Ostrich Jockey and other adventures in South Africa

By Dale Morris   Photo by Dale Morris

Brief

International Traveler takes you to the South African town of Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world.

Some see South Africa as vast spaces, a wilderness where elephants roam, rhinoceros saunter and lions roar. They come for the expansive sunsets, the African civets, safaris in khakis and canvas at night.

Others travel here to tickle the palate with cheeses and wines. These connoisseurs cruise tidy vineyards sniffing and swilling. South Africa, they say, is a land of dry reds, superior whites and sweet golfing greens.

Then there are the culture vultures who come to taste the flavor of the rainbow state. After all, this is a conglomerate nation made up of African tribes, Europeans, and Asians to name but a few. Racism was rampant. But like soap that has been squeezed too tightly, the oppressed peoples eventually slipped free from the grip.

Despite the passing of apartheid, however, terrible poverty remains. Nevertheless, cultural-exchange programs and township tourism have flourished, bringing fresh hope and new ideas to some of the poorest sections of society.

However, I was here for something else: action, adventure, and the Britney Spears Bird, the latter of which is a captivating creature with nice legs, beautiful eyes and very few brains.
To see the these birds, all roads led to Oudtshoorn, called the ostrich capital of the world. Not only are there a plethora of these demented-looking birds, but there are also outdoor activities galore.
 
DAY 1

Descending through the Western Cape’s winding Outenique mountain pass, the scenery unfolded at each hairpin turn. To the north, the craggy Swartberg Mountains dominated the horizon and below stretched the rolling countryside of the little Karoo. The landscape reminded me of Scotland but for the rampaging herds of ostrich.

Oudtshoorn (pop. 70,000 people and half a million birds) owes its existence to the feather boom. During the 1920s, fashion’s propensity for feathery hats made ostrich plumes a big-money commodity. High-society ladies ran the risk of ridicule unless they were seen in public with half a giant bird perched upon their heads. But the great feather empires collapsed during the 1940s mainly due to the invention of the motorcar. Vehicles and oversized hats did not coincide amicably. They kept blowing off in the wind.

The ostrich moguls didn’t give up. Today, ostrich farming has experienced a revival in mincemeat and steaks, making a leaner alternative to beef. Bird leather is also big business because of the dimpling caused by feather follicles, which apparently is a highly desirable pattern among handbag connoisseurs.

Naturally, my first port of call was one of the many ostrich show farms that have opened their doors to tourism.  Upon arrival I was met by Ben, who was my guide and a very small man indeed.

“For eight years I was an ostrich jockey,” he said. “But then I got fat and started losing races.” Riding an ostrich is not like riding a horse. While horse jockeys have control over their steers, the ostrich jockey has none whatsoever. One climbs a step ladder, straddles the creature’s back, and holds on to the base of the wings for dear life. I wanted to try it.
The gates opened and out the birds bolted like ungainly, nine-foot-tall greyhounds. The ride was over in seconds, which I considered a very good thing. Clinging on for dear life to a potentially homicidal giant chicken while it rushes at down a racetrack was terrifying. Surviving, though, was enlivening. I felt like Ben Hur.
 
DAY 2

Grant, known as the Meerkat Man, has spent years habituating these shy animals to the presence of people.

“It’s a unique experience,” he told me. “There is nowhere else on earth where tourists can spend time with meerkats this way.” We were sitting on plastic furniture in a barren expanse of scrubland, surrounded by headless scarecrows, fluffy little meerkats and a mob of curious ostriches. The life-sized mannequins help Grant accustom the meerkats to a non-threatening human presence while the ostriches all roam free.

“This is Tellula” said Grant, indicating the ostrich who was pecking at my wrist watch. “She thinks she’s a human, but humans don’t peck my meerkats.” As if on cue, Tellula began chasing the little mongoose. The meerkats chirped in alarm and vanished beneath the earth. “Well, that concludes our tour today,” said Grant “And thank you, Tellula.”

After a Tellula-steak lunch, my wife Sasha and I headed up into the hills to a small working farm called Minwater. Here Louis Jordaan keeps ostrich and sheep, but his real passion is the succulent Karoo region. The landscape near his farm a tapestry of plants found nowhere else on earth. To most, this South African habitat appears monotonous, but Louis knew a fascinating story about almost every shrub, bush, insect and bird.

“There is plenty to eat out here,” he told us while picking some leaves and popping them into our mouths. I went to pick some myself.

“I wouldn’t eat that one if I were you,” Louis said.

“Why’s that?” I responded.

“You will die a horrible death”

“And that one over there?” I asked, pointing to a little cactus-like thing.

“Explosive diarrhea; but no lasting effects!” he explained.

I pocketed some for a joke on the mother in law.

We cruised the farm over washboard roads, nibbling and munching our way through an entire eco-system. It was possibly the most interesting meal I have had. That night we camped next to a roaring fire, drank wine and dined on ostrich and spuds. Jackal yipped and mountain zebra laughed at them under the African stars.
 
DAY 3

Atop the famous 1,600-meter Swartberg Pass the wind seemed as fierce as a twister and the snow fell in blizzards. I found the weather surprising, and my fingers quickly froze.
The young lads raced ahead, leaving Sasha and I behind. We enjoyed the views immensely. I later heard that the boys upset some ostriches on the road with all of their whooping and hollering, and for their sins, were chased into a ditch.

That afternoon we revved back up the Swartberg Mountains, this time on motorized quad bikes. We careened into bushes and splashed through muddy rivers on our way to the Cango caverns.

The Swartberg range boasts 56 cave systems. Most of these subterranean networks are closed to the general public in order to preserve the exquisite crystalline formations within. But the Cango caves, the largest of all the complexes, are open to everyone.

Accompanied by a guide, we ventured into giant concert hall hollows where acoustical conditions are perfect for singing. We then went on to a secret cave called the Glittering Grotto. This is a special place that requires squeezing through some tight spaces, and at the end of an hour-long crawl we ended our adventure in a beautiful white chamber where thousands of delicate sculptures grew from the ceiling like crystalline teeth.
 
DAY 4

Sunrise over the Karoo is a beautiful thing. Even more so if you’re in a balloon. Below us, herds of ostrich raced across the fields trying to avoid the touch of our shadow. We spent an hour in the basket, enjoying the silence and the scenery before making a slow descent towards the ground. We drank champagne and then had some tea before I once more took to the skies, only this time in something a little less sedate.

“I’m going to cut the engine and show you what we would do in an emergency landing,” shouted Herman over the din of the microlight prop. We swooped and swerved while the ground, hundreds of feet below, swiveled and swirled.

“That was fun, wasn’t it?” he asked. I swallowed hard and agreed. Herman Marincowitz has been flying microlights for six years and is one of the best pilots around. Last year he flew across the whole of South Africa just for fun.

I was so enraptured by the experience of flying in such a tiny machine over such spectacular landscapes that I completely forgot to be afraid. So this is what it feels like to be a bird? Upon landing, I paid for another tour and did it again.

Our fifth and final day in Oudtshoorn was spent hugging big cats at a zoo which is also a cheetah farm. We climbed up cliffs and abseiled back down, kayaked in lakes, swam down ravines and wallowed in waterfalls. Oudtshoorn is a microcosm of everything that is South Africa, with the exception of ocean activities. But where else on earth can you do all those things and then end your stay with one last lap on a nine-foot-high bird?

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