Ahh...now I'm back on the backpacker trail and it's all coming back to me. We flew in to Capetown yesterday and immediately picked up our rental car and drove east. We took the scenic route, along route 62, which is supposedly like the route 66 of South Africa. The road took us through some pretty scenery, mountains, canyons, etc. and it didn't take much longer than if we had just come across on the N2 - the major west to east highway out of the cape. We drove for 5 hours and finished up in the town of Oudtshoorn
, the ostrich farming capital of the world. By the time we got in, we really only had time to settle in at our hostel and do a quick walk around the town in search of dinner.
After walking for an hour, we found a great place to eat a block away from our backpackers (reviews of the backpackers and the restaurant coming soon) and enjoyed a cheap bottle of wine and an ostrich burger. We signed up for a few of the activities and got to bed early. We had started the day at 4:30am in Durban
, so an early night felt great.
I'm rushing ahead to the activities, but only because they are fresh on my mind at the moment. Once I have some down time, I intend to write about my first impressions of the Cape; the way it looked from the plane, the way it looked on the ground, the differences I sense from Durban, etc.
But in the interest of time, here is what today contained:
Early morning start to prepare breakfast. Our hostel provides everyone with their own ostrich egg which you can do with as you please. Knowing this, we had picked up some vegetables the night before and got set up for an ostrich egg omelet breakfast. I got up early enough to chop the vegetables and cook the omelet, and then be ready for our 8:15am start. The omelet turned out great, ostrich egg tastes pretty much like any other egg I've had, except for the fact that it's big enough to feed 18 people off of a single egg. We took a small fraction of the egg and gave the rest away to some of the other people staying here. One egg per person is pretty absurd.
At 8:15 we met in the courtyard to prepare for our activity. This activity in our case was being driven up to the top of a nearby mountain pass and riding a mountain bike down and back to the hostel, stopping in locations of our choice along the way. There is a set of caves that we pass by, and these caves run adventure tours where you crawl around through tight spaces, and fat people are turned away for safety reasons (how politically incorrect!). We are told by the guy running our hostel that a few years back this fat lady was extremely insistent that she be allowed to take the adventure tour through the narrow spaces of the cave, and in doing so got wedged in between some rocks, and took 11 hours to be pulled through, trapping the rest of her group in the process.
If I was forced to spend 11 hours in a goddamn cave because some fat lady didn't know her limitations, I would be very angry. I'd probably throw things at whichever flailing half of her body was on my side of the cave. Anywho, we skipped the cave because the weather forecast for our second day in Oudtshoorn showed rain, so we figured that caves would be a great activity to do in the rain, and we could do the other more exposed activities today while the sun was shining.
These other exposed activities included a tour through one of the local ostrich farms and a visit to the Cango Wildlife Ranch - a place that raises endangered species for the purpose of trading them to zoos and game reserves around the world for breeding.
The ostrich farm was fantastic. Not only did they answer all my questions about the nature of ostrich farming - they also had a prepared set of activities that went beyond my expectations. First was the ostrich hug, where they had me stand with my arms around the ostrich, and then strategically placed some ostrich food in a place that forced the bird to wrap its neck around mine thus giving the appearance of a hug. Of course the ostrich doesn't actually give a damn, but it sure looks cool in a photo. Next was the ostrich riding, which was my main reason for coming to this town. The ostrich riding was cool, but it's very difficult and they set you up to fail so they can then have a "professional" hop on and show you how it's done.
I would have preferred if they taught us actual technique and gave us lances and helmets and had us joust each other on ostrich-back. For future reference, ostriches are only capable of running in circles, so riding an ostrich is a lot like riding on the hood of a Nascar car - hold on tight and be prepared to turn left. The ostrich under me banked sharply and tossed me off its back quite easily. Had I known this was the case, I could have prepared and had a less embarrassing go of it, but I got the impression that things happened exactly how they were supposed to, so the show could go on. I would have ridden that goddamn thing all day if they had let me. It was awesome.
Next up was the ostrich neck massage. For this stunt, they give you a bucket of ostrich food, and you hold in against your chest and back up to a swarm of hungry ostriches.
The birds slam their necks down over your shoulders to reach the bucket of food in rapid successions, so it creates a shiatsu-like feeling on your shoulders. Of course, feathers and flying all over the place and in to your mouth while this is happening, so while it's comical, it doesn't quite serve as a relaxing experience. Still, it's great fun.
