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Oudtshoorn

To my delight we discovered that South African road trips also involve kitschy roadside attractions. Case in point: burgers and shakes at Diesel and Crème! The perfect stop on our ride into Oudtshoorn.

Given that Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world, it seemed only fitting to begin our stay with a visit to an ostrich farm. We took a fun, informative tour, where we got to feed the ostriches, stand on their eggs, and I even sat on one! I wasn’t as brave as the others who actually went for a ride on them…

…but I did subject myself to the ostrich neck massage!

I think I took it better than this lady though:

(and here’s a little video of the ostrich riding, if you’re interested…)

Of course, we went out to dinner that night to cap it all off with a little taste of ostrich steak.

Oudtshoorn isn’t all about the ostriches, however, there are a plethora of animals to enjoy. Next up for us was a morning with the meerkats. We woke bright and early (4:40!) to drive out and meet Devey, the so-called meerkat whisperer.

Before getting to the meerkats, we gathered for coffee and rusks, where we were joined by some striped grass mice and a Karoo bush rat. Apparently they come out every morning looking for Devey’s rusk crumbs, and he even spoon feeds some coffee to one of them(!). I was excited because it was wildlife I was allowed to touch. 🙂

After the snacks we walked a short ways and set up our camp chairs around a little area that looked no different than any other. But Devey, the meerkat whisperer, comes out every night to track the meerkats and see which burrow they sleep in for the night. Then he brings groups of people in the mornings to watch them as they wake up. (Over some years he’s gotten a few groups of meerkats habituated to human presence since he studies them and is very focused on meerkat conservation, but he never touches, feeds or interferes with them.) So after a wait of maybe 20 minutes, the meerkats started crawling out of their holes and warming themselves up in the sun.

These tiny creatures are only about a foot tall, weighing 600-800 grams apiece. And their behavior is oddly human-like. It’s super fun to watch as they play and sun themselves before they venture out to forage.

We stayed and observed them as long as they let us, and once they hit the open range to begin the foraging, we watched them until they’d disappeared out of sight. It was a most wonderful way to spend a morning. Plus, we even saw a steenbok and a grey duiker while out there! Solid.

The highlight of the animal sightings might also have been the cheesiest. We paid a visit to the Cango Wildlife Ranch. This is definitely much more zoo-like than the rest of our animal encounters in Africa, but I for one have nothing against zoos. We loved walking around and seeing the animals – everything from peacocks to pygmy hippos, crocodiles to bush pigs, lorikeets to leopards, African white lions to white tigers, and marmoset monkeys to wallabies.

But the highlight? We got to touch the animals!!! All the self-restraint you have to exercise on safari is unneeded at Cango, because here you can pet the cats. And pet we did. We hung out with the serval cats, the baby cheetah cubs, and the lemurs. And I’m going to go ahead and let these photos showing the sheer joy on my face speak for themselves.

The lemurs were a surprising highlight. They are super lively, playful and interactive. The padding on their feet and hands is so soft and it’s really neat to have them crawling all over you. I also thought it was the most adorable thing that they play with their tails when they are nervous!

There was also a little bit of impromptu animal interaction with the lorikeets that helped themselves to pecking at our clothes, and even Alan’s hair!

When we weren’t checking out the wildlife Oudtshoorn has to offer, we were exploring its natural beauty. Cango Caves had some seriously impressive chambers. We considered doing an adventure tour where you army crawl through super narrow spaces, but the claustrophobes in us said to skip it for the tamer exploration.

We continued past the caves to drive up the Swartberg Pass dirt road. Not going to lie, it was pretty scary going up there. Especially in our dinky little Ford Figo rental car.

But we made it, and it did not disappoint. Great views and fascinating fynbos, including abundant proteas.

We stopped at nearby Meiringspoort Waterfall where lots of people hang out and swim, and we even spotted some frogs and a bunch of fish.

Of course, this being South Africa, there were loads of baboons in the roads as well. Luckily this time we managed to avoid having any sneak into our car.

