Did you know?
The Rietfontein Ostrich Palace, the first ostrich farm in the Cape Colony, was established in 1897.
Most visitors to South Africa have heard of the Cape’s famous Garden Route, but not so many are aware of the Klein Karoo – the vast area of starkly beautiful semi-desert that stretches inland beyond the spectacular Outeniqua mountain pass from George.
In the heart of the Klein Karoo is its attractive capital town of Oudtshoorn, once the ostrich centre of the world. Today, this town enjoys a reputation as a tourist centre for a variety of reasons.
Within 30km of the town there are several interesting attractions, including the world-famous Cango Caves, one of the world's leading show caves (be sure to book ahead for a tour).
Also within a 35km drive of Oudtshoorn is the historical village of De Rust at the foot of the Swartberg mountains, with a beautiful tree-lined main road featuring many 19th-century buildings.
For those who enjoy road-tripping, there are two scenic drives also within easy striking distance of Oudtshoorn.
Foremost among these is the Swartberg Pass, with its switchback twists and turns and dramatic mountain views on route to the town of Prince Albert. This famous pass was the last to be built by respected 19th-century road engineer Thomas Bain and is regarded as his finest work.
The other route between the Klein Karoo and the Great Karoo is via the 25km Meiringspoort, a road that weaves its way through the steep-walled, sandstone layers of the Cape Folded Mountains, crossing the Groot River, whose path it tracks, 25 times. In the middle of the poort (roughly translated as gateway) at the foot of a waterfall is a pool that locals believe is home to a mermaid.
Oudtshoorn's other claim to fame is that once a year it is the centre of the largest Afrikaans language arts festival in the country, known as the KKNK (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees), usually held around Easter when actors, artists, musicians and poets descend on this town to celebrate this unique language.
As for the ostriches that made the town of Oudtshoorn famous, here's the potted history. In the late 1800s, ostrich feathers were the height of fashion (literally), sought by royalty, maharajahs, emperors, fashionistas and costume-makers all over the world.
Gorgeous gowns, cloaks and hats (marvel at them in the beautiful sandstone buildings of the CP Nel Museum in the town centre – a provincial heritage site), decorated or made from ostrich feathers, were once the most highly sought-after fashion items. A pair of really fine ostrich feathers could fetch as much as £1 000 – a fortune back then. ‘Feather Palaces’ were built in and around Oudtshoorn and ostriches pulled Santa’s sleigh at Christmas time.
But fortunes rise and fall and the fine feathers fell out of fashion. Some attributed this to the advent of motorcars, whose roofs were too low to accommodate the sweeping plumes; others to war and recession. Kobus and Elmaré Potgieter live and farm some 30km outside of Oudtshoorn. Their farm, Rietfontein, has been in the family for five generations. 'It’s a hard life,' says Kobus, 'but there are cycles – feathers, meat, skin – and somehow we survive.'
Today, ostriches are farmed for their low-cholesterol meat that is both delicious and healthy, and ostrich skin is still prized for fashion items.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Take the N12 from George to Oudtshoorn over the spectacular Outeniqua Pass.
Best time to visit
Any time of year is good as the Klein Karoo has an all-year-round sunny, dry climate. But it can get very hot in summer (November to February).
Around the area
CP Nel Museum; Swartberg Pass; Cango Caves; wine estates, the Garden Route.
Tours to do
Cango Caves; Cango Wildlife Farm; Meerkat Adventures.
By car and on foot. Or if you fancy a ride of a different kind – ride an ostrich.
Length of stay
At least two nights.
What to pack
Comfortable shoes, camera, binoculars
Where to stay
Rietfontein Ostrich Palace – a working ostrich farm that has been in the Potgieter family for five generations.
What to eat
Delicious, low-cholesterol ostrich meat, of course. Try ostrich sausages, steaks, casseroles, carpaccio, cold cuts.
Contact Oudtshoorn Tourism for information on current events
Products made from ostrich skin, local wine, olives.