If you ever found yourself on the party streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you might be lucky enough to spot a Big Chief Indian in full glorious spate. This wondrous apparition, clad from head to toe in sequins, beads, rhinestones, velvet and constantly wavy ostrich plumes, would be accompanied by his Spyboy, his Flagboy, a bunch of drummers, a street-walking jazz band and a few hundred dancing followers.
Down south in Rio de Janeiro, the annual carnival would also be in progress, with thousands of lovely Samba Girls of the Copacabana dressed in a couple of sequins and very little else besides their beloved ostrich feathers.
Glitz and glamour
Across the sea in Belgium, the small coal-mining town of Binche has its traditional Gilles characters parading on Shrove Tuesday. During what some call ‘the world’s weirdest Mardi Gras’, the Gille is restricted to wearing his elaborate costume, wooden clogs and fancy ostrich-feather headdress within the confines of Binche, and only on this day.
On most nights not too far from here, you might be in the Moulin Rouge theatre in the Montmartre district of Paris, bedazzled by a troupe of leggy performers tantalising the audience behind their brightly dyed ostrich-feather arrangements.
Their transatlantic match is the legendary Las Vegas Showgirl, motionless (legally she had to stand still to appear before you in her birthday suit), bedecked in ostrich plumes and jewels.
But all that marvellous carnival glitz and glamour, all those high-priced gin joints and chorus-line saloons, cannot match the true Romance Dance of the Plume down here in the Karoo in Oudtshoorn, when a male ostrich with blood-red shins begins to court his darling-to-be.
Monsieur will drop to the ground, spread his gorgeous wings before Madame and, with his head flung back, will begin to thrum and gyrate, making a loud booming noise. Then, lifting himself on the tips of his toes like Baryshnikov, he will puff up all his feathers and run daintily around the eyelash-batting object of his affections.
If she likes the guy, Madame will modestly lower her head as she walks, shivering her grey wing feathers in approval. She will find a spot, sit down and let the games begin. Such is the enduring, inter-continental, romantic lure of the ostrich, its delightful courtship moves and the gorgeous flightless feathers that line its wings.
Broekie lace, turrets, and stained-glass
With its headquarters in the Klein Karoo capital of Oudtshoorn, the world feather trade was at its hottest for a shiny decade in the early 20th century – and newly minted ostrich barons just had to have their fantasy palaces. This is why we’re down here in what used to be known as ‘Little Jerusalem’, to track the remnants of a once-glittering time and to see what’s happening in Ostrich Country nowadays.
We’re in, hopefully, the last stretch of a blistering four-year drought that has forced many farmers to reduce their flocks because no water means no lucerne (alfalfa), which means no feed for the ostriches. Ironically, the industry has survived the
bird flu epidemic of 2011, the recent EU ban on South African ostrich meat has been lifted, and last year the fashion world went crazy for feathers of all kinds, with ostrich plumes front and centre. And have you noticed the resurgence of western wear and the popularity of a Mexican hand-tooled ostrich leather vaquero (cowboy) boot? Suffice to say that everyone in the Klein Karoo is praying for rain so they can bring back the big birds.
As you drive down Oudtshoorn’s Baron von Rheede Street and enter some of its old dwellings, you can still pick up the historical nuances and remnants of that fabled era.
Here’s some broekie lace on a stoep, there’s a turret, stained-glass windows all about, wrap-around verandas for summer evenings, ornate door-knockers, papier-mâché ceilings, smoking rooms, ballrooms, cast-iron trim, decorative balconies, Italian marble, Greek columns, English fireplaces from faraway foundries, lots of local sandstone, Malleable 816 kitchen stoves (rarer than Agas), teak parquet flooring, burned bricks, and gracious gables – a mix of Victorian, Edwardian and Art Nouveau architecture.
The place to be
It was a time when all the world wanted an ostrich-wing feather and, if you were an architect, interior designer or general purveyor of fine goods, Oudtshoorn was the place to be.
Never mind the diamond magnates of Kimberley or the Randlords of the Transvaal goldfields. A feather baron with money to burn and a wobble of Barbary ostriches in the paddock had a jaunty air about him – like a dot-com millionaire of recent times.
So feather-hat-mad was High Society that when the Titanic went down in 1912, listed on the manifest were 12 cases of prime ostrich feathers. They say the consignment was insured for many millions in today’s money.
But the Feather Boom was broken on the back of World War I, the popularity of the motor car (hard to fit an ostrich feather hat into the cab and dangerous to wear in an open flivver) and a fashion backlash against the wearing of bird feathers. Millionaires were bankrupt overnight. Feather palaces became heartbreak hotels and many were broken down or left to rot.
