The Great South African Ostrich

By Rachel Cooper
Photography by Logan Cooper

If, like me, you were a kid who reveled in the glamour and glory of a serious dress-up session, you probably owned a feather boa. Perhaps it was in a serene, stately white or maybe an eye-catching pink, but it was made to mimic the classiness of the original chic accessory: the ostrich feather. Around the turn of the last century, adding an ostrich feather to your ensemble was the absolute height of fashion—picture doe-eyed starlets and dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

Someone had to supply these feathers to a voracious populace, and that is where the farmers of the South African Karoo stepped in. Fortunes were made, and the newly rich farmers (colloquially known as “feather barons”) built palatial estates on rolling green hills.


Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I made such ostentatious adornments unfashionable and the bottom fell out of the ostrich-feather trade. For many years, farmers struggled to recoup losses as herds of ostriches that had been worth a small fortune became completely worthless. A hundred years later, there are still lots of working farms in South Africa, particularly outside Oudtshoorn, although the ostriches are mostly raised for their meat, eggs and leather instead of for their feathers.

Ostrich-2

My husband and I are driving northeast from Cape Town in a tiny Chevy Spark. We have come to Africa to discover regional food specialties that are off the beaten path and we’ve scheduled a trip to Oudtshoorn, which turns out to be a small and friendly town with a Main Street lined with restaurants and shops. Many of these shops sell all sorts of ostrich ephemera, but we are living out of small backpacks for the next eight months, so the showy feather fans and huge carved ostrich eggs will have to stay on their racks. A jovial woman who owns a store-cum-deli stocked with ostrich pâté, sausages and fresh meat tells us how to get into one of those tough orbs while leaving the shell whole enough to be decorated. “You just need a butter knife, a small stone and a bit of patience,” she says.

Once into that shell, there’s a LOT of egg. Ostrich eggs are the largest laid by any living bird and are the approximate equivalent of 24 chicken eggs. The flavor’s a bit on the gamy side, so the eggs are often served with strong-flavored sauces.

Of course, eggs aren’t the only edible ostrich-derived product; ostrich meat is very popular too, and available around town in many different guises. Biltong, or South African-style jerky, is perhaps the most common, although meat tends to show up on restaurant menus in the form of burgers or steaks. Perhaps the oddest ostrich treat (at least for those of us from places where eating ostrich is not commonplace) is ostrich-neck stew. When braised, the texture of the neck is unctuous and rich, not unlike a cross between oxtail and pot roast.

Ostrich-3

In our travels around southwestern South Africa, we spied ostriches all over the place. They poked their heads over fences, ran from our car on scruffy beaches and peered at us from roadsides. But we never felt comfortable getting too close to them, which is why we were excited to learn that, just outside of Oudtshoorn, there are several ostrich farms that welcome visitors.

The Safari Ostrich Show Farm is one of these. An easygoing tour guide with a wonderful, lilting accent leads our group past several paddocks containing different kinds of ostriches. We admire the bright blue thighs of the Somali Ostrich and the red necks of the North African Ostrich. Each of these subspecies has a different strength: some produce higher-quality feathers, while others are more reliable egg layers. I am shocked to find that an ostrich egg can easily support my full weight, although this is perhaps unsurprising given that full-grown ostriches can weigh up to 340 pounds and they sit on their eggs to incubate them. We feed pellets to ostriches and struggle not to flinch as their huge heads descend to peck at our hands. The guide warns us that the birds may take a liking to our sunglasses.

Next, we are led to a paddock where a large male ostrich is brought in, a bank-deposit bag placed over his head to shield his eyes from us. We pose uncertainly for pictures and keep a tight grasp on our sunglasses, and then the guide tells us that we can actually ride this guy!

Ostrich
How could I not?

It turns out that riding an ostrich is not technically difficult, especially if you have any experience with horses. Sit on the back, tuck your legs under the wings, grab the wing joints with your hands and lean back. It’s a strange, not entirely comfortable, feeling being perched atop a two-legged animal. Your center of balance is much further back than you’d think, and you worry heavily about breaking a feather or two.

The catastrophic decline in ostrich value after World War I is not the end of the story for the ostrich farmers of the Karoo. After World War II, the market for ostriches slowly began to rebound. But an outbreak of bird flu in South Africa in 2011 and early 2012 has led to the culling of tens of thousands of ostriches and, once more, the loss of many jobs. The future for ostrich farmers is, again, uncertain.

Still, tourism is a driving force for the economy in the Karoo, and lovers of ostrich products and ostrich rides alike will find this region well worth a visit. With its winding roads and stunning sunsets, you’re bound to find a beautiful vista. And many of the hotels even offer guests full use of the kitchens. So go ahead and tackle that egg.