The capital of the Klein Karoo, and my childhood home, Oudtshoorn is one of my favourite places in the world. It’s surrounded by mountains and dry veld vegetation unique to this little part of the world. And filled with ostrich palaces, historic sandstone houses, and a cheerful local culture.
Oudtshoorn is known for its ostriches – we are, after all, the ostrich capital of the world! But there’s so much more to do, see and enjoy than just the giant birds that put us on the map.
I’ve put together a local’s guide on all the best things to do in Oudtshoorn, as well as the unusual history of this small town, where to eat, and how to get here.
Cape Town to Oudtshoorn
There are a surprising number of routes between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn, and all of them are uniquely beautiful! The trip is so lovely that it’s worth the drive for its own sake. But the three below are the most popular!
N1 onto R62: considered one of the most beautiful routes to drive in the world, the R62 is the best way to reach Oudtshoorn. You’ll watch the landscape change from Cape Town’s lush green, deep mountains, and fruit trees, gradually into Klein Karoo veld, and pass various beautiful little towns. This route starts on the N1 from Cape Town, turns onto the R60 at Worcester, and then onto the R62 at the Breede River Valley, in the town of Ashton.
Route N2 via Tradouw or Robinson Pass: another fantastically beautiful route takes you past the airport, and over the Sir Lowry’s Pass. The N2 is more sweeping hills and canola fields than the R62’s mountains. It’s a national road, so it’s big and busy, and very very pretty. From the N2 you can turn onto the Tradouw Pass (just after Swellendam) towards Barrydale, or later at Mossel Bay over the Robinson Pass. Both are spectacular!
N1 via Prince Albert: if you don’t turn off the N1 at Worcester, you can follow it past Lainsberg onto the R407, and then onto the N12 at Klaarstroom. The road takes you via Prince Albert and Meiringspoort, through to Oudtshoorn. This is a large loop, but also a wonderfully and again very different route.
Klein Karoo biosphere
The Little Karoo, much better known by its Afrikaans name, the Klein Karoo, is a unique, dry biosphere totally different to what you’ll find in the Table Mountain area. It’s a semi-arid basin surrounded by mountains that keep most rain-carrying clouds out. Because of this, succulents and cacti thrive here, while little else survives the harsh conditions. Our little area, in fact, has the richest succulent biodiversity in the world!
At higher altitudes, the succulents give way to the colourful fynbos endemic to the Cape. So wherever you go around Oudtshoorn, you’ll come across plants unlike any you’ll see elsewhere.
You can read more about our biosphere on the botanical society’s page!
12 Things to do in Oudtshoorn
If you look at little Oudtshoorn, you may think that it’s only worth spending a day here. Our main street can be driven through in 5 minutes at most, and everything looks a bit dry and even a little neglected. But I assure you, there’s enough to enjoy here to spend a week – or ten years!
Go caving at Cango Caves
This is every tourist’s favourite thing to do in Oudtshoorn. It’s a thirty-minute drive via R328, which is a beautiful route that will take you through some of our gorgeous vegetation.
The caves themselves are exquisite, with giant chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites, complex crystalline forms, and deep underground pools. The tours are very educative and interesting, and you can choose between the normal tour and the adventure tour, which takes you through narrow chasms and a few exciting challenges.
I’ve done both, and I’d highly recommend the adventure tour – you see and do more and it’s a good deal of fun!
Visit the ostriches at Cango Ostrich Farm or Highgate
I actually used to live on the Cango Ostrich Farm! This show farm is a great place to learn about the giant flightless birds, and to interact with them in a safe environment. You’ll join a tour that introduces you to the birds, shows you how strong their eggs are, and gives you the opportunity to feed them!
The whole experience takes about 30-minutes, so it’s a great stop on your way back from the Cango Caves – as it’s closer to town on the same R328.
Of course, there are a number of other ostrich show farms, and all are lovely! The other three most popular options are Highgate Farm, Chandelier, and Safari Ostrich Farm. At all of these, you can also find ostrich curios and crafts if you want to take home a memento.
Go for a hike right next to town
There are magnificent hikes all over the Klein Karoo, and I would recommend any of them! But if you’re low on time and you’d prefer to set out right from the town, your best option is to hike up from the western end of Church Street.
