Kent’s Family Travel in South Africa: Oudtshoorn

July 9, 2012  By: Gretchen

Klein Karoo means little karoo in Afrikaans, and is the name of the semi-desert region north of the whale coast in South Africa. It looks a bit like Utah or New Mexico with a smattering of Arizona thrown in. Here, the highway can go for miles without the slightest turn or change of scenery. Small towns like Ladismith, Calitzdorp and De Rust provide infrequent rest stops along the way. The area is part of the larger Karoo which is a huge inland basin filled with lots of rocks. It’s also filled with lots of ostriches and bills itself as the ostrich capital of the world. And the capital of the ostrich capital is Oudtshoorn.

Here, Main Street is dotted with tidy shops and restaurants that look as if they could have been plucked out of Main Street USA from the 1950s–with a South African twist. Back around the turn of the century when ostrich feathers were all the rage and worth more per ounce than gold, Oudtshoorn was a boomtown rolling in the dough. When motorcars came into popular use, the demand for ostrich feathers plummeted as they were too easily blown off the ladies hats, and the market tanked as did Oudtshoorn’s fortunes. Today a number of commercial farms still raise the giant birds and sell the meat for eating and skins for leather goods, discarding the feathers!

Two of the farms offer tours and ostrich rides for those weighing <140 pounds. Watching the looks of fear mixed with excitement on Grady and Tate’s faces was extremely entertaining and the fact that these picky eaters liked eating ostrich steak was great also.  We stayed just outside of town at Thorntree Country Lodge, a comfortable and pleasant 12-room property. The gardens are well-manicured and there’s a nice veranda for relaxing. On our visit, the pool was way too cold to use, but they say the heat in summer can reach well above 100 and so I’m sure the pool is very popular then. The food here was delicious and included ostrich steaks, of course, grilled beef, fish and lots of green vegetables and salad. The breakfast included delicious bacon, choice of eggs, fruits, muffins, toast and piping hot coffee.

Our big activity the next day was a visit to Cango Caves, a spectacular cavern formed over millions of years. Here, we saw stalagmites and stalactites and other formations with names like Cleopatra’s Needle and the Organ Pipes.  This well-known natural treasure is big as are the facilities and the tour buses, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself. They offer a standard tour along with the adventure tour, complete with waist squeezing openings and bat guano.

The famous Swartburg Pass begins nearby but since we were running out of time, we headed back toward the coast, hurtling through the scrub and over another scenic pass. On the other side, we were met by green fields of wheat and barley and then finally, the jagged cliffs and white sand beaches of Gaansbai.