29 January 2012

Oh, oh ostriches

Travelling into the Western Cape and the beautiful semi-desert region called the Klein Karoo (or Little Karoo), we made a stop in the town of Oudtshoorn. The town lies in the middle of the Karoo, "in a fertile valley cupped by the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountain ranges, and originated as a settlement along the Grobbelaars Rivers which meanders southwards from the Swartberg, providing fertile soil and water for irrigation. Crops such as lucerne, tobacco, fruit, grapes and grains grow here in abundance," according to the S.A. Venues website.

Oudtshoorn is also the ostrich capital of South Africa, and a trip into the Karoo must include a visit to an ostrich farm.  We went to Safari, a 400-acre farm that is operated by the fourth generation of the founding family. Hundreds of birds are raised each year for their meat, eggs and feathers. The eggs are gigantic, of course. One ostrich egg is equivalent to 24 chicken eggs and to hard boil one, you would have to boil it for an hour!

Ostriches are wonderfully adapted to the hot, dry conditions of the Klein Karoo. They move around their pens a lot.  The adolescent birds scrap with one another and are curious about people.  They came right up to the fence to greet us. Rob got a good peck as a souvenir.

A female ostrich will lay 60 eggs a year, if you keep taking eggs away. In the wild, an ostich will only lay the number of eggs she can cover with her body. Both the male and female will incubate the eggs. This 20-year old pair had a nest with nine eggs.   And that's the male bird on the nest in the picture below.

And here's Rob demonstrating how strong the eggs are; so strong in fact, that the ostrich chick cannot peck its way out. The female breaks the egg shell with her breastbone when the chicks are ready to hatch.

As this was a show farm, we got a chance to have some fun.  Like SIT on an ostrich ...

And cheer on the jockeys riding ostriches in a crazy sprint of a race ...  It was a fun outing.

Back at our hotel, we tried ostrich meat for dinner and it was excellent. No, it doesn't taste like chicken. It is the colour and texture of roast beef and has a similar taste. For South Africans, ostrich is a considered a specialty, on a par with filet mignon.  

Our guide explained that before WWI and into the 1920s, ostrich feathers were a fashion essential.  There was incredible money to be made in providing ostrich feathers for the fashion industry. In Oudtshoorn, the most successful farmers were keen to demonstrate their wealth; they built impressive brick homes, often with turrets and other details made from expensive imported materials.  For example, decorative metal (called "lace") was shipped from England to add detail to the deep verandas and eaves, giving these homes a charming Victorian appearance.  They were referred to as "feather palaces" - a reference to the fluffy, soft feathers of the ostrich.


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