Heading East: the Ostriches of Oudtshoorn

An index to this trip appears on the first post.

March 26, 2016

I awoke early, even for me, but I managed to stay abed until 5:30 AM.  After a quick shower, I was on my way to the ostrich capital of the world, Oudtshoorn!  One can pronounce it badly by saying “oats” followed by the last three letters of “horn.”  My drive to George across the N2 was mostly uneventful, with a fair amount of rising and falling.  Heading north from George involved crossing the mountains again, and the pass was quite lovely.  I moved from being in dark cloud cover to full sunlight and back again, then into a dense fog.  Near the top of the pass (800m) I paused at a scenic overlook.  The pavement was sloped and quite slick, and I fell pretty hard, banging my knee (it still looks pretty scraped, a week later).


A view of the rising sun in Outeniqua Pass

With the pass behind me, I descended through an interesting area where fertile valleys alternated with more humid versions of the karoo to the north.  As the road followed the Klip River, I passed a farm called the “smoky orchard,” and I remarked to myself that it was very appropriately named, from the fogs passing over the trees.  When the N9 and N12 split, I stayed with the N12 to come to Oudtshoorn.  Soon, the area around me was no longer covered in fog; instead, my surroundings were a dead ringer for the karoo I’d seen to the north.  I reached Oudtshoorn around 7:45 AM, only to discover that the main road through the town was closed for a huge street fair.  Vendors were setting up their booths.  I parked at the high school sports field on the R62 west, ready to launch into some tourism!


Reassurance is never out of place.

I wandered into the tourist information center around 8:15 AM.  They had opened their doors early because they were preparing for their role in the city’s art festival, “Feeskaart 2016.”  I learned of the festival after planning my trip in broad outline, because getting a hotel room in Oudtshoorn was nearly impossible.  Helpfully, they had maps and fliers laying out the participants in the festival.  My battle plan focused on two major museums in the city.  The C. P. Nel Museum seemed the obvious place to go to learn Ostrich history, and the C. J. Langenhoven Museum seemed like a nice bookend to my experience at the Taal Monument in Paarl.


Woof. Good dog!

Of course, the museums had their own plans for the festival.  I began with a walk down Baron Van Reede Street, the main drag for the town.  The C. P. Nel was unmistakable, with its sizeable bell tower.  The grounds had been filled with a large stage for live music, and art and food vendors were everywhere.  As I walked past the local Spur restaurant, hawkers insisted that I come eat breakfast, but I put them off.  I wandered into a book shop and looked at titles for a bit.  A novel by Solzhenitsyn looked interesting, but I kept going.  I paused for a photo at a police academy statue celebrating their canine friends.

After I had walked past most of the festival events, I saw a pretty church on the left (it was designed by the same architect as was the lovely structure at Knysna).  As I turned that corner, I found myself in a space set aside for the Da Vinci Art Gallery.  The artist, Bousie, often works from photographs, but what appears on the canvas ranges from photo-realistic paintings to impressionist interpretations.  I spent a little time pondering the canvases.  One painting, dating from 2007, hung close to the ceiling.  I was enraptured by it.  A spare tree stands before a range of distant hills, with vivid colors separating the scrub from the dirt and hills.  The folks operating the gallery saw my attention, and they took my contact information and gave me an A4 print of a windmill in a similarly spare environment.  I continued poking my head into art galleries all the way back to the C. P. Nel Museum.  I saw a of nice works, but none that appealed to me as much.


The ostrich museum also has a long “neck!”

Once I was at the museum, I was a bit surprised that I could simply walk in; nobody was at the gate.  Once inside, I learned a bit more about C. P. Nel; apparently he was an avid collector of antiques who had served with distinction against the Boer commandos who invaded the Cape Colony in the latter stages of the Anglo-Boer War (ending in 1902).  He had opened a private museum as early as 1937, but the Boys’ High School became home to his collection in 1973, along with the adjoining Le Roux Townhouse.  Both these buildings are now national monuments.

