers' nests built on top of telephone poles near dams. These comical grass apartment blocks drop a little hint that, if and when humanity checks out of this mighty desert, the social weavers will make creative use of our ruins. The aardvarks should survive us too.