Sunday, August 17, 2014

Oudtshoorn: Ostriches, Meerkats, and Caves!

The town of Oudtshoorn is only an hour inland from Knysna, but its desert setting seems world’s away.  Originally built as the ostrich-farming capital of South Africa, these animals started to replace the standard cows and sheep in the fields as were approached the town.  Ostriches used to be highly prized for their feathers, a key fashion accessory in 1800s Europe – nowadays, this luxury is primarily used by Brazilians each year for carnival.

View from our Oudtshoorn cottage

Given this history, our first stop was the Highgate Ostrch Show Farm.  We were concerned the farm would be overly touristy, but ended up loving the incredibly informative tour.  A few fun facts about ostriches:

1.  "Scrubs" is right!  These birds have an extremely deadly kick – if they get one of their large claws into you, they can easily kill you.  To avoid this fate, lie on the ground and play dead if an ostrich is attacking you, as they apparently are not that intelligent.  However, if you are either bald or very blond, this defense may present a problem because the ostrich (being not so intelligent as previously mentioned) might think your head is an egg and sit on it for the four-day incubation period.

2.  To hard-boil an ostrich egg, you need two hours.  If you scramble one of these eggs, it can apparently feed 20+ people.  Don’t attempt to eat a whole egg single-handedly as they contain an extremely high level of cholesterol.

3.  Unless you are very fat, you can stand on an ostrich egg and it won’t break.

4.  There are (allegedly) prestigious ostrich races held in Oman – one of the best jockeys is from Oudtshoorn.

5.  Female ostriches are gray and male ostriches are black.  (The 8 day old ostriches shown here are simply all gray).

6.  Ostriches don’t actually put their head in a hole in the ground when afraid.

7.  They don’t have teeth so you shouldn’t be afraid of being pecked to death feeding an ostrich:

As you can see, we learned a lot about ostriches.  More importantly, we each successfully rode ostrich – not an easy feat! 

Other than ostriches, we were eager to see some of the other inhabitants of the Klein Karoo desert in Oudtshoorn – meerkats!  We had booked two nights at the De Zeekoe Guesthouse, which in addition to being a working farm, is home to several families of meerkats.  We visited one of the families bright and early Saturday morning on a “Meerkat Adventure” tour.  Meerkat families, also known as mobs, stick to well-defined territories, which they fiercely protect from unrelated meerkats.  (It turns out that meerkats are extremely vicious – if a stranger encroaches on their territory, it is attacked.  The same goes for male meerkats from their own family that are too old to stay in the burrow.)  Within those territories, they have several different burrows and decide each day which one to sleep in.  That means that the tour guide has to follow the meerkat family every evening to see where they have decided to spend the night.  Just before sunrise, our guide lead us to the meerkat’s chosen overnight location and we set up camping chairs in front of the burrow.  As the sun rose, out popped each of the seven meerkats, one by one.  Before they start foraging for food, meerkats need to spend time sunbathing – standing straight and facing the sun, they wait to warm up enough so that the digestive enzymes in the stomach start working and they can eat.  They also use this time to scan the horizon for predators, turning their heads every which way.

Our final (non-animal related) stop was the Cango Caves.  We purchased tickets for the so-called "Adventure Tour" but immediately began to question our decision.  Looking at the warning posters, we realized that "adventure" not only meant squeezing through narrow openings, but also crawling through tubes only 60 cm high but 5 meters long.  Before a full blown panic attack set in, we joined a regular tour, which was less adventurous but still quite impressive.

With the time saved not being trapped in a cave, we instead went wine and beer tasting at "Karusa."  Who knew that they made wine in the desert!

We have now embarked on five days of wine tasting and arrive in Cape Town on Saturday!


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