My guidebook began its description of Oudtshoorn with the sentence: “If you’re an ostrich, this is the place to come for work”. Now if that doesn’t make you want to visit a town, I don’t know what will.
The tourist hub of the Little Karoo, which sells itself as the ostrich capital of the world, was the next stop on our South African roadtrip (#SAroadtrip). Birds are big business in the area. They have been bred in Oudtshoorn since the 1980s and huge farms supply ostrich meat, leather and feathers across the country. Tours of the farms have also become popular and after hearing rumours of ostrich riding – is that even possible? – we decided we had to visit one.
Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never really thought that much about ostriches. I don’t think the poor things are the subject of many nature documents. So I was surprised by how much I actually learnt about them at Highgate Ostrich Show Farm. Among the list of ostrich-related facts now committed to memory are the following: an ostrich has a third see-through eyelid which it closes horizontally to keep the sand out of its eye when it’s windy; it takes two minutes to pluck the feathers from an ostrich to make dusters; ostriches eat small stones which churn around in their stomach to help their digestion. I’m just waiting for the day those questions come up in a pub quiz.
We also discovered that it hasn’t been all plain-sailing for the local farms recently. In the last couple of years many farmers lost their livelihoods after disease struck ostriches in the area. Highgate itself had just re-opened after a 16 month closure after having to cull all of its birds. However the upshot of this for farmers who did manage to weather the storm is that the price of ostrich has now soared.
During our tour we had the chance to feed corn to the ostriches and quickly discovered that any illusion of cuteness is immediately counteracted by their sharp beaks.
We also drove out to one of the fenced off hectares where pairs of ostrich live together and had the chance to examine one of their eggs which are incredibly strong, very heavy and can feed up to 20.
Highgate obviously saves the best until last on the tour when the much-talked about (among our group anyway) ostrich riding takes place. Small saddles are attached to the back of the ostriches but after the luck I’ve had trying to ride horses and elephants during my travels, I decided to give this one a miss.
However two brave members of our group volunteered to give it a go. When something is so hyped up you always wonder whether the reality is going to be as good as you imagined. But if anyone wants to laugh so much until their stomach hurts I can only recommend watching your friends try to ride an ostrich.