Oudtshoorn – Hard to pronounce, hard to forget!
This was perhaps the most anticipated day of our trip for me. It may have been due to the less than exciting trek through the forest the day before, but I can definitely say that we more than made up for that with a trip to Oudtshoorn. I remember sitting in the Flight Centre, booking our flights and one of the consultants had told us that we had to ride an ostrich! I thought she was a bit strange for suggesting it, but the more I thought about it, the more I really wanted to. My original plan for Oudtshoorn was based around a trip to Cango Caves, but it definitely grew from there.
9:00 am – Leave for Oudtshoorn
11:30 pm – Arrive at Cango Caves
12:30 pm – Arrive at Cango Ostrich Farm
2:00 pm – Arrive at Backpacker’s Paradise
5:30 pm – Ostrich Braai
We set off around 9:00 am for Oudtshoorn in order to make the most of the busy day ahead. The drive diverged from the trusty N2, taking us North into the desert known as the Little Karoo. The drive was phenomenal! It involved some dry scrublands but also some breathtaking mountain passes which were not only beautiful but also slightly treacherous.
We stopped off at our overnight stopover site first since we wanted to get our discount vouchers for the activities in town. We weren’t able to check-in yet but we could pick up the coupon which was great for us. We then headed straight off for Cango Caves (http://www.cango-caves.co.za), arguably one of the best attractions South Africa has to offer. We arrived promptly at 11:30 am, which unfortunately was the exact time that the Adventure Tour was starting. I was really desperate to catch this one because the next wouldn’t be going again for another 1.5 hours. In my haste to catch the tour I bought all three tickets and assured the guest services rep that we were going to head straight up. Dan and Jessi still hadn’t made it in from the car and I was really anxious, so I ran back out to see them milling about by the car. I basically had a spaz trying to explain that we had to leave NOW and then Dan told me that he couldn’t find the keys and Jessi had to go pee. We were all frantically searching for the keys when Dan found them in the GPS box (how’d they get there?), thank goodness we hadn’t closed the trunk! We then ran inside, Jessi went to the bathroom and the two of us ran up to find the group. They were just doing introductions in the main entrance space when we arrived. I was definitely expecting a ‘group’, but it turned out that we had joined a tour with the entire United States high school population. There were at least 30 of us in total, it was pretty insane. As the guide was explaining the guidelines he beefed up the risk and excitement involved with being on the Adventure Tour. At this point, Dan turned to me with a grim expression voicelessly sending an array of negative thoughts my way. Apparently, Dan didn’t realize we were doing the adventure tour, and wasn’t overly pleased about the decision. Jessi and I had pretty much decided without a second thought that we would, but I guess Dan had been harbouring some claustrophobic anxiety about entering the caves at all. Our guide then went on to tell us about how one particularly tricky section of the cave was so narrow, an overweight woman had become lodged between the rock and wouldn’t budge, trapping half of her tour group inside the cave system for 11 hours. The nearest rescue response team had to drive there, trek through the caves and then using highly sophisticated techniques (involving ropes and a lot of oils and lotions), dislodge her and return her from whence she came. During this time the woman’s husband had buggered off and enjoyed a nice burger lunch at a local restaurant, meanwhile the trapped tourists were kept from starving by staff members who were able to pass sandwiches and other snacks over the large lady’s head. It later came to light that not only was she heavyset, she was also around 7 months pregnant. Good job thinking that one through. Just one reason why that section of the tour was given the name “Tunnel of Love”. Our guide then said that he was going to be testing our fitness level quickly before starting the tour to ensure we were all capable of completing the trek. The three of us instantly tensed up. We just ran up a hill and three staircases in order to make this tour, and we were still struggling to catch our breath. Thankfully he was kidding.
The first cavern we were lead to was a spacious natural cathedral lit by pot lights set in the ground, illumination enormous stalactites and stalagmites. (Trick for remembering the difference between the two, Stalactites grow from the ceiling down, C for ceiling. Stalagmites grow from the ground up, G for ground). This was the main space that the general public would explore and was one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever seen. Prior to this trip I had never been in a cave before (except for the entrance of incredibly shallow cutouts in the mountains) and I was awestruck by the beauty of the shimmering rocks. At one point our guide paired up with a second and in order to demonstrate the superb acoustics of the space; they sang an eerily mesmerizing song (possibly in german) which flowed through the space with ease, echoing through the deepest caverns ahead. We had an opportunity to move about and get photos of the space which proved tricky without my trusty tripod in the dark space.
