Mossel Bay to Outdshoorn; Worship the ostrich; Caves both wild and tamed; In which we ride ostriches; Introducing Marleen and Wessel; Rope burns and jumping off cliffs

The early morning was disturbed by the owner of the hostel flying off the handle and screaming at the top of his lungs at his staff for an hour while we had breakfast and packed up. He’d been so vaguely affable in a cannabis-sodden way that we began to wonder about multiple personalities and were happy to be on our way.

We weren’t about to leave Mossel Bay without spending a bit of time on the beach, but time was running out - our bus out of town left in the mid-afternoon. We didn’t know where the beach was, aside from being the place where the water met the land. Getting to it was a bit of a trial - two or three attempts were all stymied by various walls and fences. South Africans do love their walls and fences. Normally they aren’t huge obstacles for us - we just climb over them in short-cut pursuit of our direct progress - but fences and walls here in South Africa are a lot more serious than elsewhere. Broken glass, sharp spikes, razor wire and electric barriers are routine. It’s disturbing, unpleasant, scary, and above all inconvenient, and Sheryl and I were cursing all South Africans (not for the first time) while we hunted for a way down to the water. We did finally make it to the beach, and hung around for a couple of hours until it got cloudy and chilly (people say that Mossel Bay has the second-most consistently pleasant climate in the world (after Hawaii) but we didn’t see an awful lot of evidence of that while we were there).

We swung by the Bay Shop for a last dose of curry and some samosas for the road from Sandeep and Mano and then made our way to the gas station at the other end of town to wait for the bus. This bus was a lot more upscale than our last - bigger seats, newer and cleaner, and seemingly more or less full of tourists on their way to Outdshoorn like we were, rather than locals on long-haul trips across the country. Even though it was the same cheap bus line - City to City - the fare for the two-hour ride to Outdshoorn was the same R100 as the six-hour ride from Cape Town to Mossel Bay (about CAD$12.50). This country’s bus companies are more than a little screwed up.

The countryside changed visibly on the two hours north to Outdshoorn. The town is in an area called the Little Karoo. I never did get an explanation of the word karoo, but I’d guess that it means something like very dry, hot scrubland because that’s what it was. It hadn’t been so very long since Sheryl and I had been in our beloved deserts, so we were still used to the heat - lucky for us, since the temperature was in the mid- to high-thirties and the humidity was low enough to make your lungs dry out and crack. Outdshoorn is the centre of the ostrich-ranching world. Everything here revolves around ostriches. There are ostrich murals and bas-relief carvings as civic art, ostrich tourist attractions, ostrich souvenirs everywhere and ostrich eggs and steaks in all the restaurants. It wasn’t a surprise to us - we’d come to Outdshoorn in search of ostriches, after all - but even for us the bombardment of ostriches began to get absurd. Maybe it was the heat baking our brains, or maybe not, but we started to suspect the existence of an enigmatic Lovecraftian cult dedicated to the worship of the ostrich. We pictured them meeting in dark halls hung with ostrich plumes, doing the secret ostrich dance and imploring the Great Ostrich for aid. So you can imagine us, demented from the heat and stupidity of it all, staggering down the street of some little almost-ghost-town, reciting this prayer to the Great Ostrich:

Help us O Great Ostrich
For we are poor lost chicks
We are lost and aimless in the grassland
Our brains are smaller than our eyeballs
And we know not what to do
Spread your fluffy plumage to shade us
We stand upon your mighty eggs
Which can feed the multitudes
Kick forth your sturdy legs to smite our enemies
And peck them with vicious force
For though you cannot fly
You can run really, really fast

Besides everything else, today was our sixth anniversary together. We were going to have a nice dinner out someplace to celebrate, but Sheryl wanted chicken and salad instead so we had dinner at the hostel and hung out with the two hostel cats, Simba and Nameless. The whole eastern horizon was orange with the glow of brushfires in the hills, and when the wind was right we could smell the smoke. I’ve never been that close to a wildfire before. Here they don’t even try to control or extinguish them, we were told - they just let them burn themselves out.

