Oudtshoorn was once the world centre of the ostrich-feather trade, which made some people millionaires. The CP Nel Museum, housed in the former Oudtshoorn Boys’ High School building, recreates the boom days that swept this Little Karoo town – and its totemic flightless bird – to world prominence.

Did you know?

Attention big breakfasters: More than 24 chicken eggs can fit into one ostrich egg.

By the time you’ve driven into the bustling town of Oudtshoorn, you will already know you’re in the heart of ostrich country.

It seems you can hardly move around this part of the world without bumping into a couple of ostriches, or ‘Karoo sock puppets’, as these famous flightless birds are fondly called.

But, as you negotiate the streets of Oudtshoorn, you see many rather venerable old mansions and meetings halls from another era.

The rather incongruous houses with the pointy domes are called ‘feather palaces’, because they were all built more than a century ago when a really perfect ostrich feather could be exchanged for first-class passage to the United Kingdom on 1 of those stately ocean liners that used to ply the waters between Cape Town and Southampton.

When you get to No 3 Baron van Rheede Street, find the closest parking and enter the building. You are now in the CP Nel Museum, in the midst of a stately collection of goods, chattels and memories that capture life in Victorian-era Oudtshoorn so well.

In the museum's Ostrich Hall there’s an image of running ostriches carved into rock, discovered somewhere in the Sahara Desert.

Here you can also discover what makes the contemporary ostrich industry tick.

You’ll also learn about the first wave of the ostrich industry, when those feathers were all the rage in Europe and Britain.

So what kind of a frontier life did all this newfound wealth spawn? That’s what you discover as you wander through various rooms like the chemist shop, the crockery collection and the garage, which is full of classy old vehicles of yesteryear.

Much of this collection comes courtesy of the late Colonel Charles Paul Nel, a businessman and antique buyer who donated his collection to the local community.

Perhaps the biggest surprise comes last, as you enter another room and find yourself in a complete synagogue. This is a reconstruction of the old St John Street Synagogue, primarily used by the local Lithuanian Jewish community, who were prime movers in the feather business before World War I.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

CP Nel Museum
Tel: +27 (0)44 272 7306
Email: cpnelmanager@mweb.co.za

Oudtshoorn Tourist Information
Tel: +27 (0)44 279 2532
Email: info@oudtshoorn.com

How to get here

Oudtshoorn is approximately:

  • 55km from George on the N12.
  • 420km from Port Elizabeth on the N2 to George and the on the N12 from George.
  • 450km from Cape Town via the N1 to Worcester and via the Route 62 Scenic Route from Worcester.
  • 430km from Cape Town via the N2 to Mossel Bay and then via the R328 from Mossel Bay.
  • Buses travel through Oudtshoorn on regular intervals, to and from all the major cities in South Africa.

Best time to visit

Visiting hours: Mondays to Fridays 8am to 5pm; Saturdays 9am to 1pm.

Around the area

Route 62; the Cango Caves; Mossel Bay; De Rust; and a number of wine estates and private game reserves in the area.

Tours to do

English and Afrikaans-speaking tour guides are available.

Get around

It's best to drive yourself around. Organised tours are also available.

Length of stay

A thorough tour of the museum will take about two hours.

Where to stay

There’s a wide variety of accommodation. Check the Oudtshoorn website for options.

What to eat

The official Oudtshoorn website says: ‘Quality restaurants, run by food families and famous chefs, are aplenty and often focus on local produce.’

What's happening

Check the Oudtshoorn site for information on festivals and events during your planned visit.

Best buys

Ostrich feather dusters on sale outside the museum.