Oudtshoorn is situated in the Klein Karoo, 450km east of Cape Town.
The name 'Karoo' was given to this region by its original Khoi (Bushman) residents, who left behind rock paintings in the nearby Swartberg Mountains, which is now a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site.
The Attaquaskloof Pass was the main ox wagon route for pioneers travelling north and eastwards from Mossel Bay and was used by thousands of ox wagons from 1689 until 1869. The first ox wagon to use this route was an expedition of 21 men and 2 wagons sent out from Cape Town by Dutch East Indian Company governor Simon van der Stel in January 1689. Farmers started settling in the region a hundred years later.
Oudtshoorn was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, who died in 1773 on his way to the Cape to become the new governor, succeeding Ryk Tulbagh who had died the year before.
The ostrich industry
Ostrich feathers were the main reason for the rise in prosperity of this region. The Dutch Reformed Church, the first permanent structure in the town of Oudtshoorn, was completed and opened on 7 June 1879, much as a result of the wealth created by the booming overseas feather market.
The ostrich industry slumped in 1885 due to overproduction, but recovered after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. During this period most of the famously opulent 'Feather Palaces' were built in town and on farms. The boom peaked in 1913, before collapsing in 1914, assumedly because ladies’ hats decorated with feathers did not fit into cars with roofs.
The Cango Caves
The Cango Caves became a popular attraction during the 1800s.
Many visitors broke off pieces of the stalactites and stalagmites for souvenirs and wrote their names on the walls.
In response, the then governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, published the first Caves Regulation in 1820. It was designed to protect an environmental resource and banned the collection of souvenirs. It provided for fines for anyone caught damaging cave formations and prescribed an entrance fee which had to be paid to the District Officer. Entrance to the Caves cost 5 rix dollars, the modern equivalent of about R500.
Many of the significant discoveries in the Caves were made by its first full-time guide, Johnnie van Wassenaar, who served for 43 years from 1891 until his retirement in 1934. He opened many side chambers and introduced thousands of people to Cango 1, which remains the only part of the caves open to the public.
The Caves were known to indigenous people long before Europeans first landed at the Cape. Recent finds such as tools left behind in ancient hearths in the cave mouth prove that humans such as the Khoi have lived and sheltered here for at least 80 000 years.
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Gamkaskloof is situated in a remote valley in the Swartberg Mountains. For decades it could only be reached by travellers who crossed the imposing mountain passes on foot. The first road was built only during the 1960s.
The valley has over 4000 recorded plant species, 153 of the 211 bird species found in the Swartberg and numerous animals, ranging from rare rodents to aardvark and honey badgers to kudu and leopard. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 and has also been declared a Cultural Historical Site.
Numerous paintings by the San, the first inhabitants of the kloof, can still be seen in the caves. The Khoi later came to the Kloof and clashed with the San, who moved out of the Kloof.
CP Nel Museum Complex
Visitors should definitely experience the CP Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn, one of the best country museums in South Africa and the only museum with a Synagogue inside, still in use.
The CP Nel Museum Complex is housed in two historical buildings in town. The main museum, named after a business man and collector of antiques, Charles Paul Nel, is housed in the old building of the former Oudtshoorn Boys’ High School. This sandstone building with its prominent clock tower was designed by Charles Bullock and erected in 1906. The school hall was added in 1912. In 1981 the building was declared a national monument.
The theme of the museum is 'Ostriches through the centuries'. Exhibitions showcase the fascinating story of the ostrich feather industry.
Information courtesy of the Greater Oudtshoorn Tourism Office.