Saturday, June 5, 2010

Day 12: Ostriches and Cango Caves

It gets a whole lot colder up here in the mountains that down at the Indian Ocean. The walk to breakfast this morning was chilly, and we all huddled up by the fire in the breakfast room while drinking hot tea and coffee to warm up. The sun brings heat, though, so it was already t-shirt weather by the time we got to the Cango Ostrich Farm.

The Cango Ostrich Farm is a working ostrich farm in rural Oudtshoorn that has also opened its doors to tourism. As such, it’s kind of what you would expect of a tourism-oriented working farm in rural Ontario; interesting, but pretty sketchy and unpolished at the same time. Happily, ostriches have bigger eyes than brains (Literally! Each eye weighs 60g, whereas the brain only weighs 30g.), so it doesn’t take much to make them amusing.

Couple interesting tidbits about ostriches:

- The female sits on the nest during the day, and the male does at night. The female’s grey feathers blend into the daytime desert landscape, and the male’s black feathers blend into the night.

- One ostrich egg is equivalent to 24 chicken eggs.

- At the turn of the twentieth century, a handful of long, white ostrich feathers was worth a large house on with property, so ostrich farmers in South Africa got rich in a hurry. The collapse of the ostrich market was due to, among other things, the rise of cars. Women stopped wearing ostrich feather hats because they couldn’t fit in cars with roofs, and the feathers would get blown around in the wind in cars without tops.

- Ostrich meat comes entirely from the rump of the animal. There is no breast meat, as the breast muscle develops for flapping wings.

- Ostriches feel as strong as horses when you sit on them….

Ok, fun, but absurd at the same time. On to the real reason we came here – the Cango Caves!! These were incredible! Our guide wasn’t the most enthused person in the world (with the usual irony, she complained about other people complaining…), but like ostriches, the Cango Caves don’t rely too much on the guides to be impressive.

Concerts used to be held in this hall, until the vandalism got out of hand. Attendees would break off pieces of the cave to bring home as souvenirs….
The Caves have three main types of geologic formations:

- Stalactites: Water drips from the ceiling that deposit mineral crystals in a structure hanging from the ceiling
- Stalagmites: Water drips from the ceiling that deposit mineral crystals in a structure growing up from the floor. (When stalactites and stalagmites meet, it is a Completed Column)

- Flow Formations: Water seeping through a crack in the ceiling to form a curtain of mineral deposits

The caves were discovered over the course of several years, because clay walls blocked many of the caverns and passages from one another. Currently, several other cave sections are being explored, but are not yet open to the public.


When we arrived at De Opstal last night, our host asked us if we were going to visit the Swartberg Pass. The three of us looked at her blankly, and explained that we didn’t know anything about the Swartberg Pass. She replied that she would tell us all about it at breakfast, but that it was a ‘must-see’. At breakfast, Madelein didn’t tell us a thing about the Swartberg Pass; just repeated that we had to see it, and promised to make us a picnic lunch. Unlike the details of the attraction, the picnic lunch did show up, so we decided we would check out the Pass. Not much else to do in Oudtshoorn once you have been to an ostrich farm and the Cango Caves (I didn’t end up going crocodile diving…).

Swartberg Pass is a road through the Outteniqua Mountains that was built in the last 1800s….and at times, it looks like it hasn’t been updated since then. The unpaved, single lane, packed gravel route is held in place by stone retaining walls that are crumbling with age. In the passenger seat, there were times I could look through the holes in the road supports to see a VERY STEEP drop to the bottom of the mountains….a very long way away.

Shaun was a marvelous driver on the way up, and Jessica was equally skilled on the way down. My part was taking way too many photos to post.

When we got to “Die Top” (either written in Dutch, or a very forbidding sign), I climbed the final few hundred feet above the road.

On the drive down the other side, we came upon a random little collection of a few buildings that advertised hot drinks and food. In true ‘mountain’ style, we drank our tea and burned coffee out of tin cups, and looked out upon the incredible sights.

Later, we came upon a couple troops of baboons, and a couple of young antelope-type things. The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful. I may even have fallen asleep in the back once the ‘only’ view was the mountains in the distance.

Dinner tonight was a venison (springbuck) appetizer and ostrich main dish. My dessert was never delivered, but that’s ok because I am so full from stuffing myself eat every meal. Shaun and Jessica shared a dessert platter (which they generously shared with me when mine never showed up). Actually, maybe it wasn’t so generous, as a good chunk of the dessert remains untouched a few feet from me; the ladies have already gone to bed….

A quick note about the kudu and venison I am eating.  Hunting-oriented game parks cater to people who want a trophy: horns, stuffed head, etc.  These reserves end up with large amounts of meat left over than can't be transported back to the home countries of the hunters, and so is locally butchered and sold to restaurants to serve.  I'd probably try it either way while I'm here just for the experience, but I also rather enjoy knowing that these animals lived free, 'wild' lives until the moment they were killed.  The ostrich, on the other hand, is all farmed, but see my note above about the relative sizes of ostrich brains and eyes.....

Tomorrow, we are heading to the southernmost tip of Africa! :)

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