The road turns into a dirt track that takes you straight up past the water towers. It doesn’t look like much at the start, but this trail gives you a beautiful 360° view over the town and the multiple mountain ranges that surround it. If you go during golden hour, the red foothills glow, complementing the undulating mountains behind them.
This track is also a great place to see the veld properly, and you’ll spot klapperbos trees, spekboom, and many other plants you won’t find anywhere in Cape Town.
Leap into the water at Meiringspoort Waterfall
My dad doing one of our favourite jumps at Meiringspoort
Meiringspoort has always been my absolute favourite place to visit in summer. We’ve spent so many hours here, I know every rock and frog family!
The Meiringspoort drive is honestly phenomenal – complex rocky mountains rise up all around you as you drive through the poort, crossing the looping river about twelve times. But river or none, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the rock formations.
When you get to the waterfall parking lot, you’ll have a little trek up through the mountain on a well-worn and cordoned path, and just when you’re good and sweaty in Oudtshoorn’s heavy summer heat, you’ll reach the first of the waterfall pools. Make your way up to the main one, and jump in!
Most people don’t actually swim here, they just look around and go. It’s still worth it, but in summer that’s craziness – it’s legal to swim here, and you’ll find it one of the most special places to swim. There’s even a rock ledge below the waterfall that you can stand on and be pummeled by the water, and you may spot a frog or two in the cracks – but there aren’t any fish, and certainly nothing scary lurking in the deep.
There are also lots of ledges to jump from, starting at a meter and going much, much higher. But the higher ledges can be difficult to reach, and once you’ve got there, there’s no clambering back down. You’ve just got to take the leap!
Explore the town’s ostrich palaces and sandstone houses
If you read my husband’s history of Oudtshoorn below, you’ll see that Oudtshoorn experienced two big financial booms in its history because of the European popularity of ostrich feathers! Because of these booms, the town has a number of ‘ostrich palaces’, beautiful sandstone mansions built with the riches of the boom.
If you do a little tour around the town you’ll come across a number of these old mansions, but one you can see inside is Dorpshuis Le Roux Museum!
Go on a safari at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge
Buffelsdrift is another of the most beautiful places to visit in Oudtshoorn! You can have a meal at the restaurant overlooking the dam, or you can embark on a proper safari. From your open game vehicle, you’ll be able to spot buffalo, giraffe, zebra, springbok, and more. It’s a wonderful experience, and you’ll learn a great deal about the animals, as well as the birds and plantlife of the area.
Buffelsdrift also offers dawn meerkat watching, nightdrives, elephant experiences, and quite a number of other options. Because of all this, you may want to spend a night or two here! Their luxury waterhole tents are arranged around the dam, where you can watch hippos amble in the water, and giraffe and buck come up to drink.
Watch live music or join a pub quiz La Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita is a bit of an Oudtshoorn cultural institution. There’s not a great deal to do here at night, and locals have always chafed a bit at the lack of evening activity. But La Dolce Vita is a proper local watering hole, with a bar and lekker restaurant.
More importantly, though, they host regular music nights, where talented locals try their material and artists from around the Western Cape perform. They also have monthly pub quizzes which are good fun! So if you want to experience Oudtshoorn like a local, check if they have anything going on while you’re here.
Learn about animals at Cango Wildlife Ranch
One of Oudtshoorn’s big attractions is the Cango Wildlife Ranch. Situated right out of town on the R328, you can’t miss it with giant alligator jaws as its entrance!
I worked here for a few months, and could always hear the lions roar when they stretched awake, and the birds kick up a fuss before dinner time. It’s a lovely little zoo focused on conservation and education. You’ll see and learn about cheetahs, white tigers, crocodiles, lemurs, and a good deal more. All in large enclosures and with innovative, active feeding times to keep the animals engaged.
Zoos and similar spaces are always ethically complicated, putting animals in spaces and social systems that differ from their wild habitats. But Cango offers a caring, interesting introduction to wild animals for children and they facilitate various conservation efforts.
Come for the KKNK
This entranceway is made up of squares knitted by the community – including my mum!
Oudtshoorn’s Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, or KKNK, is one of the main reasons people visit the town. This multi-day festival is a place where Afrikaans musicians, actors and artists come to perform and showcase their work. It’s a rare opportunity to experience Afrikaans rock or folk music (both of which I think is really cool) with the locals who love them.