Overall, for a town with not much happening, Oudtshoorn offers a lot of really fun activities nearby, and it was a highlight of our two weeks in South Africa.

Practical Info

Oudtshoorn (pronounced close enough to Oats-Horn) is the ostrich capital of the world and a tourism hub for the Klein Karoo. The town itself is not very exciting, but there are several worthwhile activities and sights nearby.

Transportation: We drove from Franschhoek, taking the pass (R45) towards Villiersdorp (R43) then bypassing Worcester for the R60 stopping briefly in Montagu and then continuing onto the R62 and lunch in Barrydale at Diesel and Crème. We stayed on the R62 all the way into Oudtshoorn, and we did not stop in Calitzdorp but you might want to if you like port wine. I believe it’s the regional capital, and the grape juice may be called Cape Ruby instead of Port.

We departed for Plettenberg Bay via the N9/N12 and the Outeniqua Pass to George, from where we joined the N2 and drove east along the coast. We had lunch at the Knysna Heads, about 30-45 minutes west of Plett.

Accommodation: We stayed at 88 Baron van Reede Guesthouse, which is in town. It is comfortable, breakfast is very good, Zoe and Huw are supremely friendly and helpful, and it is a super short walk to some of the best restaurants. There are some other properties outside town that might offer more of a wilderness experience (luxury-style) and perhaps star-gazing, etc.

Food and Drinks: Ostrich is ubiquitous, as one might expect in the ostrich capital. We had very good dinners at Nostalgie and at Jemima’s. If you are coming from the wine region and want to bring your own bottle(s) to dinner, corkage at the former was a mere R25 and at the latter R45. We enjoyed lunch at the Swartberg Hotel in Prince Albert.

Activities: Our brief time in the Karoo was filled with enjoyable activities. Just after arriving we visited the Cango Ostrich Farm. Standard admission is R80, but we paid R65 with our hotel’s discount voucher. The tour lasted about 45 minutes and there are some interactive moments like having an ostrich aggressively pluck food out of your hand or give Jenni a neck massage. I stood on some eggs and Jenni sat on an ostrich. Neither of us was brave enough to ride one.

We woke pre-dawn on Sunday to meet Devey Glinster at 5:15 am and follow him to De Zeekoe Guest Farm for his awesome Meerkat Adventures. Devey goes out the prior evening and figures out which burrow the meerkats are using that night. We parked the car and he supplied coffee and rusks. Then we walked a short distance and set up camp chairs in a semi-circle around the burrow and waited for the meerkat family to emerge. Soon they did, and we spent 20-30 minutes observing their utter cuteness. It costs R550 each (cash only), or R450 if you stay at De Zeekoe.

Next we drove up to Cango Caves for the Heritage Tour, which lasts about an hour. There are several impressive caverns, and the whole thing is well done. It costs R80 each. They also offer an Adventure Tour, but it sounded pretty hard-core if you have any hints of claustrophobia.

From the caves we began the “Two Passes Loop,” ascending the Swartberg Pass, visiting Prince Albert and then returning via the Meiringspoort Pass. The Swartberg Pass is unpaved and quite spectacular, in terms of views, rocks, flora, etc. I think everyone else we saw had a 4×4, but our little Ford Figo made it (in about 1 hour 45 minutes). Prince Albert has a few restaurants and probably some other activities, but we just had lunch at the Swartberg Hotel and enjoyed the amazing flora all over. Heading to and within the Meiringspoort Pass, we saw so many baboons in the middle of and beside the road. Very cool. This Pass is paved and more level, following the river that cuts through the mountains. We stopped at the Meiringspoort Waterfall, which is very pretty.

Our last morning, we visited the Cango Wildlife Ranch just outside town (Oudtshoorn). It cost R145 each to enter, which includes an hour-long tour. The up-close animal encounters cost extra, and there is a 15% discount for each person that does two or more. Petting the serval cats, cheetahs and lemurs cost us R467.5 each.

November 1-3, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

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