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Published: June 25th 2017
Geo: -33.5928, 22.2025
It's not often the invention of the automobile, womens fashions, and ostriches find themselves in the same conversation. And even more unlikely that Oudtshoorn South Africa would be the epicentre of this unlikely collision. During the mid-1860s Oudtshoorn experienced a boom time and the main reason for the surge in prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become fashionable accessories among my Princess'ancestors in the European nobility. Feather exports saw a sharp increase from the Cape Colony and between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to $1,600 a pair. The value of ostrich feathers, per pound, almost equaled that of diamonds. The farmers of the region, realising that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their other crops and planted lucerne, which was used as feed for the ostriches. Such was the worth of the white ostrich feather, that it was dubbed "white gold".
A second and bigger boom started after the Boer War and it was during this period that "feather barons" (ostrich farmers) who had become rich, built most of Oudtshoorn's famously opulent homes aka "feather palaces". The whole thing collapsed around 1914 when the popularity of open-topped cars made ostrich-feather hats impractical
(in much the same way that Convertible popularity has decimated the toupe market). New markets for ostrich leather and meat had seen the industry recover up until bird flu hit the Oudtshoorn area in 2004 with periodic outbreaks up until recently.
At some point they may have to pull the plug on the entire industry but for now Oudtshoorn fancies itself as the Ostrich capital of the world. And given that there have been times when ostrich feathers and diamonds were roughly the same value, I thought it might be appropriate to schedule a visit so that I might shower DH with feathers (the whole "shower me with diamonds" thing has been so overdone). We did drop in on one of the farms in the area and learned more about ostriches than any one man has a right to know. After a feeding session we were invited to both sit on and ride/race an ostrich. When I say "we" I mean the waif-like DH. There was an implied suggestion that I might break the back of an elephant so an ostrich ride was completely out of the question- I wasn't even allowed to step on the scale to test the
weight limits (as cruel as she's been, Carol C is right- even the ostriches think I need to do something about that potato chip addiction). Despite the fact that ostich racing is something of a sport here, DH decided that it crossed the line of animal cruelty and refused to participate (although having to confirm her weight by stepping on a scale in public might have been the final straw?).
While in the area we also went to visit the fabulous Cango Caves. Stalactites and stalagmites, and a variety of strange formations made for a great underground walk.
And just when we thought we were done with Oudtshoorn, we saw a sign hanging from a post suggesting that if we stayed the night we could go on a meerkat safari first thing in the morning. Meerkats are one of the African Shy 5 (the others being the aardvark, the aardwolf, the bat-eared fox, and the porcupine) and we had never seen one in the wild before so that seemed reason enough to find a campsite and set the alarm for an early wake-up. Apparently a local farmer, knowing he had meerkats on his property, went out on his own every morning
for 6 months and talked to the meerkats until they got used to him and didn't remain hidden in their burrows. He now brings a small herd of curiousity seekers out with him just before sunrise to await the first meerkat sighting. The underside of the meerkat is only sparsely covered with hair which shows the black skin underneath. The meerkat uses this area to absorb heat and get the circulation going while standing on its rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights. The word "meerkat" is Dutch for "lake cat" which is somewhat puzzling since the meerkat is actually a mongoose (not a cat), and doesn't like the water at all??
Outside of their morning suntanning while propped up on their tails, these little guys (adults are about 1.5 lbs) didn't do a lot but it was still a memorable encounter. We had seen one of those PBS shows where they had tracked a meerkat family while attaching human characteristics and failings to each member (Meerkat Manor??), so it was fun to imagine our family as TV stars. Once they had warmed up the 'mob' scattered to look for breakfast (they have no excess body
fat stores, so foraging for food is a daily need) with one meercat constantly assigned to guard duty watching for predators while the others search for food. I don't know who tracks this stuff but apparently sentry duty is usually approximately an hour long and the meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is well- if danger is spotted, he/she barks loudly or whistles. Probably a good idea if you're a potential lunch for just about everybody.
Not a bad way to start our day- all because of a sign hanging off a post near an ostrich farm.
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