Twitching in Wilderness, Ostriches and Caves

Here’s a dark secret that I’ve had to come to terms with about my fiance: Matt is a twitcher. He is an avianophile. I’ve had to accept that if we are driving; talking; or entertaining, Matt will stop the car; interrupt; run out of the house to photograph a Warbler, or even a small Chat Flycatcher.

Another part of his condition is that Matt doesn’t discriminate. He’ll be just as happy spotting a rare Steppe Buzzard as a common Bronze Mannikin.

What’s worse is his condition is contagious. Before I met Matt, most little brown birds looked alike. A finch was a finch. I didn’t know the difference between a crimson-wing finch or a weaver. But now, I’ll happily point out a Bishop or a ‘B.O.P.’ (bird of prey). Once, at Kruger last year, I even spotted a juvenile Lappet-faced Vulture, and was rewarded with a high five.

Perhaps this is why we enjoyed Wilderness so much. The wet weather followed us from Mossel Bay, and we sheltered in our rondewal. Suddenly Matt was on his feet and out of the house, snapping away at the branches above at a Knysna Lourie (sadly these photos didn’t work out).

Wilderness is a village set between the Kaaimans River and the Goukama Nature Reserve and bordered by the Outeniqua Mountains. The rivers link a series of lakes around the Wilderness town area and National Park. Water birds are abundant.

We stayed in the Wilderness Ebb and Flow nature reserve for two nights, a great spot for peace and quiet, birding, nature trails, canoeing and mountain biking. In fact, there’s plenty to do here and we didn’t really scratch the surface.

Guinea fowl – I think they are so funny to watch

On our first morning, we started early and drove up to Oudtshoorn, which is inland from Wilderness, over the mountains and in semi-arid Little Karoo. In the 1860’s, Oudtshoorn was a town of great prosperity, but its glory days are long since past, and today it’s a dry and dusty, hot and breezeless outpost. The reason for its rise and fall is the humble ostrich.

View at a rest-stop of the beautiful mountain pass

Between 1865 and 1880 there was an ostrich boom, as their feathers became a fashion item in Europe, especially on hats. But due to overproduction, there was a sudden slump in 1885 for the ostrich industry and Oodsthoorn’s economy collapsed.

The second, and far bigger, boom was after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. During this period, most of Oudtshoorn’s famously opulent “Feather Palaces” were built. Again, the bottom fell out of the industry in 1914, and the region’s economy was ruined. Most farmers returned to more traditional crops.

But ostrich farms still exist and are popular with tourists.

Matt and I went to Safari Ostrich Farm, where we watched a video on ostriches (it sounds corny, but it was actually very fun). We then got the chance to feed the ostriches, stand on an ostrich egg, sit on an ostrich and – for the more adventurous and not so heavy – ride an ostrich (I declined). At the end of our tour, Matt received an ostrich drivers’ licence.

Here’s what we learnt in the informative video:

* One ostrich egg is the equivalent 24 chicken hen eggs.
* The ostrich’s eyes weigh more than its brain.
* Ostriches are the biggest flightless bird in the world – and probably the dumbest.
* There are different types of ostriches – white ostriches, Kenyan Red ostriches and Zimbabwean Blue ostriches.
* Male ostriches go red on the beak, the legs and in the neck when on heat. They look like they are wearing lipstick and red tights.

Standing on two ostrich eggs – note the Che shirt.
Matt feeding the ostriches
Our guide introduced us to the ostrich called ‘Useless’. While the bag is on his head, he doesn’t run.
Matt on the ostrich
Me on the big chook, not looking too confident. It just stands there because ostriches are too stupid to back up.

The next sequence of photos shows Matt’s ride on the ostrich. It all happened very quickly. First he mounted the bird, then one of the men whipped off that bag on the ostrich’s head, and it starts to run. Another man runs alongside the ostrich with a very long stick and a hook on the end – like the ones you see in cartoons. This is literally the ‘brake’. Once you grab the ostrich by its neck, it stops.

Licence to ride.

After the Safari farm, we travelled to Cango Caves. Our tour guide was an odd character. He said that they used to hold performances in the caves, because of the wonderful acoustics. But these stopped because people kept breaking bits of the caves off to keep as souvenirs. Even though this happened a long time ago, he glared at us all like we were naughty school kids.

But then, just when I thought I wasn’t sure if he was the most charismatic of guides, he burst into song and the cave was filled with sound.

Anyway, it’s really hard to take photos inside caves, but here are our shots.

Finally, after a long, hot and dusty day, we returned for Wilderness for a cool down swim. Tomorrow: Canoe rides, bridges, more birds and aggressive mini-wombats.


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