With 120,000 inhabitants (2001 census) Oudtshoorn is the largest town in the Little Karoo region. The town is home to the world's largest Ostrich population with a number of specialised ostrich breeding farms such as the Safari Show Farm and the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, and tourism is an important industry with the world-famous Cango Caves just outside the town. Oudtshoorn is the start of the Route 62 wine route. Some of the best South African Port-style wines are produced in the area surrounding Oudsthoorn.
The area in which Oudtshoorn is situated was originally inhabited by the Bushmen, as evidenced by the many rock paintings that are found in caves throughout the surrounding Swartberg mountains.
The first European explorers of the area was a trading party led by 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 leaving the Klein Karoo valley through Attaquas Kloof 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 1839 near the banks of the Grobbelaars River. The village (and later town) of Oudtshoorn gradually grew around this church; it was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, who was appointed Governor of the Cape Colony in 1772 but died on the voyage out.
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.
Unfortunately, 1859 also signalled the start of a long and serious drought which severely depressed the national economy - by 1865 there was serious poverty. When the drought was finally broken by floods in 1869 the depression lifted and Oudtshoorn was transformed from a struggling village to a town of great prosperity.
At one time there was a large Jewish immigrant population mostly from Lithuania and the town was known in the Jewish world as "Jerusalem of Africa".
First Ostrich Boom
The main reason for the large rise in prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become extremely popular as fashion accessories in Europe. Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1,000 a pair. 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. The rising wealth also finally allowed for the completion of the Dutch Reformed Church - it was opened in 1879.
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.
Second Ostrich Boom
The ostrich industry recovered only slowly and it was not until after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 that a second and bigger boom started. It was during this period that most of Oudtshoorn's famously opulent "Feather Palaces" were built. This boom peaked in 1913, before collapsing in 1914. As a result the region's economy was ruined and most farmers returned to more traditional crops.
- The ostrich is the largest living bird in the world. An ostrich chick grows 30cm taller each month until it is seven or eight months old. Adult ostrich roosters are 1.8 - 3 metres in height and can weigh as much as 150kg. Because of their size, ostriches were occasionally used for riding or pulling chariots in ancient Egypt. It was dangerous; ostriches have nasty tempers.
- Ostriches cannot fly but are fast, strong runners. They can sprint up to 70km/h and maintain 50km/h over distances. They may use their wings as "rudders" to help them change direction while running. An ostrich's powerful, long legs can cover 3 - 5 metres in a single stride.
- This great bird has only two toes; all other birds have three or four. Ostriches kick forward, not backward, because that's the direction in which their knees bend. Ostrich kicks can kill a human or a potential predator like a lion. Each two-toed foot has a long, sharp claw.
- Ostriches never need to drink water - they poduce some internally and the rest is derived from the vegetation they eat.
- Ostrich eyes are about the size of billiard balls. They take up so much room in the skull that the ostrich's brain is actually smaller than either one of its eyeballs - it's about the sice of a pea. This may explain why the ostrich, despite its tremendous running speed, is not very good at eluding predators: It tends to run in circles.
Tourist attractions in Oudtshoorn and the surrounding areas include:
- Cango Caves
- Safari Show Farm
- Highgate Ostrich Show Farm
- Cango Wildlife Ranch
- Oudtshoorn Ballooning
- Swartberg Adventures
The area is also famed for its biodiversity, with the area home to an unusually large number of species of succulent plant. There are also several wine producers in the region.