Oudtshoorn, the land of ostriches

“How are you surviving the heat?” my Aunt Lynda asked when I called to tell her that we were on the road.

“Well, we’re sitting under shade at a wine farm having lunch. But yeah, I’m sweating.”

I told her our plans – we were just outside Barrydale in the Klein Karoo. Our next stop would be Oudtshoorn, the ostrich farming capital of the world and home to the Cango Caves.

“You know that Oudtshoorn is one of the hottest places in South Africa?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Try to stay cool.”

When we arrived at the Karoo Soul Guest House and Backpackers, I was thrilled. Set on a large property is a big, beautifully-appointed old house, with wooden floors and tasteful African decorations. The climate in Oudtshoorn is semi-arid desert, and all around the garden are cacti and aloes. There’s a turquoise swimming pool by an outdoor lounge area, which is shaded by a bamboo roof and furnished with half a dozen comfy couches and chairs.

We would be staying in a family room, in a small cottage separate from the house. With a queen-sized bed and two single beds as well as its own kitchenette and bathroom, we could finally feel at home in our accommodation.

Charlie in Oudtshoorn

“Let’s stay an extra day,” I suggested to Josh within an hour of arriving. There are lots of kid-friendly activities around Oudtshoorn and I didn’t want to feel rushed. I also like the idea of staying put somewhere for a few days. April has clearly been feeling unsettled, something reflected in her behaviour and frequent tantrums. Her eating habits have fallen apart, and I wanted to be somewhere we could cook home-style food and get everything back on track.

After an evening of hanging out and doing nothing (time well spent) we headed to Buffelsdrift Game Lodge for breakfast.

“Look April, hippos!”

Moments after sitting down at their restaurant, built on a wooden deck on the edge of an enormous watering hole, we saw the dark heads of two massive, shiny animals. I learned later that hippos don’t actually swim; they walk along the bottom of the water. Every couple of minutes, they kick themselves up to the surface to breathe. They can stay down there for as long as six minutes, but rarely do, preferring to graze and then surface every 2 – 3 minutes.

We stood at the edge watching for other animals, and I noticed massive carp as well as a turtle, happily swimming about with a tiny fishy friend.

While filling our bellies, we made our plan for the day: we would go to an ostrich farm after breakfast and then head to the Cango Caves. We also decided that it would be worth the money to go on a safari, so I booked for the following morning.

At the Cango Ostrich Farm, tourists can learn about the history of ostrich farming in the region and as well as the goings-on of the farms today. While this farm is just for show, they try to replicate what happens at commercial farms, except that they keep their ostriches a lot longer. Ostriches, like many other animals farmed for human consumption, are only tasty when they’re young. After a year, their meat gets tough, so on commercial farms the birds are slaughtered before this point. At one, they already weigh over 100kg (220lbs), which is a lot of lean, tasty meat. Ostrich tastes like beef, but is leaner and rarer, so it fetches high prices on the international market. 50% of the ostrich meat that comes out of the Klein Karoo region goes to Europe and about 25% to North America.

Cango Ostrich Farm

Ostrich leather is also very valuable. It is the second strongest animal skin in the world.

“What do you think is the strongest?” our guide asked the group.

“Crocodile?” one lady suggested.

“No, that’s the third. It’s kangaroo. But behind kangaroo, ostrich is the toughest.”

The natural colour of the female bird’s skin is grey, and the male’s is blue. After being plucked, the skin is soaked and dyed – a process that takes 36 weeks, hence the high cost of the leather.

The feathers, while they fetched extravagant prices at the turn of the 20th century, have never quite recovered their value post-war. They are still used in high fashion, and are exported to Rio and Venice in large quantities every year for Carnivale. It is only the long white plumes of the male birds that are used in fashion; the brown and grey feathers of the females, as well as the short black male feathers end up in feather dusters, which are sold locally. Most South Africans own feather dusters made with ostrich feathers. We certainly did when I was a kid!

After a brief history lesson, our guide showed us some newly-hatched chicks. They were only a day old! Ostriches lay eggs every other day, but like chickens, if you take their eggs away from them, they will lay at a higher frequency. To check if an egg is fertilized, they put it on a special light stand. If there is a black patch, there’s a chick, so the egg will go into an incubator. If not, it’s good for eating. One ostrich egg equals two-dozen chicken eggs. To open one up you need a hammer. But once you empty its contents into a bowl, you can store it in the fridge for up to two months, using it as you need. Yum!

Ostriches are extremely stupid animals. Their brains are tiny. In fact, an ostrich’s brain weighs only 40g, while just one of its eyes weighs 60g. As such they cannot count, but do lots of things by instinct. For instance, a female ostrich will only sit on her eggs after she has about 15 in her nest. How she knows there are enough eggs is a mystery, but somehow she does. She lays eggs every two days for a month and then when there are enough, she and her mate take turns sitting on them – the female during the day, the male at night.

There is extremely high infant mortality in ostrich chicks. In fact, most of them die. They break their legs or get lung infections. In the wild, lots of them get eaten too. That’s why on the farms, they incubate the eggs, turning them daily (to avoid deformation) and keep them for a while after they hatch.

Ostriches, like many other birds mate for life. If the male bird dies, the female will remain single until the end of her days. The male, however, will take a new mate.

“Like humans,” our guide quipped.

After seeing and petting the chicks, we headed outside to the adult ostriches. Our guide nominated Josh to give Betsy the ostrich a kiss. He held a food pellet in his lips. As she went in for it, he closed his eyes, a terrified look on his face.

“Did you get a picture?” one of the other group members asked me.

“Missed it,” I said, scrolling through the photos. I do, however, have a series of shots of Josh looking worried.

Cango Ostrich Farm, Oudtshoorn

I was next for ostrich terror.

“Mrs Canada, do you want to ride an ostrich?”

“Sure,” I said, always up for a challenge. I pulled Charlie out of her baby carrier and gave her to Josh before climbing onto a big male.

“This is Satan,” our guide told us, laughing.

I climbed on and they told me to hold onto the wings as tightly as I could. Satan was standing in a wooden stall with a sack over his head. When they took off the bag, he ran like hell. My heart leapt into my mouth. After minutes (seconds?) the handlers told me to let go. They caught me as I fell backwards from the massive bird.

“That looked terrifying,” one of the other group members said.

“You didn’t even scream when it took off with you,” another said.

Cango Ostrich Farm, Oudtshoorn

I guess I’m not really a shrieker.

The last part of the tour took us to a little tent where we could stand on the ostrich eggs. An egg can withstand 200kg of weight. Needless to say, there was no chance anyone in our group would be heavy enough to crush one. After standing on the eggs, we were escorted to the gift shop, full of information about ostriches and possibly ready to buy products made from their skins. I skipped the handbags but had ostrich for lunch. It was delicious.



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