Oudtshoorn, the largest town in the Little Karoo, is most well known as the centre of the ostrich farming industry. Taller than many men, these huge flightless birds weigh in at about 150kg and are very fast and – surprisingly – very dangerous. Don’t tangle with one. How embarrassing would it be to have to explain to the guys in the office that, while you were on holiday, a bird kicked you almost to death and you landed up in hospital with broken bones, concussion and a few major lacerations? You’d never live it down. But they are interesting – and delicious. Their almost totally fat-free and cholesterol-free red meat is reputed to be particularly healthy, and is made into a huge range of innovative dishes in local restaurants. The most traditional way to eat an ostrich, though, is in the form of biltong – sun-dried, spiced strips of meat. But, hey. Why eat the bird, when you can wear it?
Ostrich feathers have moved in and out of fashion a few times over the last couple of centuries but, at their heyday, they were worth more than their weight in gold and they funded the building of some magnificent mansions,
which were dubbed “feather palaces” by the envious neighbours. Le Roux’s Townhouse, which is an annex of the CP Nel Museum, is an excellent example of this early form of conspicuous consumption.
There are also a number of farms where you could watch an ostrich display, learn all about these amazing birds and go wild buying ostrich feather and leather products. The leather has almost overtaken the feathers as a must-have fashion accessory. Distinctively knobbed (how many leathers are plucked?) and very hard-wearing, it’s used to make anything from key rings to full length coats, car upholstery and even saddles. (OK – so far, one rather weird Cape Town polo player has decided that a knobbly ostrich leather saddle is a good idea. But, who knows, it could take off.)
You could, if you were totally heartless, also ride an ostrich. Sure – they weigh 150 kg and are very strong but – and this is a big but – they have really tiny little ankles so many of the birds that are ridden are permanently injured.
Which is not really a problem, as they’re destined to be turned into biltong and handbags, anyhow, but it’s worth thinking about.
Speaking of handbags, there’s a crocodile ranch just outside the town, and also a “wildlife ranch”, where you can dive with crocodiles from the safety of a cage, see a range of predators, including lions, tigers and jaguars, and you could even – for a price – “adopt” a baby cheetah. While we’re on the animal thing – there’s a bunny farm, where you can pet the angora rabbits and buy lovely soft garments from angora wool, and even a lovely, child-friendly restaurant where you can ride a camel. Camels, fortunately, are renowned for their sturdy ankles.
The other major attraction in Oudtshoorn is the Cango Caves, which extend for miles into the extensive limestone hills and exhibit beautiful crystal and flow structures. You can do a one hour tour or tackle the more adventurous one and a half hour tour, which includes some tight squeezes.
One of the best ways to see Oudtshoorn and its surrounds – if you’re relatively energetic – is to do a semi-escorted cycling trip on the Swartberg Pass. You (along with the bikes) get driven to the top of the pass 50km from town, from where you make your own way back.
The first 10km is a steep, twisting, turning, incredibly scenic unpaved mountain pass – but all downhill. From there the next 10km is a relatively steep downhill on tar, and the last 30km is mostly downhill or flat.
En route back to town, you can stop to visit the Cango Caves, the Wildlife Ranch, an ostrich farm, and even stop to ride a camel. A short detour (with some uphills) could take you to a lovely waterfall. It’s a full day ride but – here’s the best part – if you decide you’ve had enough cycling, you can phone to be picked up and only pay a small “rescue fee”.
There are some great restaurants and a smattering of lovely guest houses. The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (Little Karoo National Arts Festival), which is a whole load of fun, is held in April.