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Riding an Ostrich (No, It’s Not a Metaphor)

posted at 12:01 pm
on Sep. 18, 2001

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Knocking Around Knysna

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Heading through a mountain pass in the deepest fog I can remember was fun, but extremely disappointing; the views, I could tell, would have been spectacular, but the visibility was about 10 feet until we got to the top and leveled out in the Kleine Karoo, a smallish semi desert that was perfect ostrich breeding territory.

We saw signs almost immediately; flocks of ostriches strutting about.  But we decided to put off our tour of an ostrich farm until the next day; our goal today was Cheetahland.

The South Africans have a cute naming trend.  They call many things—Land, such as Monkeyland, Cheetahland, Cameland, Shakaland (the Zulu amusement park), Swaziland (a country) and Dairyland, an ice cream parlour.  I’d add World of Birds to this category as well, though not technically just a land.

At Cheetahland, we got to see crocodiles of various sizes, and one alligator specially brought in from Florida for comparison.  It was quite chilly, but the alligator was in such a torpor that it didn’t move the whole time that we were there (2 hours).  I don’t think it was even breathing, but Susie insists it was alive.  The crocodiles were a little feistier, but still didn’t try to bite the tour guide, which was disappointing.

The better part of Cheetahland was its collection of large cats: pumas, jaguar, lions, tigers and of course cheetahs.  They have one of the most successful breeding programs in the world, but suffer from a problem that, for once, isn’t man’s fault.  Apparently, there were very few cheetahs left at the end of the last ice age, and so the existing cheetahs today don’t have a varied gene pool—all cheetahs in the world are basically second cousins, regardless of geographic separation.  Breeding programs are trying quite hard to diversify the new cheetahs based on a complete genetic record kept of every cheetah in captivity, but it’s a difficult process.

I know all this because I paid an extra 30 Rand to get the extended cheetah tour, which includes a lot more facts about cheetahs, and also give you a chance to PET a cheetah.  You have to be over 16 and at least 60 inches tall, which I suppose is to keep both the regular paying customers and the cheetahs safe from teenagers, a noble cause.  The cheetah’s fur was a little wiry, but no more so than a regular house cat that lived outside all the time and didn’t get groomed regularly. It was about the size of a large Doberman, and after being petted for a while, it actually purred, which I suppose meant Susie and I were either about to be dinner or were getting in his (her?) good books.  The purr was deep and throaty, but definitely not a growl; it was exactly like you’d expect a 70 kilo house cat to sound.

There were a few other animals at Cheetahland: a pygmy hippo, some wild dogs (wild in the sense of a particular breed, not simply out of control dogs—side note here: the Shamwari game reserve said they didn’t stock wild dog because they only had 18,000 hectares of land so far, and the wild dogs required at least 60,000 hectares to roam and hunt.  So if you wonder why you don’t see too many of them….) some bat-eared fox, some meerkats and a pack of goats.  The goats were funny because you were allowed to go into their pen, and there was a pellet dispenser so you could give them some food as they surrounded you, but there was one very clever, alpha goat who waited until you were quite a ways in and couldn’t easily get back to the gate, and he’d run up and head butt you very hard in the knee to get you to collapse and/or drop all the pellets.  Clever goat!  There was another one, very pudgy, who had discovered that if you stand on the very top of some stumps by the entrance, you were at eye level with whoever came in and by bleating very loudly, you could attract a big handful of food straight away.  Between the two clever goats, it’s a wonder the other ones got any food at all.

That night, we stayed at the Altes Landhause, which wasn’t very Altes at all.  The main part of the house was over 100 years old and was one of the ostrich palaces built in the early part of the 1900s when ostrich feathers would fetch up to 30 British pounds each.  No kidding.  They were the height of fashion, but along came windy motorcars and World War I and between the two factors, fashions changed very quickly and Oudtshoorn collapsed overnight.  Today, the industry is making somewhat of a comeback; ostrich meat is very low in fat, and there’s no such thing as mad ostrich disease yet.  Also, ostrich leather, though it looks to me like a cow with the measles, is popular with a certain crowd.  Nevertheless, Oudtshoorn is now famous for having been famous, and makes a fair amount of money selling ostrich eggshells and giving tours of “real” ostrich farms.

Which I’ll talk about soon, but let’s finish with the Altes Landhause.  It was a luxurious place to stay, with a sitting area and a large tiled bathroom.  IT was one of two places we stayed with a bidet—are they getting more popular?  I really should figure out how to use one!  I tried for the first time since the conference to use Susie’s laptop while plugged into the power adapters I bought and daily chained together with duct tape.