More amazing was the fact that I was able to get shots without stray tourists lingering in the way.
There was the odd garbage can though. We then regrouped in order to start our descent deep into the earth. With such a large group we ended up bottlenecking often, resulting in more standing around then actual hiking. The deeper we moved within the caverns, the fewer lights were present, as a result, photo opportunities were few and far between. Here is a map of the route we took:
The tour started off simple enough, walking together, single file past some amazing geological features. But pretty soon the spaces became tighter and tighter, requiring us to duck and crawl along and climb some slippery slopes, worn down by years of tours. We eventually reached the Jacob’s Ladder, a steep climb up towards the Tunnel of Love.
After all of the hype and the story about the pregnant lady getting stuck in the Tunnel of Love, I was disappointed to discover that the tunnel didn’t actually require that much effort to get through. The trickiest thing about that section was the fact that the bottom was so narrow that our shoes couldn’t lay flat as we passed through, making for a lot of awkward side stepping and tripping through. We continued on and the further we went the more students dropped out, deciding it wasn’t worth the fuss. We finally reached a point where we just weren’t moving at all and it felt like we had been standing forever before I saw that we had come to the infamous ‘Devil’s Chimney’. This was discovered by a cave staff member who was sitting and smoking in the chamber (back when smoking was cool) and noticed that the smoke drifted up into a narrow chamber. He then promptly squeezed his way up to discover that it continued onwards. As a petite girl, I am amazed that people don’t get stuck more often because I had a heck of a time getting through this section. To be fair, it wasn’t my girth that held me back but rather the inability of my feet to get a proper purchase on the rocky tunnel walls. I was able to wedge myself up, only to find myself in a mid-sized chamber that seemed to have no exit. I looked and couldn’t see anything until I heard some voices come from behind a stone wall. Then I looked closer and saw this:
That tiny slit in the rock known as the post box, or letter box was the only way to get out. That was the scary part for me. It didn’t even look wide enough for my child-sized head to squeeze through! We happened to be the very last people in the group to go through, so when I stuck my head into the hole, the entire group of teens was watching me, waiting. You could only slip through head first, and instead of arriving on a flat surface, it was like a kiddie slide, your body just slides down an ultra smoothed surface, hopefully stopping before the ledge edge. I fit better than I expected, however my dumpy derriere had to squeeze a bit to make it all the way, and after sliding down, I went to stand up, but was met with a unified, scream of “Don’t stand!” and when I stopped and looked up, I noticed there was no head clearance in that section. We all continued on, winding our way back to the main hall and eventually along half a dozen giant staircases past more gargantuan stone sculptures.
While I didn’t get a photo of us in the actual Tunnel of Love, we noticed that there were life-sized cutouts of each section of the adventure tour for curious visitors:
Afterwards Dan was really thankful that we forced him onto the tour and felt like he had overcome a fear and truly accomplished something for himself. Obviously, we had a blast too! We then continued towards our next destination, Cango Ostrich Farm (http://www.cangoostrich.co.za). When we arrived we were just in time for a tour and due to our unfortunate timing, were joining the immense and whiny American teenager squad. Thankfully, the guide noticed right away that we were separate from the group and cheerily referred to us as ‘The Canadians’. We learned a bit about the importance of Ostrich farming for meat, leather and feathers and how these goods had changed roles over time. He told us that we would have the opportunity to ride an ostrich as well (which was the big draw for me, and basically my bucket list item that brought us there to begin with) and then when he saw how many people wanted to ride, said that due to the large group size, only 5 people were allowed to ride! Thankfully, he made it clear that Jessi and I were definitely allowed and that the 5 person cap only applied to the American kids. Whew! Dan unfortunately wouldn’t be allowed to ride since he was over the 65kg weight restriction (although Jessi said she was pretty sure that she was as well).