Oudtshoorn rose to incredible prominence during the Edwardian times (1901-1911), when ostrich feathers became a rage throughout Europe.  The completion of railway links to Port Elizabeth ensured that these feathers could reach market from a fine port.  The Feather Market Center in that city, after all, was built around the need to grade ostrich feathers for shipment and sale.  The time between the start of the twentieth century and World War I allowed Oudtshoorn to rebuild from the chaos of the Anglo-Boer War with a flux of European money.


This beautiful home sits right on the main drag through town.


“Ostrich Palaces” sprung up all over town, giving some architectural luster to what would otherwise be a small agricultural center.  I was able to photograph a couple of them as I passed up and down Baron van Reede, despite the festival.


The Gottland House, 1903. Such ornate metal work!

My two favorite exhibits in the Ostrich Room explained the origin of the costumes for the Gilles De Binche and demonstrated the art that has been created from ostrich eggs.  The Gilles De Binche are clown-like performers who contribute to the carnival of Binche in Belgium on the three days before Ash Wednesdsay.  Late on Shrove Tuesday, the Gilles put on huge hats made of ostrich feathers in order to throw oranges into the crowd.  If that’s not a good excuse to wear a three-foot tall hat, I’m not sure that one exists!


I offer a trigger warning to those with clown phobias.

The art that has been accomplished with ostrich eggs is also remarkable.  This 1850 work of Jewish art was created in Algiers.  It’s a jewel case, using an engraved ostrich egg and set with pieced and chiselled gilt brass.


Yes, you can engrave an egg.

As I exited to the courtyard of the C. P. Nel museum, I was surprised to emerge into a press-conference / panel.  Confusingly, beyond the courtyard, I could see the front of a synagogue within the museum that is apparently still in use!

My next goal was to visit the C. J. Langenhoven museum.  Following the tourist map, I walked west.  I kept thinking I had gone far enough, but then I realized that until I had crossed a stream, I hadn’t gone far enough.  In the end, it was a long block that seemed like seven or eight blocks.  I passed a children’s play park, the Spar grocery mall, and finally found the next street west, Jan Van Riebeeck.  I then trudged north for an equal distance until I had passed Church Street.  It became apparent that the museum folks expected arrivals by car, because there was no pedestrian entrance!  I found my way onto the grounds, and then I saw a house back toward the road and a larger structure in the back from which music was pouring.  I went back there.  In the next few moments, a visiting artist helped me find the staff members.  I was told that they were having an event for the festival, and there was nobody available to let me in to the house to see the exhibits.  My face fell.  I trudged away, and someone with very interesting hair stopped me.  My face rose.  He asked me to look at the paintings he had for sale.  I did so gamely, but then I walked away, defeated.  I emerged with very little more information than I had arrived with.

Who was C. J. Langenhoven?  He was an individual who lived in Oudtshoorn who eventually served in the South African Parliament.  He was a powerful writer, and he founded two newspapers in the Afrikaans language, “Freemason” and “Die Burger” (apparently the sponsors of that press conference / panel at the C. P. Nel Museum).  His efforts were a major contribution to the recognition of Afrikaans as a separate language in 1927.  In addition to his prose, he is renowned for having created the lyrics to the original South African national anthem “Die Stem” (The Voice), some of which made its way into the current national anthem of the country.  Apparently, if I had wandered around the grounds a bit more, I would have seen his grave.

