Klein Karoo – ostrich palaces, mountain passes and quaint villages
In the 1880s, Oudtshoorn was the ostrich capital of the world, where a pair of fine feathers traded for £1 000 (a fortune), and the most important crowned heads of Europe, Eastern potentates, emperors and international ladies of fashion sported the gracious, nodding plumes.
Beautiful, fanciful, opulent houses were built in the town and its environs, and today, even though the ostrich trade manages to struggle on with the sales of feathers, ostrich meat (low cholesterol) and leather, some of the palaces have been kept up and maintained, and welcome visitors.
Surrounded by spectacular red mountains, the Rietfontein Ostrich Palace has been in the Potgieter family for five generations. I stayed in one of the original homesteads, once lived in by a venerable great-grandfather, and the next day, swotted up on the local history at the CP Nel Museum in the centre of the town – a mine of information about all things ostrich.
I walked the attractive main street, full of quaint shops, quirky restaurants and food stores, breathed in the invigorating clean desert air, and watched the stars blaze at night.
You’ll reach Oudtshoorn over one of the Southern Cape’s spectacular mountain passes. I drove over the Outeniqua mountains via the Montagu Pass (opened in 1847 and unchanged to this day) from the Garden Route town of George, as mist swirled round the high peaks – the magnificent fynbos was a riot of colour and buzzards circled overhead.
I also tackled the famous Swartberg (Black Mountain) Pass, built in 1888 by South Africa’s iconic road builder, Thomas Bain (with the help of convict labour), which climbs, twists and turns from Oudtshoorn to the charming 250-year-old village of Prince Albert.
My route (not for the faint-hearted or Sunday driver) took me through towering mountains (watch out for the ‘Wall of Fire’ and the original dry-stone walls), ancient geological formations and deep valleys (make sure your engine doesn’t overheat and that you have a head for heights; I passed a young Israeli couple, stranded on one of the ascents, who were being rescued by some passing farmers).
Prince Albert, which originated in 1762 but was renamed in 1845 after Queen Victoria’s consort, is full of beautifully preserved Victorian, Karoo and Cape Dutch historical buildings.
I walked the attractive main street, full of quaint shops, quirky restaurants and food stores (the town is known for its cheeses and olives), breathed in the invigorating clean desert air, and watched the stars blaze at night.
And other things on my bucket list? I’m determined to give someone the Heimlich manoeuvre. I was recently with a Zimbabwean ranger at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal who had just given the Heimlich manoeuvre to a fully grown nyala bull that was choking on a monkey orange. I don’t aspire to such heights, but maybe one day ...