We first passed by the oldest pair of ostriches at this farm, and they were around 30 years old! We also passed some baby ostriches (adorable!) and had I not seen them in person, I wouldn’t have believed they looked so different from the adults!
We were then lead to a giant arena where there were ostriches that looked like they had strange blue sacks on their backs:
These were the racing ostriches, and in our case, the ostriches that we could ride. The guide gave us a long winded talk about the dangers of riding ostriches and how one kick from an ostrich could disembowel a lion. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, because I had heard these claims before, but I guess he was trying dissuade some people from taking part while also making it clear that if we died, we couldn’t sue the farm.
In order to bring the ostriches to the loading pen safely, they had to put little hoods on them which help them to calm down using the concept of ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me’. Unfortunately, these hoods just made them look like little hostages:
I assumed that riding an ostrich would be strange and difficult, but I never really connected it with the shape of the ostrich’s body itself. You see, unlike horses, ostriches have those egg shaped bodies, which means that if you aren’t perfectly situated in the middle, you would begin to slip either towards the neck or towards the bum. You also didn’t have a saddle or reigns to hold onto, so instead you would hold onto the bird’s wings, close to the shoulder. It was weird…so weird.
Because this was such a difficult animal to ride, and to avoid us from falling off and breaking our necks, there were two guys that basically ran beside us the whole time to help us when we eventually slipped off the bird. As much as I understood why they ran beside, it made the ride less exciting because they basically were just holding me up as the ostrich ran. Nonetheless, the ride still only lasted 5 seconds (according to Dan) and it was impossible to stay seated for longer.
After we rode, the guy with the baseball cap in the photo promptly demonstrated how African Ostrich Jockeys (yes that’s a real thing) would mount, ride and dismount an ostrich. It was incredible! I felt bad though, because to get the ostrich to move in certain directions they would smack their neck in the direction they wanted to go, which didn’t look comfortable for the bird. We then got some photos near the birds, this sequence was hilarious (well at the time it was unnerving):
and then we got to hold a bucket of feed in front of us, causing the ostriches to reach around us in order to eat it, and thus giving us an ‘ostrich neck massage’!
We even witnessed first hand the strength of an ostrich egg when Dan stood on top of a bunch for this photo:
Apparently one ostrich egg is equivalent to 24 chicken eggs! Although a lot of the activities were very gimmicky and aimed at pleasing tourists, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was very happy to see so many ostriches and learn all about them.
We then returned to Backpacker’s Paradise (http://www.backpackersparadise.net) to check-in for the night. Not only did we get those discounts, pre-arrival, they also have a nice early check-in time (starts at 1pm). We were shown our private room with private bathroom (cost us only $48 CAD for the night!) and the room was ENORMOUS! I couldn’t believe how much room we had. There were like 5 beds in that room too, and there was still tons of space to dance around. We paid for the Ostrich braai (braai is the South African method of barbecuing meat) since we had learned all about how healthy it was as a super lean red meat. I obviously didn’t have that, but the vegetarian kebob and mixed salads and potatoes were delicious! Dan felt a bit guilty about eating ostrich after seeing all of them at the farm today, but both he and Jessi said it was pretty good. There was tons of food and the staff were all so friendly and helpful, getting us whatever we needed and encouraging us to eat more. We ate outside at a lovely little bench in the shaded yard. The property of this place was enormous, and apparently they were fully booked for the night, but we never felt crowded and the noise wasn’t an issue in our room at all. I wish we had booked two nights here actually, not just for the amazing staff and spacious accommodations, but also because of their bicycle rental deal. They will drive you and a rental bike to the top of the Swartberg Pass, and you can spend the day biking back to town, stopping at the caves, ostrich farm, etc along the way. That would’ve been awesome, for me anyway, I love to cycle. We were considering trying to squeeze in a visit to Cango Wildlife Ranch but I read some reviews online that said it wasn’t great, and it seemed really gimmicky, bringing out all the baby animals for tourists to pet and hold. We spent the rest of the night hanging out, catching up with our emails to friends and family instead. What a fantastic day!