Oudtshoorn, the “Ostrich Capital of the World”, is a town in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Two ostrich-feather booms, during 1865-1870 and 1900-1914, truly established the settlement. With approximately 60,000 inhabitants, it is the largest town in the Little Karoo region. The town’s economy is primarily reliant on the ostrich farming and tourism industries. Oudtshoorn is home to the world’s largest ostrich population, with a number of specialized ostrich breeding farms.
The area in which Oudtshoorn is situated was originally inhabited by Bushmen, as evidenced by the many rock paintings that are found in caves throughout the surrounding Swartberg mountains.
The first European explorers to the area were a trading party led by a certain Ensign Shrijver, who were guided there by a Griqua via an ancient elephant trail in January 1689. The expedition reached as far as present-day Aberdeen before turning back and exiting the Klein Karoo valley through Attaquas Kloof on 16 March of the same year. However, it was only a hundred years later that the first farmers started settling in the region.
The first large permanent structure of the Klein Karoo, a church of the Dutch Reformed denomination, was first erected in 1838 on the farm Hartebeestrivier, near the banks of the Olifants and Grobbelaars rivers. The village (and later town) of Oudtshoorn gradually grew around this church, and nine years later, in 1847, Oudtshoorn was founded. It was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, who was appointed Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony in 1772 but died at sea in January 1773 on his return voyage to the Cape. In 1853, the Dutch Reformed church was officially established as a kerkplaats (church farm). Originally part of the district of George, Oudtshoorn was proclaimed as its own, separate division in 1858. The first British settlers settled the area in 1858. Also in 1858, van Rheede van Oudtshoorn’s granddaughter, Ernestina Johanna Geesje, married Egbertus Bergh, a magistrate of George.
A small one-room school was opened in 1858, followed by the formation of a municipality and the founding of an Agricultural Society in 1859. During the same year, work was also started on a larger church to replace the original small one.
The limited supply of water in the area limited the settlement’s growth. In the early years, water was transported to the town in barrels, which were sold for sixpence per bucket. Forced to cope with the lack of water, many of South Africa’s earliest irrigation experts hailed from the region. Fruit and grain were produced in large quantities, but the local economy was based primarily upon tobacco and ostrich farming. A severe drought in 1865 persuaded many of the settlers to move to the Transvaal. The 1865 census indicated that Oudtshoorn had a population of 1,145.
First Ostrich Boom
Oudtshoorn’s ostrich industry dates back to 1864. The main reason for the surge in Oudtshoorn’s prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become fashionable accessories among European nobility. Feather exports saw a sharp increase from the Cape Colony during the mid-1860s, which is generally accepted as the launch of the industry in South Africa. By 1870, feather auctions were being held in Mossel Bay. In 1875, the census counted the town’s population to be 1,837. Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1,000 a pair. The value of ostrich feathers, per pound, equaled almost that of diamonds. The farmers of the region, realising that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their other crops and planted lucerne, which was used as feed for the ostriches. By 1877, feather auctions were also being held in Oudtshoorn itself. The rising wealth also finally allowed for the completion of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was opened on 7 June 1879. Such was the worth of the white ostrich feather, that it was dubbed “white gold”.
Owing to overproduction, the ostrich industry experienced a sudden slump in fortunes in 1885; the town’s misery was compounded when it was hit by severe flooding during the same year, which washed away the nearby Victoria Bridge, which had been built over the Olifants River only the year before.
The boom had attracted a large Jewish immigrant population of about 100 families, most of them Lithuanians from the towns of Kelme and Shavel, who were fleeing from the Tsarist pogroms. As a result, Oudtshoorn came to be known as “the Jerusalem of Africa”. Two synagogues were built, the first in 1888 and the second in 1896, and the first South African Hebrew school was established in Oudtshoorn in 1904. In 1891, Oudtshoorn’s population had grown to 4,386 persons.
Second Ostrich Boom
The ostrich industry recovered slowly, owing in part to the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Boer forces under Commandant Gideon Scheepers were sighted near Oudtshoorn on 25 August 1901, but moved on because the town was well defended. A second and bigger boom started after the war. It was during this period that “feather barons”, ostrich farmers who had become rich, built most of Oudtshoorn’s famously opulent “feather palaces”, their houses, most of them on the west bank of the Grobbelaars River. The town grew even more, and in 1904 it claimed 8,849 residents in the census. This boom peaked in 1913, during which year the highest-quality feathers cost more than $32 a pound in 2012 prices. Ostrich feathers were outranked only by gold, diamonds and wool among South African exports before World War I. The market collapsed in 1914, according to The Chicago Tribune, as a result of “the start of World War I, overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars, which made ostrich-feather hats impractical.” 80% of the ostrich farmers were bankrupted, and the ostriches were set loose or slaughtered for biltong. Domesticated ostriches numbered 314,000 at the end of World War I, but had plummeted to 32,000 by 1930. The Jewish population of Oudtshoorn fell from 1,073 in 1918 to 555 in 1936, and only continued to dwindle.
The end of World War II opened new markets for ostrich leather and meat, and as a result the industry slowly recovered. For forty years, Oudtshoorn had been the most important settlement east of Cape Town.
Oudtshoorn has unique architectural styles – much of which has to do with the ostrich booms of the 1880s and the early 1900s.
With massive inflows of capital, the feather barons were able to build fantastic Ostrich Palaces in the Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Neo-Renaissance Revival styles – for which they employed architects like Karl Otto Hager, Georges Wallace (Snr. and Jnr.) and Charles Bullock (who was known for the turrets and lace with which he decorated his buildings).
- The Le Roux Townhouse Museum
- “Arbeidsgenot”, home of C.J. Langenhoven, the Afrikaans lawyer and author of part of the National Anthem, provide interesting and authentic glimpses of life as it was once lived in the Klein Karoo.
- The The CP Nel Museum
- The Cango Caves – the only show cave in Africa which offers a choice of Standard (easy) or Adventure Tours. All tours are lead by experienced, knowledgeable and accredited Caves Guides
Particularly unique to Oudtshoorn is the use of sandstone, which dates back to the 1860s, when the first Scottish stonemasons arrived to help with the construction of buildings like the St Jude’s Anglican Church (the oldest stone building in the town, it was completed in 1861), the Oudtshoorn Synagogue, the CP Nel Museum and dozens of Feather Palaces both on the ostrich farms and in the town.
Many of the best examples of the Oudtshoorn style can be seen on Baron van Rheede Street.
Oudtshoorn has a wide variety of attractions – a few are:
- ABSA KKNK – Every year around easter, Oudtshoorn transforms from a quiet sleeping village to a vibrant festive place when the ABSA Arts Festival takes over the whole village
- Cango wildlife Ranch
- Visit one of various Ostrich Show Farms
- Visit Buffelsdrift Game Lodge
- Hot Air Ballooning
- Mountain Bike the Swartberg Pass
- Camping and Hiking