I returned to my car.  What was left to do?  I wanted to see some of the ostrich palaces, and…  Well, that painting was still on my mind.  One of the exercises I’ve always tried to use when deciding on a big purchase is to arrive with my own conception of what the thing is worth.  I thought to myself, “where would this painting go?”  “Is it big enough to sit over a sofa?”  And I thought to myself, such a painting would probably be worth [I request that you not think less of me because I am a profound cheapskate] $200 (USD).  I did a quick multiplication by 15 in my head to say, “Okay, that’s a ceiling of 3000 Rand.”  I drove over to the church, using the long way around due to the festival, and I came back.  The person managing sales smiled at me.  We spoke for a few minutes, while I looked at the painting some more.  The painting was one of the older ones that they had on hand.  It had originally been part of a larger series of images inspired by photographs in Upington, near the border of Namibia, but the other paintings had already sold.  She confessed that they would be willing to take a lower price for it than she had quoted earlier.  I was happy that it was less than my ceiling, and I did the bank transfer right there using their laptop (my debit card is not usable as a credit card).


Artist Bousie and I pose with my newest piece of art!

Now I had a large painting in the back seat of my car, it was around noon, and I thought it was time to move in the direction of my afternoon entertainment.  I had wanted to see the Cango Caves, and so I headed north.  It was when I left Oudtshoorn that I passed a sign that wrecked my plans.  I saw it only in the corner of my eye, but I believe it announced that the Swartberg Pass was closed!  Remember that I mentioned that all the hotels in Oudtshoorn were fully booked due to the festival.  I had booked a room in the Backpackers’ Inn at Prince Albert on the other side of a small mountain range to the north.  I was looking forward to seeing the mountain pass in the afternoon, because it is apparently one of the most beautiful sights on earth.  I had already been told that the other pass through a valley to the east was closed due to mud.



My road trip had circled the Swartberg Range, and now the closure of the passes blocked me from seeing them up close.

Since this is South Africa, there was an olive farm a mile down the road that had a restaurant (“Su Casa”) ready for business.  I asked the reception desk to check ahead for me; I needed the straight skinny on the pass situation.  She replied that she was on it.  I sat outside in the shade and enjoyed a massive plate of baked pasta with chorizo.  I’ve seen chorizo used as an accent for dishes, but this time it was a major player!  My eyes were streaming, but I kept shoveling that huge plate into my mouth anyway.  I was at an impasse, and I passed the time eating joyfully.  I cannot imagine how my personal history would have changed if they had given me the full portion rather than the two-thirds version.

As I approached my meal’s end, the receptionist approached with her information.  Yes, the pass was closed.  I called the hostel for that night and cancelled my reservation since I couldn’t get to them.  I paid my bill for lunch.  The receptionist said, “oh, the pass just reopened.”

I paused.

At this moment, my Tabb genes kicked in.  A surprising idea had popped up, and I needed to work it through.  Could I restore my reservation at Prince Albert?  Yes.  The current time was 1:45 PM.  How long would it take an ordinary person to drive from the restaurant to my home?  Google Maps says it should take four hours and 38 minutes to drive this distance.  I’m really slow, though.  If I top out at 90 kph on the N1, will I reasonably be able to make it home that very night?  Having envisioned my own bed, I got in my car and started driving west.

My course to the west along R62 took me through the heart of the Klein Karoo.  It may not have been a national road, but this route has nonetheless been touted as a spectacular drive through the “longest wine route in the world.”  I didn’t see much of Calitzdorp or Zoar.  I was happy when I reached Ladismith because I thought it had something to do with a favorite South African music group.  Only afterwards did I learn that this was “Ladismit,” not “Ladysmith,” which is over on the east coast.  I plunged onward to Barrydale, where I refilled my gas tank.  From there I was back in the saddle to Montagu, where I needed a long construction detour all the way to Ashton.  From there it was full speed ahead to Worcester, where finding the intersection with the N1 was somewhat confusing (and the sun’s low angle was unhelpful).  Barreling down the N1 at 90 kph, I climbed the pass to the Hotentot Tunnel!  I crossed the Hugos river!  I paid my toll!  I passed Paarl!

I made it home just before 7:30 PM.

2 thoughts on “Heading East: the Ostriches of Oudtshoorn

  1. Pingback: Heading East: Dave visits Matjiesfontein | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Enjoy 28 landscapes in South Africa on your desktop! | Picking Up The Tabb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s