The towns of Oudtshoorn and De Rust are in the Klein Karoo between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains. Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world. The world’s biggest bird is just one of the many attractions in this area of exceptional contrasts and natural beauty. The region is home to the spectacular Cango Caves, Africa’s largest show cave system; an ecological hotspot where three distinct plant biomes (succulent karoo, cape thicket and fynbos) converge; and the Swartberg mountain range, which is part of the Cape Floral World Heritage Site.
The ostrich capital of the world is an adventure, culture and environment destination in the Klein Karoo – the unique semi-arid landscape that lies between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountain ranges.
Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world and visitors to this town, set against the backdrop of the Swartberg and Outeniqua Mountains, can expect to have an encounter with this amazing bird. Oudtshoorn is the largest town of the Klein Karoo.
It enjoys the largest number of sunny days of all South African towns, and while summer can be excruciatingly hot, winters are mostly mild and dry.
Oudtshoorn rich history is closely intertwined with the rise and fall of the ostrich industry. The once thriving ostrich feather industry played a significant role in the transformation of the little village into the richest Ostrich Capital of the World. During the ostrich feather boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s, prime ostrich feathers were globally considered as an invaluable fashion accessory for wealthy ladies, who were willing to pay large sums of money to obtain these feathers. Up to that stage, farmers in the area were mostly subsistence farmers, who barely eked out a living for themselves and their families. They were often transport riders, who would load their ox wagons with processed produce of their land to be sold in the interior of the country. When the feather industry boomed, farmers jumped to the opportunity to make money. Traders, who were often foreign businessmen, settled in Oudtshoorn and played an important role in the export of the feathers. Everybody basked in the resulting prosperity the ostrich feathers had brought about. Farmers and traders spent their money on building extravagant ostrich feather palaces: beautiful mansions built with locally cut sandstone and heavily decorated with palatial turrets, stained glass windows and cast-iron work, also referred to as ‘broekie’ lace. A number of these sandstone mansions remains, including the Welgeluk Ostrich Feather Palace at Safari Ostrich Farm.
Oudtshoorn has unique architectural styles – much of which has to do with the ostrich booms of the 1880s and the early 1900s. With massive inflows of capital, the feather barons were able to build fantastic Ostrich Palaces in the Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Neo-Renaissance Revival styles – for which they employed architects like Karl Otto Hager, Georges Wallace (Snr. and Jnr.) and Charles Bullock (who was known for the turrets and lace with which he decorated his buildings). Particularly unique to Oudtshoorn is the use of sandstone, which dates back to the 1860s, when the first Scottish stonemasons arrived to help with the construction of buildings like the St Jude’s Anglican Church (the oldest stone building in the town, it was completed in 1861), the Oudtshoorn Synagogue, the CP Nel Museum and dozens of Feather Palaces both on the ostrich farms and in the town. Many of the best examples of the Oudtshoorn style can be seen on Baron van Rheede Street. The Le Roux Townhouse Museum and “Arbeidsgenot”, home of C.J. Langenhoven, the Afrikaans lawyer and author of part of our National Anthem, provide interesting and authentic glimpses of life as it was once lived in the Klein Karoo. Many of the older buildings in Oudtshoorn showcase fine examples of traditional Karoo architecture. Also visit the unique suspension bridge originally made in England and erected to cross over the Grobbelaars River.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT OSTRICHES
Ostriches belong to the Ratite family of flightless birds. These prehistoric birds have many fascinating attributes. One ostrich egg is equivalent to 24 chicken eggs | One ostrich egg in the shell can take up to 1, 5 hours to boil | The ostrich egg is the biggest in the world, but in ratio with its body size, it is the smallest. A group of ostriches is called a flock. | An ostrich can run at a speed of up to 70 – 80 km/h. | Despite their long, thin necks, ostriches cannot choke on their food | It is urban legend that ostriches stick their heads in the sand and earth. | The ostrich’s brain weighs about 40 grams, while one eye weighs about 60 grams. |They have excellent eye-sight and can see an object at a distance of 3,5 km during daytime. | Ostriches do not have sweat glands. The male ostrich is called a rooster, and a female ostrich is called a hen. | Ostriches are fully grown at 18 months, yet they have a life span of 50 – 60 years. |Ostriches cannot fly and use their wings for cooling, balance and an exquisite mating dance to impress a female. | During mating season (June to November) the male ostrich’s beak and legs turn red or pink to attract the female for mating. | The male has black feathers while the female is grey. | They share breeding duties.
Males and females have a similar appearance until they are about nine months old. The males then turn black, while the females turn grey. In order to protect the eggs in the nest, this colouring offers camouflage when the male sits on the nest during the night, while the grey female blends in with the landscape during the day. Besides doing his duty during incubation, the male also helps to take care of the chicks once they are hatched. Both parents are often seen tending their offspring while feeding in a camp. All ostrich chicks are mottled brown when they hatch. This is colouring acts as camouflage as it helps the vulnerable, flightless chicks to blend in with the dusty brown environment of their natural semi-desert habitat.
