South Africa. Home to a dramatic blend of cultures, stunning landscapes and wildlife. A veritable smorgasbord of flavors for all the five senses…. And of course more ostriches than anyone could ever hope to shake a stick at.
And should you wish to begin shaking sticks, then the first port call should be the quaint Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn- The ostrich capital of the world.
Here, oversized birds with undersized brains outnumber the locals 7 to 1.
This peculiar statistic was certainly intriguing enough to inspire a visit to the region, but when rumours reached me of high speed derbies and specially trained jockeys riding upon ostrich’s backs, I simply had no choice but to go.
And hence it came to pass that I found myself sitting atop the world’s largest bird waiting nervously for the starting whistle to blow.
The History of Ostriches
The Oudtshoorn ostrich racing scene is a spin off from the heady days of the great 1920s feather boom; a time when high-society ladies throughout the world wore outrageous hats festooned in ostrich feathers.
As a result, the local ostrich farmers of the time were elevated into a lifestyle of affluence and opulence. They built palaces for themselves, drove around in motor cars, developed posh accents and titled themselves the Feather Barons.
Their estates grew as did the number of people employed by them, and It was these local folk who began riding around on ostriches during lunch breaks for a bit of a laugh.
Eventually the global demand for feathers dwindled but the industry is still flourishing thanks to tourism and the successful marketing of Ostrich meat and leather. Nowadays tens of thousands of birds are farmed and made into hamburgers, handbags and feather dusters every single year.
A few get lucky though and end up as studs and racers; fine specimens who compete daily in the high stakes Oudtshoorn derbies.
And now I was about to participate in one of the strangest racing events on the planet….
Ready, Set, Go!
In the starting stall, my steed fidgeted and shuffled her massive clawed feet to demonstrate her agitation and excitement, whilst I sat precariously upon her feathered back
“Be careful not to upset her,” said the jockey to my left. “Those feet can do terrible things to a man”
“What upsets them?” I asked, genuinely intrigued…
“Amateurs” he replied.
Not for the first time did I wonder at the folly of this assignment.
Then without further ado, the whistle shrieked and the gates flew open and we were off like bullets from a gun. The crowd at the edge of the racetrack went wild, but discipline kept me from turning my head or waving to them. Instead I focused on the lead ostrich and the little man riding upon its back. He had a large number “8” on his jersey, signifying that this was Red Rum, everybody’s favorite to win.
Gritting my teeth, I squeezed tighter on the wings and I whispered encouragement into my mount’s little ear: “Go Orville go! Run like the wind!”
That’s when I heard my wife calling enthusiastically from the sidelines.
“Red Rum, Red Rum, Red Rum,”
And not surprisingly, this stab of betrayal caused a momentary lapse in my concentration. The next thing I knew, I was flat on the ground watching a multitude of featherless legs dash past me towards the finish line.
Orville’s little head materialized at the periphery of my star-swimming vision. She looked at me with Goldie Horn eyes and then lunged at my throat. I watched helplessly as my Saint Christopher’s pendant vanished with an audible gulp.
Ostriches cant resist eating shiny objects!
Taking The Winnings
I may not have won the race that day, but merely to take part in such a prestigious event (and survive it) was enlivening enough. I felt a bit like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur.
Later that evening I dined upon ostrich steaks and eggs at a local restaurant, paying for the bill with the money my wife had won on Red Rum, and then I sneaked off to the thoroughbred stalls in order to have a little pep talk with my steed.
“Tomorrow Orville” I whispered gently whilst feeding her with peanuts, “you and I, we will take the world. Tomorrow we will win.”
Of course we didn’t, but I certainly had fun competing in what I will always remember as the world’s wackiest race.