We’d seen brochures in the hostel for an outfit that did abseiling, quad-biking and such, and one of the things they offered was caving in a private, undeveloped cave on their own land. This is the kind of caving that Sheryl and I like best. It’s one thing to see a leveled show cave with concrete steps and artificial lighting, and quite another to get down and dirty in coveralls to squeeze through tunnels barely wider than your shoulders in order to see delicate, fantastic formations up close. But we didn’t think we’d be able to do it, since the cave was twenty kilometers outside of town and they wanted too much money to pick us up. We’d grudgingly settled for a semi-package offered by some other outfit where we’d be picked up, dropped off at the Cango Caves (the local show cave), then dropped off at the ostrich farm, and then ride back to town on bikes in our own time. This wasn’t especially cheap, but it was the only way we were getting to see them, we thought.

Sheryl was feeling poorly the next day, though, so we cancelled the tour so that she could rest. Luckily there was a spot indoors for her to lie down in the shade, because there wasn’t any shade outside for our tent and it was a blast furnace inside. I worked on a project of my own (a Java application to sync data between Adobe Lightroom and, in case anyone is interested) and that kept me busy all day. The unintended change of plans worked out better for us in the end, though, as it happened. We got chatting in the evening to a trio of English girls (Melissa , Chloe and Chloe, and no, I’m not joking) and Sheryl managed to convince them that they wanted to do some real caving instead of seeing the Cango Caves. Since we could hitch a ride with them, this solved our problem too. Sheryl, you might notice, is a master at getting people to do things they’re not entirely sure they really want to do.

The caving was amazing, though. The five of us were the only ones that day. We arrived and got suited up in coveralls. Nearly new, freshly-laundered coveralls, I was very impressed. Most caving outfits don’t bother washing them, since they’re just going to get filthy again. Johan, the guide and co-owner, mentioned that they have to wash each pair three times to get them clean after every trip - so I wonder how long it will last. He also mentioned, just in passing, that we shouldn’t wear much under the coveralls - as little as possible, he said. What?, I thought. Surely the cave will be cold? But no, eighteen degrees, he said, which astounded me. I’m used to caves between zero and five degrees. Eighteen is bizarrely warm. But why did we have to strip down? He said we’d be getting wet. Ugh, I thought, but wasn’t too disturbed. If the cave was so warm then being wet wasn’t such a big deal, even though I’d only just finished drying my shoes out from the last time they got soaked. Sheryl was fine with it too and just wanted to get underground. Not so the English girls. All three of them were girly-girls, and although they’d reconciled themselves to squeezing through rock tunnels underground the thought of getting wet and muddy was beyond the pale. Melissa in particular was fuming, and we all thought she was going to bail out and wait in the car in a fit of pique, but the Chloes rose to the occasion and badgered her into it. Even then she swore she’d never forgive them and went on for ages about how unhappy she was going to be if she - I kid you not - broke a nail.

We had a short ride in the back of a truck to the cave mouth through huge areas of charred and blackened landscape, swirling dust-devils of ash and the stench of burnt wood - legacy of the wildfires we’d seen the night before. They’d been quick fires, at least - the bigger trees and bushes would survive and all the faster animals were able to run to safety, but the area had been full of tortoises and I doubt any of them had made it. Johan was worried about the cave - if it rained hard, all the ash would turn to grey sludge and wash into the cave, coating and ruining the beauty of the formations.

There were a few touchy moments with the girls at the cave mouth, but once we got them underground it was all right. There were a few tight squeezes at the beginning and a bit of a vertical chimney which they had trouble getting through. Sheryl went first, the girls were in the middle and I brought up the rear. This arrangement let us keep an eye on them and talk them through any trouble or panic moments. Johan accepted Sheryl’s and my word that we were experienced cavers (which made him unique in my experience) and I think he was happy to just lead the way and let us take care of the girls. They were great, after the initial scariness. None of them panicked, and they all had a great time. Blonde Chloe and Melissa were more or less along for the ride, but dark-haired Chloe has the makings of a caver. I could see her interest peaking, so I started hanging back with her and pointing out features and formations. She was adorable even in a helmet, so it wasn’t a chore for me.