The KKNK is also a market, with vendors and creatives from all over South Africa coming to sell their wares. I worked for these vendors every year in highschool to make some extra cash, and it was always so fun seeing the festival from both sides!
The festival is similar but different every year, but it’s always hot and exhausting, and really fun. It’s also a valuable influx of money to the community – it’s been difficult over the past two years, as the KKNK has had to pause. But let’s see what 2022 holds!
Drive out onto the Swartberg Pass
I mentioned the mountains all around Oudtshoorn are incredibly beautiful – one of the big favourites is the rolling Swartberg Pass. Much of the route is packed sand road, so if you’re renting a car, be aware that they sometimes fine you for driving on sand roads!
But if you can drive the pass, I’d really recommend it. You drive past the Cango Caves on the R328 (so you can make it a same-day activity). If you’re spending a few days here and have a little extra time, you can even follow it all the way through to Prince Albert, a stunning little village nestled among the tall mountains.
See the meerkats and mongoose
These mongoose live right outside our house on the edge of town, in the area of the hike I mention above
These curious little creatures – both mongoose and meerkats can actually be seen in the wild around here, but you have to be very quiet and patient to spot them. Both species make their burrows in the wilderness, and guard them carefully, standing up on their hind legs and keeping a sharp eye out for intruders.
So, since most of us can’t avoid their suspicion long enough to actually spot them, you can join an actual tour at Five Shy Meerkats, where you’ll be able to slowly observe wild meerkats with a cup of coffee, as they forage and fossick about.
Take the kids to Wilgewandel
My sisters and I as kids at Wilgewandel – it’s got the approval of 10-year old me!
If you’re visiting Oudtshoorn with kids, this is one of the best places to take them! In addition to bunny enclosures and llamas, they have row boats, pedal cars, trampolines, and paintball target shooting. And even a foefie slide or zipline across the dam (which I remember as a kid being totally freaked out about, and feeling a massive sense of accomplishment when I made it!)
You can also go on a camel ride or play a few rounds of mini golf. And all of it can be seen from the restaurant, so you can choose to join your kids on the fun, or take a little coffee break while they explore in-sight.
Where to eat & drink
So, now that we’ve made our way through all the best things to do in Oudtshoorn, let’s jump into where to eat! These are some top picks.
This quaint little restaurant is covered in local crafts and historic touches, with a lovely outside area under the trees. The food includes a number of Karoo favourites, as well as more recognisable meals.
If you can’t do dinner here, the more important thing is their cakes. I just don’t know what Nostalgie puts in their cakes, but whatever it is, they’re ridiculously good. Try the baked chocolate cheesecake, the carrot cake, or the chocolate pudding with berry compote and ice cream! I’ve had all three, five times over.
Nostalgie is also a good place to get your Klein Karoo goodies, like local marmelades, homemade rusks, and other yummy bits.
Anny’s is relatively new, but has quickly become one of Oudtshoorn’s favourite spots for a special dinner. The portions are big and well priced, the food is delicious, and the service is really fun and friendly. It’s an informal, pretty restaurant central enough that you could walk there. They also have a Chinese food and sushi menu, provided by a different chef – so you’ve got a lot of options!
If you want something cheap, local, and on-the-go, the roosterkoek padstal at the side of the Queens Mall area is a fantastic option. You just stand at the little metal stall and order, and they make it on the fire right outside.
Roosterkoek are little breads that many of us shape and put on the fire whenever we have a braai. When you buy them, you can get them plain, but the tastiest option (that I always need to get when I come home) is with boerewors, cheese and tomato smoor. If most of that means nothing to you, get it anyway! Another great taste is bacon, egg, and smoor. Try it and thank me later!
Beans about Coffee
If you want to take a coffee stop while you’re exploring Oudtshoorn, this is a great option. The service is great, the coffee is excellent, and the vibe is always good. It’s very much a local haunt, with most coffee-obsessed Oudtshoornites getting their coffee fix here.
I mentioned Buffelsdrift’s restaurant, and just want to add it here as a top dining experience in the area! You can sit outside on the wooden deck overlooking the watering hole, and spot animals, fish and birds around you. Even the parking lot often sees roaming animals passing by the cars, and it’s all quite an experience. The food is also great!
History of Oudtshoorn
Oudtshoorn is a small town in the Klein Karoo that has been the world’s foremost producer of ostrich products for almost its entire history.
The first Dutch settlers arrived in 1750 and quickly developed a productive farming industry. After the better part of a century (and the conquest of the Cape Colony from the Dutch by the British), a Dutch Reformed church was established alongside the Hartebees River on the land of one of the local farmers, serving as a hub for life in the region.
Ten years later, in 1848 the town of Oudtshoorn was officially founded around the church. It was a difficult region to live in, as water was too scarce to provide for all inhabitants: water had to be imported and sold by the barrel. It was another 16 years before things started to look up for Oudtshoorn: The Ostrich Boom was kicking off.
Ostrich eggs, meat, and plumage have been in use by humans since the Pleistocene era – before recorded history. The eggs are enormous and packed with protein, and the shells make very good containers for water. The meat is lean and rich, comparable to a much less fatty beef or mutton. And the plumage is… fancy-looking.
This last point, as it turns out, is incredibly important. Nobility around the world has just about always had a thing for looking good and spending a lot of money doing it, and ostrich feathers had always been in moderate demand.
In the mid-19th century though, a craze began among the European nobility for ever more extravagant ostrich-feather garments. This happened to coincide with the first successful attempts to domesticate ostriches in the little town of Oudtshoorn, leading to…
The feather boom
From 1864 onwards Ostrich feathers were exported in ever greater numbers from the Cape Colony, and Oudtshoorn in particular. The population rose sharply as people flocked to the growing economic hub, and around 1875 an auction saw ostrich feathers selling at £1000 per pound. That’s about £114 000 in today’s money.
Needless to say, ostrich farming made Oudtshoorn very rich during this time. They even managed to finally finish the church the town had been founded around, 40 years after it was opened! However, the good times were not to last. Overproduction lead to sudden a price collapse in 1885, and severe flooding hit the town the same year.
It wasn’t the end of the town, but the ostrich industry took a long time to recover through the years of the second Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). Oudtshoorn managed to avoid being involved in any of the fighting, and by the end of the war the ostrich industry was seeing a rise in fortunes again.
The boom (again)
While prices never quite reached their earlier highs, the end of the second Anglo-Boer War saw the beginning of an even bigger boom as the trend for ostrich feathers picked up steam once again.
This period saw the rise of the “feather barons,” ostrich farmers made fabulously wealthy by the resurgence of ostrich-based fashion. The feather barons built numerous “feather palaces” with their newfound wealth: opulent mansions that continue to draw tourists to Oudtshoorn today.
The town’s fortune rose higher and higher, with prices peaking in 1913. Sadly, fashionable trinkets and luxurious garments were about to take a sharp dip in popularity: 1914 saw the start of the First World War.
This, combined with overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars (the hats would blow away, you see) led to a second sudden crash in the market. Most ostrich farmers were bankrupted.
To the present
Our ostrich feather dusters, big and small – you also get brightly coloured dusters in every shade
Between the World Wars Oudtshoorn suffered badly, seeing mass emigration and a 90% reduction in the ostrich population.
However, the end of the Second World War resulted in a sudden opening of markets for ostrich meat and leather, allowing the town to recover slowly through the Cold War.
In the 2000s, sporadic bird flu outbreaks cost the town dearly in revenue, jobs, and birds: R700 million from 2004 to 2005 and R1,2 billion from 2011 to 2012. However, even after culling 50 000 birds between 2011 and 2013 there were over 200 000 ostriches in Oudtshoorn, making it by far the largest population in the world.
Despite all these calamities, despite ostrich feathers being little more than a curio today, and despite international competition, Oudtshoorn remains the Ostrich Capital of the World — South Africa accounting for 80% of all ostrich products, and Oudtshoorn out-producing the rest of South Africa put together. Not bad for a town of little over 60 000.
Last thoughts on Oudtshoorn’s activities & attractions
There you have it, a loving guide to the place I grew up in. It’s a dry, hot little town (switch that to freezing in winter), but it’s also stunningly beautiful and packed with things to do. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!
Did I miss any of your favourite things to do here, or an important bit of the town’s history? Let me know, and I’ll chastise myself and add it straight away after checking references (my parents, who still live here). And I hope you found this guide half as fun to read as I found it to write!