Oudtshoorn is home to three ostrich show farms that attract tens of thousands of tourist every year. On a visit to the 50-year-old Safari Ostrich Show Farm Mike Burgess discovers why these prehistoric birds have been an important tourist attraction for more than half a century.
Then driving into Oudtshoorn from any direction, people will be sure to see ostriches. “Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world,” says Michael Schafer, operations manager at the Safari Ostrich Show Farm near Oudtshoorn.
The fascination with these prehistoric birds is illustrated by the dramatic increase of visitors since the farm’s inception in 1956. “Ostriches are synonymous with Africa and Oudtshoorn, and they seem to fascinate tourists,” says Alma de Villiers, a multilingual guide at the show farm.
The farm was the brainchild of Derek Fisch and the late Harry Lipschitz and is still run by their descendents today. In the 1950s the farm attracted about 2 000 tourists annually, but today up to 70 000 tourists visit the farm every year, mainly due to the post-1994 boom in tourism. “Before 1994 the farm was dependent on local tourism, still an important component today,” says Safari marketing manager Billy Engelbrecht. “The release of Nelson Mandela, however, put us on the international tourism map.”
Today, travel agencies such as African Travel Concept, Thompson’s Tours and Springbok Atlas are responsible for busloads of foreign tourists to Safari.
What tourists can expect
Visitors can indulge in guided agricultural tours of the 1 800ha, fully functional farm where 2 500 birds are produced annually. According to Jean-Pierre Ardinois from African Travel Concept, agritourism in South Africa is still untapped. “I continually get requests from European farmers who would like to see how ostrich farming is done in South Africa.”
The guides at Safari are old hands in the business. They explain lucerne production, irrigation, incubation, breeding practices, general management, and feather, leather and meat production.
Safari guide Alma says ostriches have made a serious comeback since the 1970s with the appreciation of their meat and leather. Today 10% of the farm’s income is generated from feathers, 30% from meat and 60% from leather. “The feather-boom farmers were so mesmerised with feathers that they never saw the potential in anything else,” says Alma. Today only small markets still exist for feathers in the fashion and feather-duster industries. Feathers are used in carnival costumes in Argentina, and Trinidad and Tobago, for the production of feather wheels in the motor industry and for devices to dust vehicles off before spray painting.
All Safari tours include an optional adrenaline rush. The more adventurous can access breeding camps to collect eggs, catch, sit on or race ostriches, while those less adventurous can watch spectacular derby races from the sideline. Tours are normally ended in the showroom where leather and feather products, painted eggs and curios are sold. Tourists also have an opportunity to view the farm’s newly acquired large and imposing Kenyan Red and Zimbabwean Blue ostriches along with their distant cousins, emus from Australia.
Visit www. safariostrich.co.za. |fw
“The history of the ostrich industry fascinates overseas tourists,’’ explains Safari marketing manager Billy Engelbrecht. The farm offers a number of guided tours, with their historical tour still the most popular. The farm boasts an original Feather Palace, the elaborate homes built by the millionaire “feather barons” during the ostrich feather booms of the 1800s and early 1900s, resulting from western fashion demands for ostrich feathers. The Welgeluk Feather Palace built in 1910 and acquired by Nathan Lipschitz in 1932 was declared a national monument in 1978. The sandstone home is reflective of the wealth generated by ostrich feathers during this period. It has 18 rooms with imported roof tiles from Belgium, ceramic tiles from Italy, fireplaces from England and windows, doors and glass from Holland.
The tower, a ubiquitous feature of feather palaces in the area, served as a status symbol amongst barons – the higher the tower, the more wealth it implied. The ostrich industry began informally, long before the feather booms though. San people bartered eggs, while they cherished ostrich meat and leather. African warriors adorned themselves with ostrich feathers during battles while the trade in ostrich feathers in the Middle East and North Africa had long been established. For example, the ancient Egyptians appreciated ostrich feathers as a symbol of royalty and justice.
It was the Klein Karoo, specifically Oudtshoorn, which brought ostrich feathers to the west with spectacular economic results. A sharp increase in feather exports from the Cape Colony during the mid-1860s is generally accepted as the launch of the industry in the country. By 1870 and 1877 feather auctions were held in Mosselbay and Oudtshoorn respectively, a prelude to mass export to the United States and European fashion markets. Within a few decades, Oudtshoorn was awash with millionaire ostrich farmers benefiting from low input costs. White ostrich feathers were coined “white gold”.
European immigrants flooded the country in the hope of becoming wealthy from the ostrich feather value chain. But it was Jews, many from Lithuania, who had the greatest impact on Oudtshoorn. Two synagogues were built in 1888 and 1896 and the first South African Hebrew school was established in 1904.
By the 1900s South Africa controlled 85% of global ostrich feather production. Superior feather quality was always strived for with north African ostriches imported as early as the 1870s to improve feather quality, eventually producing the sought-after Evans feather. Export of ostriches became big business, until measures, including prison time, were put into place to protect the South African industry. Then the trade and export of ostriches went underground. Black market activities continue today with a breeding pair worth up to 0 000.
In 1914 the feather boom collapsed suddenly due to the outbreak of the First World War and changes in fashion trends. Some 80% of ostrich farmers were bankrupted and ostriches were let loose or slaughtered for biltong.
Sources: CP Nel Museum (Oudtshoorn); The Oxford History of South Africa (edited by Leonard Thompson and Monica Wilson); The Jews in South Africa (edited by Gustav Saron and Louis Hotz); Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story (Consultant editor Chris Saunders); The Lost World of the Kalahari (Laurens van der Post), Shaka’s Children, A History of the Zulu People (Stephan Taylor); and Economy and Pre-Industrial South Africa (edited by Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore).
Ostrich feather farming:
a brief history