As for me, I thought the cave was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I know I say that about nearly every cave I see, but there were so many formations, so densely packed and in such pristine condition! Some chambers had every surface covered. There were bizarre, curling, twisting formations called helictites, which I’d read about but never seen - no one knows how they’re formed, and formerly they were called cave mysteries. Besides them there were thousands of bright white dripstone formations, bacon strips, soda straws a meter long, and deformed soda-straw-like formations with a blade- or carrot-shaped tip. There was a bit of damage to the cave system, clearly caused by the all-too-evident flooding. A lot of the tunnels had some mud and debris in the form of twigs and roots wedged into the crevices. Some of the more delicate formations were broken, and a couple of big ones too - more likely the result of an earthquake quite some time ago, I’d say. Notwithstanding the damage, the cave was still amazing. Johan, too, was fantastic - an excellent guide, he didn’t bother with the usual practiced “how-caves-are-made” schtick, instead just quietly leading us in and out, and pointing out the cooler formations and side-chambers. He took us into an area of the cave they don’t usually show because it’s too delicate. I’m immensely grateful that he did, because it was the best spot.

We were all worn out by the time we wormed our way back to the surface and stripped out of the filthy, soaking coveralls. Johan and his partner had set up showers for the customers, so we had a chance to clean up a bit too. While we were waiting for the girls, Sheryl and I were chatting to Johan a bit, and she decided on the spur of the moment that she’d like to try abseiling. I had my misgivings (heights bother me sometimes) but I went along with it. I’d always wanted to try it, and Johan said he’d pick us up and bring us back to the hostel without charging us. I was so impressed with their operation and he was such a nice guy that I knew this was the place to do it, so we made arrangements for the next day. We tried to convince the girls to stick around for it, but their flight home was the next day and they were determined to abseil from Table Mountain instead. I couldn’t really blame them for wanting to get close to Cape Town before their flight. We all had lunch together and they took off afterward. They were fun to hang around with. We haven’t got their email addresses so I hope they get in touch with one of us.

We got lucky again the next day with a ride - we’d met a nice Dutch couple named Marleen and Wessel the night before who were going to the ostrich farm and offered us a ride. We were happy to accept since, again, we didn’t know how we would have got there otherwise. Marleen and Wessel were a lot of fun and turned out to be good friends (every Dutch person we meet is really nice, now that I think about it). We rode with them all the way to Storms River, later.

Caving and abseiling aside, Sheryl and I were in Outdshoorn for one reason and one reason only - to ride an ostrich. That was why we’d come to town, and that was why we’d come to this particular ostrich farm. We joined the farm tour, saw the incubator, saw an egg hatching, saw the baby ostriches (only a day old they were already the size of adult chickens). We got to hug an ostrich named Betsy (or at least to hold onto her neck while she was distracted by a bucket of food held behind us). We got to stand on ostrich eggs (they can support up to 150kg, we’re told). We got to feed the ostriches from a bucket. I got the bright idea of putting some ostrich food on the top of my hat so they could peck it off my head. That wasn’t as entertaining as it sounds - ostriches peck really hard and my skull rang like a bell. We saw the gift shop where you can buy badly-stuffed baby ostriches posed in their shells (I chose to believe that they were the ones that didn’t make it or got accidentally stepped on or something).

But finally, our big moment came and we got to ride an ostrich. Sheryl went first. She looked pretty apprehensive at first, but rose to the occasion, and then it was my turn. You know, when you get right down to it… ostriches are giant birds, and birds really just aren’t meant to be ridden. They’re completely the wrong shape, for one thing - they have a giant hump in the middle and you have to sit behind the hump, hook your legs around its neck and hold onto its wings, and then lean way back. All this time the ostrich is snapping its head back and forth and jumping around trying to get you off its back. When the handlers finally let it go it takes off like a bat out of hell and you bounce all over the place trying to stay on while its knees are kicking your ankles with every step and you feel like you’re going to accidentally pull its wings off. My ride lasted a bit longer than ten seconds and it felt like a lot longer.

