Oudtshoorn, South Africa: Ostrich Rides and Animal Encounters
There’s something about a town whose unofficial mascot is an ostrich that’s irresistible to me. Why, I can’t say. Ostriches can be mean buggers, they aren’t particularly cuddly, and they rarely elicit the “awwww” reactions that many of South Africa’s animals do.
Still, I knew I had to check out the ostrich-themed South African town of Oudtshoorn, which is chock-full of the tall birds as well as opportunities for close encounters with a healthy assortment of dangerous animals.
Located in the Little Karoo region of the Western Cape of South Africa and a little more than 260 miles from Cape Town, Oudtshoorn is just enough off the beaten path to make you feel like you’ve found a secret place, yet big enough to encompass a plethora of animal interaction opportunities.
I’m rarely content with just viewing animals from afar and I like to experience areas via non-traditional methods. Oudtshoorn allowed me to fulfill these desires by riding an ostrich, coming face-to-face with a crocodile underwater, and petting cheetahs and tiger cubs.
Riding an Ostrich
An ostrich farm visit in Oudtshoorn is a must, even if it’s just because it’s one of the few opportunities you’ll have in life to pet an ostrich. I decided to check out the Cango Ostrich Farm for my official flightless bird experience.
On our tour, we first learned the history of ostriches and how they migrated down to South Africa from northern Africa. We tasted a bit of the ostrich’s food, which reminded me of a salty bran cereal, and touched ostrich leather, which felt strong and had marks where feathers had been.
Our guide also informed us that ostrich steak looks and tastes more like a traditional beef steak than anything resembling chicken, and is low in fat.
Once our ostrich education was complete, we met Betsie the Friendly Ostrich. Since ostriches aren’t traditionally nice, Betsie was a special one. We pet her and fed her, and she even tried to pull food from one of the tourist’s lips on command. An ostrich kiss, if you will.
Then, it was on to ostrich riding! Since I apparently have no fear of embarrassment by falling off a tall bird, I immediately raised my hand when they asked for volunteers.
The jockeys brought an ostrich to a slot with steps and I climbed up.
My first thought upon getting on the giant bird was quite simple: Ostriches are not meant to be ridden.
My ostrich was wearing a saddle of jean material and I had to hold him by his wings, which didn’t feel entirely secure. The jockeys helped back the ostrich out of the slot and held onto him while he took off.
Now, I've never ridden a bull, but I felt that if I lasted eight seconds on the ostrich without being thrown I’d have bragging rights for ages.
The ostrich ran around like a chicken with his head cut off, and he ran fast. After my ostrich did a lap, the jockeys grabbed my arms and pulled me off, which apparently is the way to finish your ride.
There's no graceful way to get off an ostrich.
Riding is completely optional and riders must weigh less than 176 lbs. Since there is only time for a few people to ride on each tour, I suggest raising your hand as soon as they ask for volunteers if you’re up for the experience.
After ostrich riding, we had the opportunity to stand on top of ostrich eggs – one is the equivalent of 24 chicken eggs – to test their strength.
Visit cangoostrich.co.za for more information. Tours last about 45 minutes and cost 50 rand for adults and 25 rand for children. (One South African rand is equivalent to about ten US cents.)
Cheetahs and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My!
Even though I’d had a proper adrenaline kick from my ostrich ride, I was ready for another type of animal interaction.
I loved the traditional African safari experience I had near Kruger Park earlier in my trip, but I wanted more. I wanted to actually touch the big cats and interact with them in a safe environment.
The Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn fit the bill. It’s not a zoo in the typical sense, but rather a place to actively learn about your favorite animals.
I took a general tour and visited hippos, lions, tigers and more, but I had a more specific reason for visiting the ranch: the unique opportunity to pet cheetahs and tiger cubs in a protected area. And, the chance to go crocodile cage diving – the first and only experience of its kind on the planet.
I opted to try all three, figuring there’d be few chances in my life when these opportunities would present themselves.
I nearly got a cramp in my writing hand from filling out multiple waivers for all of the activities, since what I was embarking on definitely wasn’t your run-of-the-mill zoo experience.
The tigers I pet were adorable, playful cubs who spent most of my visit licking each other and playing with their toys like curious puppies. They were roughly the size of a medium-sized dog, and sported sweet dispositions along with massive paws that reminded me how massive they’d be as adults.
Swimming With the Crocodiles
The guides warned me not to extend any limbs outside of the cage – after all, crocs have been known to munch on people. It only took me reading the novel “Return to Eden” once to develop a healthy fear of crocodiles and I had no intention of giving them a snack.
Once I was secured in the cage, the crane lowered me until the water was up to my shoulders.
From there, I had two options: I could stand and view the crocs from the surface, or I could hold my breath, crouch, and watch them face-to-face. I took a healthy breath, pulled myself to the bottom of the cage, and looked around. One of the crocs was about 10 feet away and I watched her in utter fascination.
When she came near the cage to say hi, though, the fact that I was in the middle of a crocodile habitat finally hit me. What was I doing? She came even closer and I thought she was going to stick her snout in the cage.
I yelled to the crane operator: “Are you sure she can’t get in?”
He assured me it was okay and suggested I check out the view below the surface and pose for some underwater pictures with my crocodile friend.
A minute later, my tooth-showing buddy decided to crawl beneath the cage instead, which felt similarly eerie. Even though the cage had a bottom and she couldn’t touch me, I instinctively lifted my feet up.
Once I got over my initial fear, I developed a complete fascination. Never in my life would I have expected to get within inches of a crocodile. Secured in the cage, I felt the conflicting emotions of safety and exhilaration. This wasn’t the Discovery Channel. This was real, and it was nature at its most fascinating.
Visit cango.co.za for more information. Since you’ll emerge from the experience with wet hair, I’d recommend saving it for the end of the day. General entrance fee is R85 for adults and R55 for children 4-15. Prices for the animal encounters are: Cheetah Encounter R140. Tiger Encounter R300. Croc Cage Diving R220.
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