It’s not that they didn’t fit together, just that they didn’t stick, so I had to plug the adapter into the transformer into the power cord into the power brick into the laptop, capiche?  Everything went well for a while, but all of a sudden a warning flashed on the screen that I was running on battery power.  That’s odd, I thought, because I didn’t unplug it.  I looked over at the wall socket and the duct tape had melted through and the transformer had come away from the wall.  Good thing, too, because when I touched it to try to plug it back in it was singing hot, and if it hadn’t had the duct tape fuse, it probably would have caught fire in another few minutes. Hooray duct tape!  Don’t leave home without it.

But that limited my journaling until I could get another bit of cord or a new transformer that was rated for more than “walkmans, razors, calculators and alarm clocks” as I later read in the fine print.

We went to dinner and had ostrich steak—which was very very strongly tasting of red wine (in which it had been marinated), but quite good with a creamy mushroom sauce.  The wine was also yummy, and if I can get hold of any South African wine in the States, I will buy some, because every bottle we tried was really good, low on that strong after bite and tasting kind of wild like the red dirt that we drove past in the desert.

The next day we checked out and we off to visit the Cango Ostrich Farm, where we met Lisa, the world’s tamest ostrich.  She let you pet her, hug her, feed her, etc. etc.  We learned from Dougie our tour guide that if an ostrich is chasing you, the best thing to do get your partner to grab her by the neck form behind and put a hat over her head.  The second best thing, and a little more realistic, is to lay down on the ground, cause ostriches can only kick forward, not down or back, and their bills are hard but not sharp, good for picking up seeds but bar at rending flesh, so if you’re flat on the ground, they can stand on you and break a few ribs, but other than that you’re pretty safe.  Until the wild dogs show up.

Ostriches are a real pain in the butt to breed, not the least of which because the eggs need to be incubated, the chicks die if they get to cold, too hot or startled, the birds are monogamous and need their own pens and try to kill you if you come in, and the only animal more stupid than an ostriches is two of them.  On the plus side, one ostrich egg can make the same sized omelet as 24 chicken eggs.

The highlight of the farm tour was when I got to ride an ostrich.  I stayed on for a good 8 seconds, which means I’d qualify for the ostrich rodeo, though I didn’t finish first—a Vancouver man with a great sense of balance managed to make it around the whole pen before being thrown.  You can’t steer on ostrich for anything due to the aforementioned stupidity problem, and they tire quickly, which is why you don’t get a lot of school children taking lessons.  Susie says she got some good pictures.

After the farm, we went on to the Cango Caves, a huge complex in the hills above Oudtshoorn.  The caves were discovered in the 1780s, and made into a tourist cave in the 1800s.  They are still, however, really dark when the guide turns off the lights.  We took the 1.5-hour “Adventure” tour, which was all that it was billed and more.  It was the four of us and the guide.  The other two were German brothers, and the tour took us way way back into the caves, through a bunch of narrow passages, into a chamber called the Devil’s Kitchen, up a chimney called Devil’s Chimney and then through a slot called the Postbox.  No, not the Devil’s Postbox, though I don’t know why they suddenly got coy.

Anyway, one of the Germans, Marcus, went first up the chimney, and we heard a sliding sort of crash sound.  The guide looked at us and said; yeah, there’s a bit of a step down after the chimney.  When I got up there, though, I found out that Marcus had dislocated his right shoulder when he missed a handhold on the chimney’s exit.  This was a Bad Thing because we were in the very furthest chamber of the cave and he couldn’t move his right hand.  The guide and I lowered him out the Postbox, and then he had to shuffle his way through some really painful awkward places as we made our way back to the entrance.  It was a 1.6 km walk, and the tour ended up being more like 2.5 hours.  His brother had asked me if I or the guide could just pop his arm back in, and I think he’d just seen too many Lethal Weapon movies, because I wasn’t going to try it. Anyway, he had a pretty miserable time, but I hope a good story when he did get his arm working again—he did make it out and off to the local doctor’s office, arranged by the guide.

We took a shortcut form the caves down a lesser road to get back to our final destination for the day: Radio Active Springs.  It was a race against time to get to the springs and then back down to the coast to Hermanus where we were spending the night.



 
 

 

Previous entry:
Knocking Around Knysna

Next entry:
Knock Knock

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