Playing With Your Bird in Public is Rude

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
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Flag of South Africa  ,
Monday, October 29, 2007

Imagine a chicken. Stretch it out to be two metres tall. Scoop out half its brain. Give it claws that can open a man from neck to crotch with one kick. Give it a bad temper. Give it the looks of a giraffe crossed with a duck. Now you have an ostrich.

Blanka, the sister of the Czech sibling duo I was travelling with is a wonderful woman. She is intelligent and interesting. She has only one flaw I was able to perceive - an unhealthy obsession with ostriches. Throughout the previous few days of driving, the one thing she stressed over and over again was the need to get to Oudtshoorn, the "Ostrich Capital of the World." (A sad claim to glory if ever I heard one. My hometown Falmouth's claim to be "halfway between the North Pole and the Equator" is, in my opinion, scintillating in compassion.)

Don't get me wrong. I like ostriches as part of the scenery and had gotten used to wild ones scattered all over Africa like freakish mutant chickens striding across the landscape. But we were heading to Highland Ostrich Farm, where these foul fowl were bred like rabbits for the open market. Better yet, we were going there to take a two and half hour tour about all the merits of these marvellous creatures and learn the secrets of the ages, such as why an ostrich feather duster is better than a chicken one.

And so began two and half hours of the most boring hours of my life.

The first stop of the tour was the "Feather Room". As you might deduce, there were lots and lots of feathers in it. This is what I learned:
Ostriches have a lot of feathers. Some are different than others.
Men are prettier.
Ostriches are boring and ugly (I'm paraphrasing)
One ostrich egg equals 24 chicken eggs.
How to make a boa: you dye the feathers pink and do something complicated to them. You keep yourself sane by imagining the adoring burlesque ladies who will worship you for your skill, and trying to forget that you make boas for a living.

At one point, the guide led our group to a table where an expert waited to show us how to make a feather duster. It involved a stick, some feathers, wire, and a complicated hand driven machine. People actually clapped as he held up the finished duster. These are the kind of people who clap and coo when an infant takes a crap in their diaper. (Afterwards, for $15-20 you could buy a feather duster in the gift shop. Conversely you could go to the dollar store and buy one for a buck.)

As always with a group of this size, in a place like this, there was an Eager Annie. This is a tourist exactly like that kid in class who always had their hand up to answer the teacher's question. It didn't matter if they knew the answer or not, they were going to answer anyway. And if they didn't have an answer, they had a question, usually along the lines of "Did Columbus have a dog? And if so, what was his name? And do you think that he liked being on the ship, or do you think he sometimes jumped off the boat to go swimming, and do you think maybe a shark ate him, and that is why it doesn't talk about Columbus's dog in the history books, and if I had a dog I wouldn't let a shark eat him." That kid. Our "kid" was a red haired, middle-aged American woman who asked more questions about ostriches than should exist.

The worst part? I was the odd man out. Somehow I had stumbled into a group of people who thought these dumb ugly birds were as precious as Faberge eggs. These were the type of people who thought crocheted doilies were just the thing to finalize the ambience the dining room was missing. I stumbled along, hot, head aching, and bad tempered.

Finally at about the two thirds mark of the tour, the guide said the magic words that saved this tour from disaster. He said we were going across the road where we could "stand on ostrich eggs and take turns riding an ostrich if we wanted". If we wanted? Hell yeah!

Our group entered a corral where a clutch of eggs sat under a lean-to with the father ostrich keeping watch nearby. Just before we entered the corral, the guide stopped and picked a three metre branch off the ground bristling with thorns. Someone asked a sensible question - "Is this dangerous?" The guide assured us that it was no problem, there would be no problem, this bird was docile, but just in case if it started to run at us, run for the gate, and he would fend it off with the spiked branch. This was finally becoming my kind of tour.

Once in the corral, the ostrich watched impassively as 12 strange creatures took turns standing on the top of its eggs. Every once in a while, it opened it mouth and made a strange rasping, panting sound as its pea sized brain reminded it to breath. How this species has survived so long is a mystery to me. The guide assured us that ostrich eggs could handle as much as 120 kilograms of direct pressure without breaking. The eggs remained intact.

A short walk took us to another corral where there was a small grandstand set up. In front of the seats, a man held an ostrich with a sock over it's head and a small wooden foot stool stood beside it. He explained that if a bag was placed over it's head, the bird would remain docile, and you could do as you wish to it. I didn't ask the obvious question.

He invited those who wished, to climb up on the ostriches back (one at a time obviously). Once you were seated, your knees jammed into the space under its wings, and your hands around its neck (hey, it was their instructions, not mine), they removed the bag. You sat on the ostrich and realized that, despite the obvious enthusiasm of the workers, this was not an animal built to be ridden. It did, however, present an opportunity for one of the most bizarre and slightly disturbing photos I have ever been in.

Afterwards, they announced that those who wished to try and ride the ostriches could give it a try. To my dismay, the weight limit was 80 kilograms. I am not 80 kilograms. Enough said. However, for your enjoyment, I present this movie of Blanka, my Czech friend and her ostrich riding skills.

Finally the tour came to an end. As we drove into town, we were all hungry. We stopped at restaurant. My choice? Ostrich carpaccio. Turns out I like ostriches after all.
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Comments

brenda5008
brenda5008 on

What a big bird you have
I don't think you've ever had a blog that's made me laugh so hard. You are great! And very brave, I don't know if ostriches are like Emu, but I know you couldn't get me in the pen with one of those vicious bastards, creeeeeepy animal for sure. Stay safe!

dianev
dianev on

thanks!
ahahahaha...this is surely the funniest entry you have written so far. and you are a great writer, by the way!
hi. my name is diane and i live in new zealand. i have been following your adventures for the best part of the past year - ever since i searched ethiopian blogs and came across yours. you have kept me highly entertained and have (somewhat) satiated my thirst for travel. the warmth and affection you write about the african continent with is palpable and it fair makes my heart sing to read your entries.
i hope india is treating you well. i look forward to learning more about it through the eyes and heart of mr church. if you ever make it down to nz be sure to holler out. you have an auckland tour guide at your service!
take care and seasons greetings.
diane v

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