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".