Oudtshoorn is the largest town in the region of Little Karoo, which is found within South Africa’s Western Cape province. It is famous for being the ostrich capital of the world! The original settlement experienced significant growth following two ostrich feather booms, the first from 1875 to 1880 and the second from 1900 to 1914. To this day, Oudtshoorn contains several ostrich breeding farms. If you are fond of the big birds, we highly recommend staying here!
Although the town is not part of the Garden Route, it is close enough to include in a Garden Route itinerary. You could either begin or end your holiday with a few days in the company of the ostriches, or take a day trip into Oudtshoorn from Knysna (90 km) or Mossel Bay (92.5 km). The town is just 59 kilometres from George Airport, via the N12 highway. The distinction between the coasts and forests of the Garden Route and the semi-desert landscape of the Little Karoo is very striking. The latter region is essentially a valley bordered by mountains, and to access Oudtshoorn by road involves traversing the very scenic Outeniqua Pass. The town is found in the north, in a stretch that includes Montagu, De Rust, and Barrydale.
HISTORY OF OUDTSHOORN
Many of the early explorers were put off pushing north into the Karoo from Cape Town due to its mountain surrounds, but Dutch farmers started to settle there from the late eighteenth century. A Dutch Reformed church was built in 1838, and around this holy building the town of Oudtshoorn took root. It was founded in 1847 and took its name from former Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn. British settlers turned up about a decade later and the town underwent further developments during the next few years – the opening of a school, the beginning of a municipality, and the establishment of a society for agricultural workers.
In 1879, the church in Oudtshoorn was completed, and the reason for that was the ostriches native to the region! Four years previously, the First Ostrich Boom had begun. Earlier in the nineteenth century, the birds’ beautiful feathers had started to be used as fashion accessories by many members of the European nobility, prompting an immense increase in the export of feathers from the Cape Colony. Mossel Bay was the setting for auctions and over time prices rose to as much as £1,000 for a feather pair! And by 1877, Oudtshoorn itself was hosting auctions, which brought even more prosperity to the town.
Unfortunately, over-production brought about a slump in Oudtshoorn’s success come 1885, and the same year saw a devastating flood. From 1899 to 1902 the Second Anglo-Boer War raged across the region. Boer forces were spotted near the town in August 1901, but no attempt was made to enter as solid defences were in place. Following the conflict, the Second Ostrich Boom began! Oudtshoorn recuperated its losses and the town experienced another period of development. This included the construction of lavish new homes – termed ‘feather palaces’ – by ostrich farmers along the spectacular west bank of the River Grobbelaars.
This second wave of commerce came to a close in 1914. Once more, over-production was to blame, together with the onset of the First World War and the new trend within the motor industry for open-topped cars. However, over twenty years later, after the Second World War, ostriches regained popularity – this time for meat and leather. The industry began to recover again!
In more modern times, South Africa was hit very hard by a bout of bird flu from 2004 to 2005, losing millions of rand as well as thousands of the ostriches themselves. Another outbreak of flu occurred in April 2011. But in both instances Oudtshoorn battled through – and by the beginning of 2012 the town was once more home to the largest ostrich population in the world!
Today the ostriches may be viewed on several farms around Oudtshoorn, including Highgate, Safari, and Chandelier. Tours here involve learning about the daily running of the farm, finding out everything you could wish to know about ostriches, feeding the birds by hand, visiting their breeding camp, and maybe taking an ostrich ride! Some tour options include a meal afterwards, featuring ostrich egg and meat. There is usually a shop on site, stocking leather goods such as handbags, wallets, and purses. The famous feathers may be purchased too!
A trip to Oudtshoorn really is a grand day out, and if you are staying a little longer here you could consider visiting a couple of exciting attractions in the region – Cango Caves and Cango Wildlife Ranch. Both are located close to Oudtshoorn – the wildlife ranch is just 4.5 kilometres out of town! Open every day of the year, it is home to a wide range of mammals, birds, snakes, reptiles, and fish species, but best known for its work to conserve cheetah and other endangered animals. You can enjoy various encounters with wildlife, and kids will have a lot of fun in the ranch’s farmyard, featuring bouncy castle, waterpark, and petting zoo! There is also a great range of restaurants.
Finally, Cango Caves make for a thrilling excursion. These are about 30 kilometres from Oudtshoorn, situated in a limestone ridge running parallel to the majestic Swartberg Mountains. Two types of tour are on offer – Heritage and Adventure! During the Heritage Tour, a guide takes you through many of the main halls and rooms, showing you all manner of intriguing formations. In the Adventure Tour, you are led deep into the caves to wriggle, scramble, and sometimes squirm your way through shafts and tunnels past all sorts of shapes and chambers! This attraction has just one first-rate restaurant, and if you opt for the Adventure Tour you will certainly work up an appetite!