Ostrich Racing: Oudtshoorn, South Africa

Ostrich Racing: Oudtshoorn, South Africa

Winner by a Neck

Ostriches aren’t nice. They have an ornery attitude, a mean peck, and their claws are sharp enough to rip open a lion’s face. They aren’t pretty, and they don’t like to cuddle, either, so they rarely elicit the “ooohs” that greet many African animals. What, then, is an enterprising adventurer to do when encountering one of these 300-pound, nine-feet-tall birds? Why, jump on their backs and race them, of course.

Ostrich riding and racing is the unofficial town sport of Oudtshoorn, a small hamlet in the Little Karoo region of South Africa located a few hours’ drive northeast of Cape Town, where most flights into this region will land. There are a number of ostrich farms in the area, and many sponsor organized ostrich encounters, where visitors can learn about these flightless birds’ natural history before commencing the racing. By most accounts, ostriches don’t take kindly to having someone sitting on their backs, so they run as fast as possible in hopes of getting rid of you.

There are a few ground rules you’ll need to know before you hop on an ostrich. Riders must weigh less than 80kg (176 lb.), and will need to be strong enough to be able to hang onto the moving animal by holding its wings and steering by grabbing its neck—no easy task when you’re loping along at 32km (20 miles) per hour. (Grace is not one of the features of this sport.) An ostrich race is an impromptu affair, and depends on the number of willing volunteers in your party, though there are ostrich derbies organized by civic clubs throughout South Africa.

The semi-arid region of Little Karoo is ideal for raising ostriches, and the town of Oudtshoorn was once the undisputed heart of the world’s ostrich plume trade; the town’s rows of “feather palaces,” homes of multi-millionaire ostrich farmers, attest to its former glory as the center of this international trade. Ostriches have staged an impressive comeback since their 19th century heyday, having less to do with their plumage than with their eggs—one of which will feed 20 men—and their meat, a low-fat alternative to beef that is darker and tastier than chicken. Their leather, too, is soft and durable and is used for fashion accessories such as boots and wallets. All these items and more can be found in the retail shops of the Ostrich Capital of the World.

Tours: Pathfinders ( 04/702-814; www.pathfindersafrica.com). African Overland ( 021/853-7952; www.africanoverland.co.za).
When to Go: Year-round.
Oudtdshoorn or Cape Town (418km/260 miles).
In Cape Town: $$$ Kensington Place, 38 Kensington Crescent, Cape Town ( 021/424-4744; www.kensingtonplace.co.za). $$ De Waterkant Village, 1 Loader St, Cape Town ( 021/409-2500; www.dewaterkant.com). In Oudtshorrn: $ Rosenhof Country House, 264 Baron van Reede St. ( 27/44/272-2232; www.rosenhof.co.za). $$ Retreat Groenfontein, follow signs from R62 btw. Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp ( 27/44/213-3880; www.groenfontein.com).

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