I had a lot of fun, but I don’t think the ostrich enjoyed it much. That’s the other reason they aren’t meant to be ridden. Deep down in the species memory of every bird, they remember when they were dinosaurs and we were tiny scurrying mouse-like creatures underfoot. Since they’re not very bright, every bird is under the impression that this is still the case, and being ridden by a mammal seems like a terrible violation of the natural order to them. Ostriches are a lot closer to dinosaurs than other birds and in a better position to crush the presumptuous mammal.

Johan came to pick us up in the early afternoon to drive back out of town and go abseiling. I was a little nervous about it, I’ll be honest. It’s not heights that bother me so much as falling. But I always reckon that it’s something small, random and stupid that’s going to kill me in the end - the axiom of universal irony dictates that it’s all right for me to take bigger risks. I’m glad I did - abseiling was a lot of fun. Johan drove us out to the cliff, led us up the path and set up the ropes. He started out by showing us how it was done, using a redundant belaying rope in addition to the one we held onto. Sheryl wanted me to go first, so I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat and walked backwards, slowly, over the edge. I’ve done a bit of indoor climbing before and liked it, and I knew from that that you really just have to trust the ropes and your harness. It was only a 40-meter abseil so it didn’t take very long to get down. I walked halfway step by step and by then was feeling comfortable enough to start jumping and doing controlled falls out from the rock face. The last ten meters were an overhang - you had to push yourself out hard and let out rope to slide down to the next level. No sooner was I down than I wanted to go again, even though the adrenaline had left my legs all wobbly. I waited for Sheryl, though, and we went back up to the top of the cliff together. Johan was surprised to see us back up so quickly.

We went again and again as fast as we could get up to the top. I got pretty good at the jumps, I think. Johan said that most people end up going two or three times, and that he had one person that went five. Sheryl went eight times and I myself went ten, we were into it that much. What was great about Johan was that he kept showing us more and more each time, so that by the third time we were able to set ourselves up with the right carabiners and knots without his help. By the fourth or fifth time down he’d showed me how to set up with a special knot so that I only used the one rope - no belaying at all. He’s a great coach, and gave us a lot more of his time than he had to. The brochure said three hours and up to three abseils, but even besides the time he spent picking us up and dropping us off, he must have spent three and a half or four hours at the cliff with us, and then took us for a swim in the old reservoir afterwards. We must have been gone six hours by the time we got back to our hostel. We were torn over whether to offer him a tip or not. On the one hand he owns the place and probably doesn’t need the tip like a wage-slave would, and we didn’t want to offend him by offering one. But on the other hand he’d been really great to us and we really appreciated it and wanted him to know it, and didn’t want to offend him by not offering a tip. It seemed like a no-win situation, but in the end I did offer him a tip. He seemed taken aback, but (I hope) not offended, and told us we needed the money for our trip and should keep it.

What with all the scrapes and bruises from caving and the rope-burns and scratches from abseiling, and the sore muscles from both, we were aching the next day. But Marleen and Wessel had offered us a ride (again!) to the last thing on our list for Outdshoorn, the Cango Caves, and from there on to the village of Wilderness with them. Neither of us could believe how lucky we’d been with free rides in Outdshoorn - we hadn’t had to worry about transport at all while we were there.

The Cango Caves aren’t like the caves from two days earlier - they’re show-caves, with concrete floors and steps, floodlights and a bored high-school student whose summer job it is to recite a prepared speech for you as you go through the cave. I wouldn’t have missed it, of course - I want to see every cave I can, after all. But I wasn’t expecting much from it. There were two options for a tour - the hour-long standard walking-on-concrete affair for the tour-bus people, and the hour-and-a-half “adventure” tour. Naturally we took the longer tour. The cave was good. No cave is really bad, to my mind. There were a lot of big flowstone formations and a chamber with a thin stone floor which had formed as a skin over a water pool and been crashed through by an unlucky explorer many years ago. The best features were a couple of patches of corkscrew helictites that the guide either ignored or didn’t know about - tragic. I wish these show-caves would employ people who actually like caves and find them interesting - people would get more out of it if they were being shown around by someone with a bit of enthusiasm. The caves were good and I’m glad we saw them, but a distinct anticlimax after our earlier expedition. Wessel, I think, didn’t enjoy them much - he’s a bit claustrophobic and there were a couple of narrow sections.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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