Here is a guest post about cycling through the semi-desert of the Klein Karoo in South Africa – including some fascinating information about ostriches and feather barons! The post is from guest poster Pete Martin, author, journalist, coach, and international traveler. Over to Pete!
The Bike Tour: Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, South Africa
The 60 kilometer (37 mile) Oudtshoorn to Montagu bike ride described in this post was part of a 12 day guided bike tour from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, South Africa, conducted by African Tours. You can read more about this bike tour here.
Setting out from Oudtshoorn to Montagu
From Oudtshoorn, it’s a good start on a flat surface through the ostrich farms and remote houses of the Klein Karoo. The buildings look small and poor, no toilets or water, yet many of the children run to the side of the road to wave or high five.
The Klein Karoo is separated from the vast semi-desert of the Karoo by the deep Swartberg Mountains ahead of us as we cycle north alongside Grobbelaars River. Soon we are on corrugated sand that is so bumpy it rattles my bicycle, my bones and my teeth.
I ride with Dani, our cycling tour guide, and she gives me some insights into the ostrich farms. While ostriches are found throughout Africa, the dry weather and plentiful water of the Klein Karoo provides the optimal environment for them. In the 1860s, a local farmer began to tame and then breed the birds from incubated eggs, and soon the practice was commonplace throughout the Klein Karoo. The area was subsequently able to supply the international demand for the males’ feathers and then, later, for ostrich leather and meat.
The Feather Barons of Oudtshoorn
The ostrich farmers of Oudtshoorn became very rich, and were known as the feather barons. They built grandiose feather palaces in the town and along the river. Although the boom ended with World War I, the town remains to this day the most important site in the world for ostrich products, providing about eighty percent of the world’s supply.
The green countryside soon gives way to sparse dry fields, with only cactus growing. It is also becoming even hotter. The sweat soaks through my thin bandana. The lead group stops at a church to wait for the rest. One of my fellow riders jokes that there is no point waiting here as there is no salvation for him. Sinners or not, it’s water that we need rather than spiritual guidance. Most of us are running low in the dry heat, but there is no sign of our supplies. Dani just shrugs and pushes us on, more worried about time than our thirst. Those bringing up the rear get no break at all.
Thirsty Ride to the Cango Caverns
Fritz, Christopher, and I are way ahead of the others. My mouth is so dry now that I can hardly talk to my colleagues. I desperately need some water. My bottle is completely empty. I look behind and there is no sign of anyone. Do we go on ahead, keep going to find a shop, a garage, or the Cango caverns we are cycling to, or should we wait? We decide to continue. The last section is a tough climb. Fritz powers ahead whilst Christopher and I grind up slowly. The caverns are a welcome site. In the café, we each buy and quickly drink two cans of sickly sweet, but refreshingly cold, Fanta.
The stragglers join us. Fritz has saved a can of Fanta for his wife, but the others are not given time to quench their thirsts as Dani herds us into the next scheduled tour of the caverns. It’s boring and cold, and a sharp contrast to the heat outside. My sweaty cycling shirt sticks icily to my body.
Ostrich Meat Salad for Lunch!
There is no rest time after the tour, either. A quick bathroom break and we are off again with no time to fill up with water.
The downhill, the reverse of the earlier climb, is fun, but luckily Christopher and I catch up to Dani as neither of us have been told where we are going. It’s better when we ride in silence and the three of us pick up the pace for an enjoyable ride through the Klein Karoo to our next stop. We are all drenched with sweat and very thirsty at lunch. The Germans in our cycling group order beers, but I need water. I have a Karoo salad – an ostrich meat salad – which is appropriate as we have stopped at an ostrich farm.
Tour of an Ostrich Farm
We join a tour of the ostrich farm after eating. The guide regales us with nonsense about male ostriches laying eggs. She is so convincing that in our dehydrated state we are taken in for a short while. However, we discover that the eggs are incubated by both parent birds; by the dominant female during the day and by the male during the night. By doing this, the birds prevent any detection by predators, as the grey female is camouflaged by the sand during the day, while the black male is difficult to see in the dark of night. The eggs are huge, apparently the biggest of any bird, yet in terms of relative size to the adult they are the smallest.
Ostriches are strange animals. They are the largest birds that cannot fly, and the fastest runners of any bird or other two-legged animal, moving at speeds of over 70 km (43 miles) per hour. They are big too, most standing over 2 m (6 foot 5 inches) tall, and they are ugly (but presumably not to other ostriches). One of our group, Greta, is chosen as the victim of a sloppy kiss from one of the birds. None of us are brave enough to ride on the back of an ostrich, so a teenage boy demonstrates for us.
In the pen, a male performs its ritual mating dance. He beats his wings alternately, creating a whacking sound and wave of black feathers, and then runs around to find a mate. Greta is worried after the earlier kiss! The bird continues its dance but with no reward as all the females are in another pen. Interestingly, the myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand is not true. Our guide offers the explanation that ostriches adopt a defensive stance of lying low when in danger, and as the plumage of the birds often blends so much with the sand, the heads cannot be seen when they are feeding.
Sadly, cycling is done for the day and we have a three-hour bus ride to Montagu. I listen to some Tim Ferriss podcasts and play some songs by the Eagles to honor the passing of the great Glenn Frey, and I am quietly grateful for another fine day of cycling.
© 2017 Pete Martin
Thanks to Our Guest Poster, Pete Martin. Author. Journalist. Coach.
Pete writes about transformational journeys. These are physical journeys where he has experienced a transformational or spiritual outcome. A short time ago, he was stuck and never dreamt of doing such journeys. Yet it is the spiritual nature of these trips that has revolutionised him. By telling his tales, he hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams and to find the spiritual and life experiences that will help them transform too. Pete has had two books published – REVOLUTIONS and FANTAFRICA. You can find more information on his website www.petemartin.org.
Pete is a keen cyclist. REVOLUTIONS includes chapters describing his cycling across the UK (the Way of the Roses), the length of the Rhine (from Lake Constance to Rotterdam) and also around Sri Lanka. FANTAFRICA includes stories of his adventures cycling the Cape Coast in South Africa, and cycling the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these articles by Pete Martin
“When the wind blows,” featured in Cycle magazine, the official publication of Cycling UK, and “Drinking beer from a teapot: Day 1 of cycling in Sri Lanka,” which was published in Travellanka magazine. Also see his post on cycling in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, right here on this blog.
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