Feathers in Oudtshoorn

Tuesday 15 to Wednesday 16 November

Our journey from Knysna to Oudtshoorn was through the Outenique Pass. It was so beautiful we doubled back and drove it again, and stopped for a photo opportunity.

Our destination was the ostrich capital of the world. Ostrich feathers became the height of fashion twice, during 1865–1870 and 1900–1914. In each case the fashion was short lived, but lucrative.

Oudtshoorn is set between the Swart and Outeniqua mountains. It was originally settled by Dutch in the eighteenth century and became a farming community. Lack of water was always an issue. This led to irrigation of the land and in fact many of South Africa’s earliest irrigation experts hailed from the region.

Tobacco and ostrich farming were the main drivers of the economic growth.

In the first ostrich boom the feathers became popular with the European nobility. Their per pound value nearly matched the value of diamonds and the precious white feathers were dubbed ‘white gold’. It collapsed due to over-production and a drought.

The boom attracted Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who were fleeing the Tsarist pogroms. They established synagogues and the first African Hebrew school.

A second and bigger boom started after the Second Anglo-Boer War. Feather barons built opulent houses along the Grobbelaars River and the town expanded rapidly.

The market collapsed in 1914, which The Chicago Tribune reported was a result of ‘the start of World War I, overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars, which made ostrich-feather hats impractical’.

The  economy of the town has risen and fallen dramatically in the following years as ostriches were farmed for feathers, their meat and their leather. Droughts and various avian flu outbreaks have at times decimated the ostrich population and the town’s economy.

We visited the CP Nel Museum which told the history of the Ostrich Booms and displayed some of the magnificent feathers, both dyed and in their natural state. The museum is in a grand sandstone building which was constructed as a Boys’ High School in 1906.  A New Republican style school hall was erected in 1912.

Oudtshoorn was a pleasant town to wander around and enjoy the architecture of its economic booms.

The drive back to the coast was equally enjoyable. We drove through Kleinkaroo (Little Karoo) region which is the agricultural area, before coming across an eclectic coffee shop called the Diesel & Creme Cafe in Barrydale.

From there we drove through Tradouws Pass, with spectacular views through the mountains.

This was our longest drive, with 378km to reach Hermaus, so we skipped the sidetrips and settled in for a walk on the beach and a night back on the coast.