This protects them from birds of prey on the lookout for lunch. Ostriches have very flexible necks which they can lower to the ground without any discomfort. In addition, when they hold their necks parallel to the ground while sitting on the eggs, they resemble a large, grey rock instead of a bird. Medical practitioners and dieticians recommend ostrich meat as the healthiest choice for red meat lovers. Ostrich meat is regarded as healthier than chicken meat, as it is even lower in kilojoules, saturated fats and cholesterol. Ostrich meat also has high iron content, which is beneficial for people with an active lifestyle. Ostrich meat is lean with a low fat content. Although the meat contains fat, the fat is occurs on the outside of the muscle and is easily removed during processing of the meat. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa approves ostrich meat as a outstanding source of protein. Due to the healthy pH balance of the meat, it is less susceptible to contamination by harmful bacteria such as E-coli or Salmonella, as is the case with chicken. This makes ostrich the ideal meat for the preparation of Carpaccio and even Sushi. In short, ostrich meat is low in cholesterol, fat and kilojoules, but rich in protein and iron. Preparation of ostrich meat is easy. It is best to serve ostrich fillet or steak medium rare, as overcooking may result in dry meat because of the low fat content. Fillet and steak can also be pan-fried or cooked over the coals. Ostrich neck stew is ideal in winter. Ostrich meat is also available in the form of mince, goulash and sausages, as well as biltong and dried sausage.
The Le Roux Town house was built in 1909, when Oudtshoorn was in the midst of the second Ostrich Feather Boom (1900 -1914). Money being no object, the brief for this Townhouse was that it be designed by one of Oudtshoorn’s best-known architects, with the most modern innovations, and built with the best of imported and local materials. The Le Roux Townhouse is situated in High Street, between Church and St Saviour Street. Tel: +27 44 272 3676
Monday – Friday: 09:00 – 13:00 and 14:00 – 17:00
Oudtshoorn has unique architectural styles – much of which has to do with the ostrich booms of the 1880s and the early 1900s. With massive inflows of capital, the feather barons were able to build fantastic Ostrich Palaces in the Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Neo-Renaissance Revival styles – for which they employed architects like Karl Otto Hager, Georges Wallace (Snr. and Jnr.) and Charles Bullock (who was known for the turrets and lace with which he decorated his buildings). Particularly unique to Oudtshoorn is the use of sandstone, which dates back to the 1860s, when the first Scottish stonemasons arrived to help with the construction of buildings like the St Jude’s Anglican Church (the oldest stone building in the town, it was completed in 1861), the Oudtshoorn Synagogue, the CP Nel Museum and dozens of Feather Palaces both on the ostrich farms and in the town.
KHOI & SAN
The caves were known to indigenous people long before the Europeans landed at the Cape. Recent finds, such as tools left behind in ancient hearths in the cave mouth, prove that humans such as the Khoi have lived and sheltered here for at least 80 000 years. The entrance was used as a home by the San and the walls were painted with pictures of game animals. Over two hundred years ago, in 1780, a Khoi herdsman again stumbled on the entrance to the caves while searching for missing cattle. Oudtshoorn is one of the founding homes of the Afrikaans culture and language. The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (translated: Klein Karoo National Arts Festival) is held each year in Oudtshoorn in honour of this rich heritage and one of the founding fathers of Afrikaans, C.J. Langenhoven. The Langenhoven home, Arbeidsgenot, is a National Monument and an important historical stop during your visit to Oudtshoorn.
The Jewish Community of Oudtshoorn was so vast that it was named, with some degree of exaggeration “Little Jerusalem” or “Yerushalayim’ beDerom Afrika” (Jerusalem of South Africa). The CP Nel Museum is the only museum in the country with a synagogue inside which is still in use.
De Rust is a small village with a total population of approximately 3566 at the last count in 2011, 93% of whom speak Afrikaans, but English is also widely spoken. As you can imagine, most villagers will be able to give you information of what to find where.
MERMAIDS OF THE KLEIN KAROO
Encounters of the mysterious kind
Just outside the little town of De Rust, between the Klein and Groot Karoo, is the famous Meiringspoort (canyon) with its windy river and equally windy road cutting through the gorge. According to legend, the rock pools are home to a beautiful dark-haired mermaid.
She is said to be the manifestation of a sinister water spirit who would lure passersby, grab them as they approached and drag them to a watery grave, just like the spirits of the Eseljagtspoort outside Oudtshoorn. The story of the Eseljagtspoort water spirits was reputedly related by an old Bushman to a local farmer in 1875.
