Carnarvon looks to the stars

2012-07-07 17:54

If you’re ever asked to point out Carnarvon on a map, here’s the simple response: it’s halfway between nowhere and nowhere.

It takes eight hours and several bottles of water to drive from Cape Town to the dry dorpie in Northern Cape.

Things have been on a downward spiral for the town’s 6 000 residents since the 1980s when the wool industry took a nose dive – for the past decade, most Carnarvon residents have survived on government grants.

The town’s biggest money-spinner?

The bottle store.

But suddenly, being in the middle of nowhere has become a huge advantage: Carnarvon is the new home of one of Earth’s biggest science projects, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The world’s largest telescope needs silence, and the vast Karoo veld 80km from Carnarvon has that in bucket loads.

And now the streets of the small town are buzzing.

Pieter Hoffman, a guesthouse owner and former head boy of the local school, says: “It is as if a fresh breeze has blown into town.”

He returned to his hometown three years ago and is renovating old buildings and turning them into guesthouses.

His luxury suites have become particularly popular with SKA contractors, who often rent rooms on a long-term basis.

“We’re dusting off the town,” Hoffman says with a smile.

People are coming back to Carnarvon because there are jobs, he believes.

“In the past, parents left their children with their grandparents to go and look for work in Cape Town. Now they can stay here.”

About the SKA

Carnarvon’s property market is booming. Five years ago, Hoffman bought his first house for R80 000.

“Now some residents are asking R1 million for a house,” he says.

Waitress Michelle Bosman hardly has time to chat as she rushes from table to table at De Meerkat restaurant, the home of the best Springbok fillet for miles (not to mention Karoo delicacies such as skilpadjies and free-range lamb chops).

“There is an excitement in town – new hope for the future of Carnarvon,” she gushes before racing off to take another order.

“And there are more jobs.”

But it’s not all upbeat and positive.

Edwin Sell is unemployed, and he doubts that’s going to change any time soon.

He says: “Look, the SKA has changed this town and there are expectations. But it always seems that other people are getting jobs and not our community.” He points to the supermarket.

“People with money in this town are now making more money. But us at the bottom haven’t got anything so far.”

His friend, John Koopman, agrees.

“The contractors have got local people, but not us. All we are looking for is a joppie (a little job),” says Koopman.

Supermarket owner Heinz Germann is another resident who has returned from Cape Town.

He’s opened a shop he calls “Massmart” in Carnarvon.

He says: “The SKA has definitely brought more business to this town. And they buy local and employ locals. But at the same time people who think we are going to get rich from the SKA are sorely mistaken.”

He glances at a photo of his youngest on the desk.

“The SKA’s business is a bit like a baby. You have to nurture it and see how it grows over the years. It hasn’t even started walking yet. But we have high expectations for this baby.”

The SKA’s coordinators are adamant that this is a science project and not a plan designed to create employment.

But the envisioned infrastructure will bring a lot of construction jobs to the region to build roads, operating facilities and the thousands of dishes the radio telescope will need. Contractors have been instructed to hire locally.

The SKA has also serviced local schools with equipment, and the announcement has certainly sparked interest among the youth about the secrets of the stars.

But Pieter Snyman, the manager of SKA Africa stakeholder relations, says that although Carnarvon’s boom is welcomed, the SKA needs the area to stay quiet so that it can track the universe.

“The SKA will not work if there is this influx of people bringing noise and development to the region,” he says.

Koopman is pragmatic about the potential the SKA represents.

He says: “Unfortunately, you can’t eat inspiration. I think the SKA is great, but for me it is there in the veld. Today the town is still the same struggle that it was yesterday. Tomorrow? Who knows?”

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