Finally you get to stand on the ostrich eggs, which is slightly underwhelming after riding the damn things, but it is interesting to see how strong the shells are. Opening an ostrich egg is kind of like opening up a coconut. You have to take a sharp rock or similar tool and tap the top of it repeatedly until you get a crack, then bore out a hole and shake the contents out. If you want to hard boil an ostrich egg, it takes 3 - 4 hours to complete, so your better off going for the sunny side up or better yet, scrambled egg.
Tomorrows breakfast is going to be leftovers from today's omelet.
Our second stop was at Cango Wildlife Ranch. The wildlife ranch is somewhat like a zoo (which believe me, didn't thrill me when I read the description. I find zoos to be depressing to say the least) but serves the purpose of collecting endangered or vulnerable animals that will be used specifically for breeding. If you run a game reserve, and you have a male and a female lion, they'll have some kids, but then you'll be stuck with a single bloodline and won't be able to progress. So, you call up a place like the Cango Wildlife Ranch and trade your cheetah for a lion and introduce a new non-related bloodline, so that the lions can have healthy offspring.
They do exchange programs with places all over the world, and even though it's not as good as the animals actually having enough of their own habitat to continue on living, it is an important tool in helping to prevent extinction for many species. The place had a lot of animals that I was very interested in seeing, and it had them running around in a setting more free than a typical zoo; more like an aviary. The first place we walked through was like a giant tent where enormous bats and tiny antelopes ran around semi-free. Some places had strange animal combinations - the river pig pen was also home to giant catfish and monitor lizards. The guide explained how they hoped to soon be able to separate the animals, because as it stands, the monitor lizards would eat baby piglets, and the pigs would eat monitor lizard eggs, so neither species could really get any reproduction down under current conditions.
Hopefully the entrance fee I paid will contribute to baby piglets not being eaten by lizards and vice versa.
The center had a lot of giant cats - lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Tigers are not native to Africa, but their facilities were so good at achieving the reproduction of endangered species that they took on some white Bengal tigers to spread around the world. The cats had pretty large areas in which to roam around, and there was a raised wooden boardwalk that went through the center of their pens so that you could see the cats clearly from above without getting in their face. It seemed to work well.
After the tour ended, MJ and I chose to do a "close encounter" with the adult and baby cheetahs.
It costs under $40 USD, and basically they let us in the cheetahs pen and took a bunch of pictures. These particular cheetahs were raised by humans, so there wasn't much danger of being eaten (especially because cheetahs don't eat people) but still, when the cheetah turned at me and looked me straight in the eyes and then licked my face, it was exciting and off-putting at the same time. The cheetah has a sandpaper-rough tongue, and the handlers said I really shouldn't let it lick me, because that was the first step towards it deciding that I may be tasty in some fashion. Made sense to me, so I moved away whenever it started to get near my skin. The giant cats purr like a house cat, and they seem to like being pet like a house cat as well.
It was pretty incredible and certainly worth the money.
The cubs were equally as cool. There were 3 cubs that were just 9 months old and they were very playful. They had a slew of toys - stuffed animals, rubber ball, tug ropes, etc - just like a typical dog would have. They liked to play at stalking and clumsily climbing one of the short trees in their area. They had a short attention span and were a little less interested in us and a little more interested in running around. I was squatting down petting one cub, and unbeknownst to me, his sister decided to sprint across the grass and jump on my back, putting its tiny claws through my sweater but stopping there. It was hilarious albeit slightly painful, but overall great fun.
No blood was drawn, and no major scratches were left behind. The trainers are in the pen while all this is going on, and they step in when necessary not because things get unsafe, but because they are trying to train the cheetahs to behave a certain way, and they want to make sure the training is reinforced constantly so that when they get bigger they don't kill anyone on accident. These three cubs were destined to be sent around for mating, but their offspring would be raised as wild and would be sent to populate areas that once held cheetah, but because of development or hunting had seen them all killed off. It made the semi-zoo like aspect of the place feel respectable to know that things were being done towards a good end.
We made it back to our place around 5pm, making it a full day out on the bikes.
Tomorrow we wake up early to get in to the first cave tour, and then head out to our next stop, which hasn't been fully determined yet. If every day is like this one, then I'll soon need a holiday from my holiday, but that isn't the worst thing in the world. As long as I have a good cheap meal and a good cheap bottle of South African wine waiting for me at dinner time, then everything is a-ok.