Choose your country and language:
IInland from the Cape’s famous Garden Route, over breathtakingly beautiful mountain passes, magnificent red rocks and the wide-open spaces of the Klein (‘Little’) Karoo, you’ll find Oudtshoorn – once known internationally as the ostrich capital of the world. Royalty, potentates, maharajahs and high society once adorned themselves with the world’s finest feathers, farmed right here.
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 Pass through the mountains from George.
At the heart of the Klein Karoo is its attractive capital, 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, 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 within easy striking distance of Oudtshoorn. Foremost among these is the Swartberg Pass, with its switchback twists and turns and dramatic mountain views en 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 Groot (‘Great’) Karoo is via the 25km Meiringspoort (Meiring’s Pass), 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 pass, 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, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (the ‘Little Karoo National Arts Festival’, abbreviated generally to KKNK). It is 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 after 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.
As a result, the ostrich farmers of Oudtshoorn enjoyed an unprecedented boom, and for a while the money rolled in. ‘Feather palaces’ were built in and around Oudtshoorn, and ostriches pulled Santa’s sleigh at Christmas.
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. It would take decades, and the rise in popularity of ostrich meat, before ostrich farming became viable again.
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. And the feathers are still popular, especially for stage and screen costumes and in haute couture, although they don’t fetch nearly the prices they used to.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)44 279 2532
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 a sunny, dry climate all year. But it can get very hot in summer (November to February).
Around the area
The CP Nel Museum, the Swartberg Pass, the Cango Caves, wine estates and the Garden Route.
Tours to do
Cango Caves, Cango Wildlife Farm, Meerkat Adventures. Ballooning is a spectacular way to get to know the landscape.
By car and on foot.
Length of stay
At least 2 nights.
What to pack
Comfortable shoes, hat, sunscreen, camera, binoculars.
What to eat
Delicious, low-cholesterol ostrich meat, of course. Try ostrich sausages, steaks, casseroles, carpaccio and cold cuts.
Contact Oudtshoorn Tourism for information on current events
Products made from ostrich skin, ostrich biltong, local wine, olives.