We’re being hosted in a self-catering cottage scant metres from what is apparently the most-photographed feather palace in Oudtshoorn – Mimosa Lodge. It was built for the Sladowsky family and designed by Charles Bullock and Johannes Egbertus Vixseboxse, who seemed to have the lion’s share of ‘palace work’ in those days.
Owned by current-day ostrich farmer Saag Jonker and his wife Hazel, Mimosa Lodge is next to the old, stone synagogue, which serves fewer than 20 families remaining from what was once a very large Jewish community.
Stroking a baron’s ego
Meeting us on site is Peter Gray, a retired military man who has volunteered to guide us around the area for a couple of days. We drive out of town to another Jonker ‘palace’, Greylands, which could easily double-up as one of those cotton mansions you find in the American South. This is where Hein Jonker, son of Hazel and Saag, lives with his wife Liesl, who says the house just eats up hours of maintenance but pays you back with its warmth, sense of space, and gracious old kitchen that is the centre of the home.
So far, the feather palaces we’ve seen look spick and span. They’ve been restored close to their previous glory. Our next stop is out at Welgeluk farm, owned by the likeable Stanley Lipschitz. When we arrive, it’s surrounded by workmen on the roof, on ladders, in the corridors, all busy like summer bees, transforming the place into a boutique hotel.
I ask Stanley to go up to the top of his fort-like turret for a photograph and he bursts out laughing. “My knees won’t let me,” he says, “and besides, there’s no way up.” Feather-palace turrets served no real purpose other than to stroke a baron’s ego, I discover.
Stanley shows us the 18 rooms, the 1 500-litre bath, all the imported trimmings and the fripperies installed by the original owners, the Oliviers. These were the folk who spoke of ostriches in terms of Zenith, Dreadnought, Old Jack, Ounceman, Karoo Belle and the much-vaunted Barbary-Evans-Riempie strains. Clearly, I have much to learn.
On the Palace Trail
One of the best locals to fill us in briefly is Alex Hooper, whose family presence at Highgate Farm outside Oudtshoorn goes back to early ostrich days. Grandfather Hooper, luckily, anticipated the coming market collapse and prepared for it.
In 1937 Highgate Farm became a tourist attraction by accident when some overseas guests showed an interest in the birds and how they were raised. A decade later, the South African Railways was running ostrich tours to Highgate. These days the Hoopers just own the property, not the show farm-business itself.
We discuss the recent banning of ostrich-riding and Alex offers a memory, “I once took four of our jockeys and their ostriches to Oman, where they raced for the Sultan. It was an absolute hit, especially when one of the birds sat down in the middle of a race and laid an egg.”
I remember another cautious feather family, the Potgieters of Rietfontein farm, who also have deep roots in the community. What saved them, said current owner Kobus Potgieter, was that his grandfather Koos caught wind of the coming collapse while on a medical trip to Europe in 1911. Upon his return, Grandpa Koos told the family, “Diversify now!”
Peter leads us back on the ‘palace trail’, this time to the Vixseboxse-designed Pinehurst, a splendid old building in town currently doing duty as a high school hostel. Manager Ida Schmidt takes us around. At the bottom of the staircase she shows us the hollow newel post with a removable top.
“I’m sure it’s not true,” she begins, and my antennae rise with interest, “but there was a rumour that someone kept his diamonds in here.”
The original owner was Edwin Thomas Leach Edmeades, a prominent ostrich man who was such a fan of the feather that he extended his farming operations all the way up to Norvalspont on the Orange River.
Attended his own funeral
Another famous feather palace under renovation (at the time of our visit) is Foster’s Manor aka Rus in Urbe – Latin for ‘country in the town’. There’s all manner of skandaal about the first owner, James Alexander Foster. Legend goes that when the bird business went belly-up in 1914, he faked his own death to escape his creditors. They also say he attended his own funeral in disguise. How delicious. Possibly not true, but delicious anyhow.
We swing by the CP Nel Museum, where old-time Oudtshoorn is preserved in aspic, as it were. There is a special hall dedicated to all things ostrich, and a reconstruction of the town’s second Jewish synagogue. Hundreds of Jewish refugees came out to Oudtshoorn from the mid-19th century, from countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Many became ostrich smouse – middlemen for the farmer and the feather markets of the world.
At the Le Roux Town House Museum, we meet history custodians Alta le Roux and Hilda Boshoff and ask them about James Foster. They have the devil’s own job of keeping legends at bay and giving facts centre-stage, and they’re not really sure he faked his own death. Before we all give this too much thought, we make our salaams and leave this storied town with our little half-truth of history safely tucked away.