This is where ancient Khoi San rock paintings of what appear to be mermaids can still be seen.
These pictures of ‘fish-tailed humans’ indicate that the legend of the Karoo mermaid has possibly been around for centuries. Interviews with locals found that many people in the area have grown up hearing stories of a ‘Watermeid’ who inhabits places where there is deep water and who was responsible for rain, floods and also droughts. Most people,when asked about her spoke in hushed voices, saying that they were afraid of her and that if angered, she could drag you into the water and drown you. Interestingly, 250 million years ago the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley. It has been argued that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting rather depict a ritual held by the Shamans involving swallows, which are also associated with rain, and not mermaids. However, many other people point out that the San people were known for directly depicting what they saw and not for interpretive rituals. The Mermaid/Swallow images were also often shown to be holding something, convincing many that they had arms and not wings. Which could mean that these were creatures encountered and recorded by the San Bushmen. The Meiringspoort floods in 1996 revived the legend of the Mermaid in the area as it was claimed she was swept out to sea, rescued and returned to Oudtshoorn to recuperate. Crowds flocked to see her at the CP Nel Museum, but were disappointed to find a mannequin in her place. A local clairvoyant ‘contacted’ her and discovered her name was Eporia. Perhaps the spirit of a flood victim washed through the desert? Soon water sprites/ spirits and mermaids were being seen everywhere in the Karoo.
Whether her story has been told as an oral tradition to warn children and strangers of the dangers of the deep pools and to stay away, just as mermaids at sea have always been seen as an omen of storms to come; whether she is an integral part of African folklore; or whether her history is indelibly linked to the waters that once covered the now arid Klein Karoo, she is a relic associated with water in an unlikely desert landscape that makes the hint of her presence all the more precious and mysterious.
The enigmatic bulk of the Swartberg Mountain excites the adventure in everybody visiting the Klein Karoo. The mountain range is the barrier between the Klein Karoo and the Central Karoo, the gateway to the vast Karoo. There is a way to explore mountain by means of the Swartberg Pass, which takes you to the dizzying heights as well as deep into the heart of the mountain. Approaching the mountain from the Oudtshoorn side, one turn sharp left just before the final approach to the Cango Caves, following the signs for Prince Albert and Swartberg Pass. The road takes you past Kobus se Gat, a rusting restaurant serving delicious Klein Karoo fare, including traditional roosterkoek (griddle cakes) and afval (tripe and onions). Eventually the tarred road runs out, leaving you to complete the trip on a dirt road. Although it is maintained, rain and melting snow can deteriorate the surface against the steep incline. After heavy rains or snow, the pass is often closed for the driver’s safety. A portion of the pass on the Prince Albert side was closed after heavy rains this year, but it was reopened at the end of October. The pass is at elevation of 1583m above sea level, and climbs 1000m in 12 kilometers. The road is gravel and sand and although you do not need a 4×4 vehicle, it is advised that you use a vehicle with high ground clearance, as there are many streams to cross. Although the pass is worth driving, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted, as twisty hair-pin corners, high elevations and steep grades are intimidating to some. The views are spectacular, but it is advised that the driver keep his eyes on the road, while the passengers enjoy the historical monuments of a lost era along the narrow twisting, such as an hotel, a toll hut even an old jail. The pass was build between 1881 and 1888 by master pass builder Thomas Bain with the labour of some 250 convicts, hence the strange position of the old jail. The mostly erected dry-stone walls at the most treacherous places, making it much safer to negotiate. The pass was opened on 10 January 1988. The pass was declared National Monument in 1988. The Swartberg Mountain is a Unesco World Heritage Site. On the way to the top, one has the opportunity to see rich and varied wildlife. During my first visit up the pass, two klipspringer stood motionless on a boulder right next to road for a moment, watching the vehicle with great curiosity, before the male continued marking his territory with pheromones from glands next to his eyes. Once at The Top, one has a breathtaking view of the patchwork of agricultural land Matjiesfontein River Valley on the southern side. On the northern side, one has a spectacular view of the mountain view, with the Old Toll House nestled in a sleepy hollow below. The mountain is home to a number of rare species, such as a dwarf chameleon, which turns white at night! Other rare species are regarded as indicator species, which signal a healthy environment. These includes dragonfly nymphs, which are seen at open water such as streams or dams, which indicate a healthy river system. Orange-breasted sugar birds feed on the nectar of proteas, and while they do so, it is a certain sign that the protea plant is healthy. The marsh harrier is a indication of a healthy rodent population. When the rodent population is diminished as the result of an unnatural fire or removal of vegetation, the marsh harrier leaves to seek food elsewhere. CapeNature depends on visitors to respect the Swartberg Mountain status as World Heritage site and not to destroy or remove any plants or animals. They urge people to look out the for tortoises crossing the road, and not take them home.