We left Cape Agulhas and headed northeast along the coast for a few hours before turning inland for the last section of the drive. Our destination was the town of Oudtshoorn. Located in the the Little Karoo, an arid semi-desert region of South Africa, Oudtshoorn’s claim to fame is as the ostrich capital of the world.
Fittingly, we began our day at the Safari Ostrich Farm. Ostrich farming began in this region over 150 years ago as a profitable way to supply feathers for women’s fashion trends in Europe. When people finally realized that wearing two-foot-tall feathers on their heads looked silly (and that they didn’t fit inside the newest European rage, automobiles, while wearing them), the farms transitioned to producing ostrich meat and leather.
Scientists believe that the last surviving dinosaurs evolved into birds. That’s easy to visualize when looking at an adult ostrich’s long, strong legs equipped with sharp talons at the end. They’re extremely impressive animals, standing nine feet tall and weighing up to 350 lbs. Their kick can supposedly kill a lion, and could certainly kill a human. Other ostrich fun facts include:
1. Their eyes are bigger than their brains.
2. They can run up to 45 mph.
3. They lay the largest eggs of any land animal — it would take two hours to hard boil one (better scramble it, dude).
4. They strike by kicking forward and down. According to ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, you should play dead if you’re attacked.
Our tour of the Safari Ostrich Farm started with an informational video before meeting the birds. We were shown the incubators (ostrich eggs have a 50% hatch rate naturally, but in a well regulated incubator it’s closer to 99%). The shells of the eggs are so strong that the chicks are literally imprisoned. When it’s time to hatch, the mother helps break the eggs open with her breastbone. With incubated eggs, the chicks are aided by a worker with a hammer and chisel. The chicks are then given to a female ostrich who will act as their foster mother (they’re not brainiacs, she has no idea that the chicks are not her own).
The tour concludes with a chance to ride one of the dinosaur birds. Hey, why not, right? But I quickly realized the process is a bit more complex than with your typical zoo pony. Did I mention they can kill humans?
The first step is to put on special riding pants and shoe covers. Once I was suited up, an ostrich with a bag placed over its head–prisoner of war style–was maneuvered to the edge of the enclosure where I was waiting. I scaled the fence and slid over onto the ostrich’s back. After a second to adjust my position, the bag was removed from the ostrich’s head and it did what comes naturally: RUN.
Riding an ostrich isn’t very elegant. You interlock your feet around the front of the ostrich while clasping its stubby remnants of wings for balance, then lean back as far as you can. That way, if you fall off, you’ll fall backwards. In theory, since an ostrich attacks by kicking forward, the handlers will have time to prevent it from turning around and coming after you. It’s always nice to know that there are safety precautions in place.
At first, I worried about holding the wings too tightly, but just before releasing the ostrich, the handler warned me tersely, “If you hold on like that, you’re going down.” That was the extent of his instructions.
Mr. Ostrich took off like a bullet. Apparently — I found this out afterwards — you’re supposed to complete two counter-clockwise laps around the pen. Two ostrich handlers sprint next to you, guiding the ostrich along the appropriate path. But halfway into our first lap, my trusty steed suddenly hit the brakes and spun 180 degrees away from the handlers, and ran for freedom. To the handler’s credit, they reacted quickly and caught up with us a half-lap later. Unfortunately, due to the ostrich’s unpredictability, they cut my ride short and had me dismount immediately.
Afterwards, we visited the Cango Wildlife Ranch, a small, but impressive, zoo and breeding center. Although it’s really nice, with a very good interactive tour, we’d just come from our safari in Tanzania. We weren’t here to see animals in their enclosures, we were here to hang out with animals in their enclosures. The wildlife ranch offers “close encounters” with many of their animals, including cheetahs, tiger cubs, servals, lynx, and even baby hippos. I should mention that there are other places in South Africa where you have similar opportunities. It is, however, important to make sure that the animals are treated humanely and to find out where the proceeds are going.
The Cango Wildlife Ranch is a not-for-profit organization and all proceeds help fund their breeding programs for endangered animals. Also, the animals at the ranch are either hand-reared from their breeding program, or have been rescued and cannot return to the wild. After the general tour, twenty additional dollars gets you five to ten hands-on minutes in an enclosure with an accompanying animal trainer. It may be the easiest money we’ve spent.
We started with the cheetahs. It doesn’t actually register that you’re entering the pen of a apex predator until they open the cage. That’s when I started to wonder if I still smelled like ostrich from earlier in the day. We sat behind a beautiful cheetah and began scratching his neck and behind his ears. Big cats are incapable of “purring.” The cheetah showed his appreciation with deep, intimidating growls, but the handler assured me, “He likes it–he likes it.”
We followed that up by visiting the tiger cubs. We were lucky. Tigers are part of their breeding program, but they don’t always have cubs at the ranch. Tiger cubs join the close encounter program at two months of age when it becomes safe for them. They are removed at one year, when it becomes unsafe for the visitors. Luckily, our timing was right and we got to meet two rambunctious three-month-old cubs, although they were more interested in playing with each other than us.
And then, it was time to move on. In addition to the attractions, Oudtshoorn is an inexpensive, relaxed town with friendly people: the perfect stop on a backpacker’s road-trip.
Tip: Go early to ride an ostrich. To protect the animals, once it reaches thirty degrees celsius, the rides are ended for the day.
Full Gallery, click images to enlarge: