Oudtshoorn: Birds Of A Feather

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

The houses in the small Karoo town of Oudtshoorn still reflect the rich heritage the area once enjoyed. Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape is a true rags-to-riches tale and one that documents the struggle that farmers often faced in the some of the harshest climatic conditions on the African plains. The “feather palaces” that grace the town are a constant reminder to current day ostrich farmers of the opulence that their predecessors once had the privilege of experiencing.Can-Can girls the world over have at one stage or another donned the ostrich feathers that were exported from the area to Europe in the mid-1800s. An extremely sought-after fashion accessory, the ostrich feather industry boomed and the Oudtshoorn community cashed in on the opportunity. Pioneering the domestication of ostrich, these entrepreneurs ripped out their crops and planted Lucerne as fodder for their ostriches, replacing their cattle with the flightless bird that was fast becoming a valuable commodity. The news of the local economic opportunities soon spread across the shores and the rising wealth attracted Jewish immigrants to the area, who went on to become integral members of the ostrich farming community. The local Afrikaner farmers embraced the newcomers, and donated funds towards the building of the synagogue in 1886. At the high point of the feather trade a further 300 Jewish immigrants relocated from Lithuania and the town was earned the nicknamed the “Jerusalem of South Africa”. Among these migrants was Max Rose who built his empire and was unrivalled as a feather baron. The industry went on to become a major contributory factor in South Africa’s economy, rendering significant monetary contributions to government coffers at the end of the century.At the turn of the century fashion in Europe began to change due in part to the popularity of open top motor cars. It became increasingly difficult to wear accessories adorned with feathers due to the speed at which these motor vehicles travelled. At the outbreak of the First World War, warehouses in both South Africa and London were filled to capacity with feathers, but there were unfortunately no buyers. It appears that this the beginning of the end as dealers laden with debt, could no longer pay the farmers who supplied them. Farmers had to adapt, and adapt quickly, in order to save what had taken them years to accrue. In order to counter the collapse of the feather industry, they began to grow tobacco and some converted their farms back to livestock.A number of the Ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn have converted their properties into guest lodges, with some acquiring five star status. This is not surprising considering the magnificent mountain scenery and warm hospitality that these farming communities have become well known for. Lightstone statistics reflect that there have been a total of 77 sales concluded in the area over the last 12 months, of these 75 were full-title properties. The average price paid for a property was R509 000 and overall the banks granted bonds to the value of R29m. Cape Town has recently been listed as Africa’s leading holiday destination for the third year running. Oudtshoorn has become an important part of the Cape experience, with many tourists saying that they regret that they couldn’t stay longer in this true South African treasure.

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