In the Ostrich Capital of the World

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The heel of my thumb felt tense and bruised and my body still felt hollowed out by the stream of adrenaline that had flowed through it. That morning I’d been clinging for dear life onto a leathery wing as I leaned back, hoped for the best and careered rapidly but thankfully briefly around a sandy arena on the feathered back of an ostrich.

We were visiting Cango Ostrich Farm in the Little Karoo region of South Africa’s Western Cape, an area which has about 450,000 ostriches. In the 19th century their decadently soft, fringed feathers were much in demand, but these days they are farmed mainly for their cholesterol-free meat. The distinctive studded leather from their skins is a lucrative secondary market. Ostriches are ugly, ungainly birds with tiny heads perched on top of long bald necks, flouncily feathered bodies and black scaly legs with two-toed feet and knees that are actually ankles. They wouldn’t look out of place in Jurassic Park.

They are also remarkably stupid: their brain weighs in at a feather-light 40g, less than their eyes, which are 60g each. As if to compensate for their lack of mental quickness, they are very fleet-footed, being the second fastest land animal on earth, after the cheetah. To further counter-balance their bird-brained intelligence in the scales of justice, they are also naturally long-lived. On the farm, we came across a middle-aged ostrich couple, Adam and Eve, both in their forties, and in the wild, the birds can reach their eighties. Farmed ostriches have a much leaner life span though, as the optimum age to slaughter them for meat is at 14 months, just as they become fully-grown.

Sitting in a countryside embedded with ostrich farms, Outdshoorn is the self-styled ‘ostrich capital of the world’. A pretty town of low-slung, pale-painted houses and wide tree-lined streets, it gives off an aura of quiet colonial affluence. Its restaurants offer ostrich steaks, burgers and pasta and, as our credit cards can testify, its shops sell a tempting range of ostrich products, from feather-fringed cushions to knobbly leather purses in rainbow shades.

The route to Outdshoorn from Cape Town along the R62 is stunning, passing range after range of craggy mountains, skirting fields of fruit trees and vines, and sweeping past grassland and scrub. We marvelled at the views as the light shifted from a high, piercing sun in a sharp blue sky, through the subdued shadows of dusk to briefly flaming sunset stripes and then to depthless black pockmarked with stars like ostrich leather flecked with quill holes. Traffic was sparse as we rolled through sleepy towns like Ladysmith, where ‘drying fruit is a way of life’; Calitzdorp, which produces a delicious raisiny port; and Barrydale, where we stopped for lunch at the delightful Jam Tarts restaurant. It was friendly, no-nonsense Terri Tart who took our vague travel plans in hand and advised us to press on to Outdshoorn. Despite my aching thumb, I’m glad we did!

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2 thoughts on “In the Ostrich Capital of the World

  1. You put me to shame – I was in Oudtshoorn FOUR years ago and haven’t sorted out my photos yet! We had an amazing drive to the north from there one day, up through the mountains, which were totally stunning, to find a sleepy and beautiful Victorian town I now can’t recall the name of. I’m inspired to go back and go through the photos!

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