A hundred years ago, ostrich plumes suddenly became more valuable than gold. Rob Nixon, who was brought up near the ostrich farms of South Africa, recalls the elaborate fantasies that the gawky big birds inspired
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I AM HOLDING a photograph which shows a small boy perched high on the back of an ostrich. A boy with dangly legs, his hands full of feathers, his knees tucked beneath the wings. He's looking down, afraid of heights, unsure of all this altitude. To keep the bird from bolting, someone has slipped over its head a white hood that says "Bleached Flour", like some cartoonist's spoof of the Ku Klux Klan.

The ostrich handler must have stepped up then (he's obscured in the picture, reduced to saggy hat) and whipped off the bag. The bird shot out of the starting block and thumped me to the ground. The hat man caught my ostrich and was kind to me - it bothers me that I can't see his face. But I can picture it: warmly creased in the manner of the mixed-race "coloureds" who worked those desert farms. The man hoisted me back into the high, hot nest of feathers: "Luister nou - Now listen here," he whispered in Afrikaans. "When you're up there, sit low and lean back. You can't ride it like a horse, otherwise you'll go right over the top." And off I went, this time staying on, running topspeed round and round the ring.

The stretch of South Africa where I grew up boasts a century-old tradition of ostrich ranching. The giant birds were integral to my boyhood landscape. This was the edge of the Karoo, a huge scrub desert whose name derives from a San or Bushman word meaning Big Thirst. The Karoo sprawls for a quarter of a million square miles - an area five times the size of England. In this desert world, the ostrich has been an object of reverie for generations, a glamorous creature inspiring elaborate dreams.

If you cross the Karoo, driving west from Port Elizabeth, you arrive at Oudtshoorn, a town that has long been the global epicentre of everything ostrich. At the end of the 19th century, ragtag bands of Lithuanian Jews, fleeing the pogroms, beached on South Africa's shores. Some trekked inland towards Oudtshoorn, where, among the aloes and prickly pears of the Karoo desert, they turned to farming ostriches. Oudtshoorn was the Afrikaans name for the village that these refugees came to know as the Jerusalem of Africa. The place became, for them, an oasis of hope. Whole villages in Lithuania acquired fabulous stories about this place where Jews could grow wealthy herding gigantic geese. And in the midst of the sprawling scrub desert, the Jewish newcomers found new liberties. At last, they were free to own land, work at their chosen occupations and worship unmolested.

Within a decade of arriving in the Karoo, some refugees had metamorphosed into wealthy ostrich barons. Those were the glory days of the feather trade. From the 1880s until the First World War, the elegant plumes - on boas and opera cloaks and cascading from hats - became a fashion fundamental. To satisfy the tastes of natty dressers in America and Europe, and the demands of music hall and cabaret, the South African ostrich population swelled and swelled, until by 1913 a million birds were being bred for their feathers. The plumes soared in value, becoming, ounce for ounce, more precious than gold.

Our family trips to Oudtshoorn were a major boyhood adventure. There was something about the place. Magical, but disturbing. The streets were broad enough for ox wagons to turn in, piled high with plumes for foreign dames. I could tell that Oudtshoorn had been touched by far-off places. I knew them only as names: Paris, New York, London, St Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin. The history of this ostrich town spoke to me through traces and trinkets of a fabulous beyond.

The Jerusalem of Africa became my imaginative oasis. But the town at large was severely Calvinist. I shrank, even then, from this other Oudtshoorn, which bristled with soldiers and church spires. Later, I would recognize it as a one-mistake town. South Africa's hinterland abounded in such towns: places where, in a flash, you could become a life-long casualty of some unmentionable act - a dalliance behind a shed, an abortion, a hint of homosexuality, cross- racial intimacy of any kind. One-mistake towns like Oudtshoorn seemed to produce sad, purgatorial people, trailing the Main Street, reminding everyone that if you slipped you would be made to live the error of your ways.

So the Oudtshoorn of my childhood became two towns rolled into one. An enchanted place, full of giant birds, feathers and fantasies of Parisian fashion and cabaret. But it was also a place of tarnished magic and unease.

THE OSTRICH seems, at first, deficient in those romantic qualities that humans have typically sought from birds. Nature has left it glued to the ground, no better off than us. Its musical talents are crude: it can barely muster a croak. Yet the ostrich has feathered our dreams more luxuriantly than any other bird - as the plume passions of Tutankhamen, the Roman emperors, the Black Prince, Napoleon, Marlene Dietrich, Queen Victoria and Elton John all testify. For millennia, we've used ostrich glamour to signal sexual and imperial power, seductive spectacle, hyperbole, escape.

Great thinkers, from Aristotle to the 18th-century French biologist Georges- Louis Leclerc, struggled to make sense of the ostrich. Some concluded that this flightless, songless, egg-laying leviathan was one of nature's freak-shows, a mutant cross between a mammal and a bird. When Linnaeus classified our planet's avifauna in 1758, he memorialised this creature's oddity. He noted how, at a distance, desert voyagers readily confused ostriches and camels. And so he gave this bird the ambiguous scientific name that it still bears: Struthio camelus - the sparrow-camel.

The one thing everybody knows about ostriches is their dubious psychology. The ostrich position: this creature's most widely recognised service to humanity. What other life form embodies so lucidly the follies - and temptations - of denial? For centuries, satirists have payed homage to ostrich idiocy whenever they needed to mock the politicians of the day. Big butt in the air, head buried in the sand.

As a boy, I knew that no ostrich behaved like that. The closest any ostrich came to going underground was its imitation bush trick. I had seen it in the veld: when danger threatened, the ostrich hen would often sit dead- still to avoid detection, flattening her endless neck like a garden hose against the earth. A flattened ostrich blends easily into the dry Karoo bushes which, for most of the year, are greyish humps of dead-looking sticks.

The Karoo stretched across the horizon of my childhood. It was vast and empty-looking, but I knew it wasn't as barren as it appeared. So many of its life forms proved adept at pretence, at lying low, at keeping up appearances. In the Karoo, looking like death could become a way of life. My childhood obsession with ornithology led me to the scientific term for this deep camouflage: cryptic colouration. At night, before I drifted into sleep, I had migration dreams in which I turned into a bird. But the birds around me were dreaming of turning into bushes, and the chameleons of turning into twigs.

Looking at the life forms around me, I became fascinated by disguise. Trusting your eyes didn't do you much good in a place where camouflage went this deep. So, long before I understood South Africa's stony politics, the Karoo taught me that things weren't always what they seemed.

I'M HOLDING in my hands another photograph, this one dated 1887. It shows three ladies chatting at a London garden party. An insectivorous tropical bird teeters on one lady's hat-brim, peering over the edge, as if it has spied a worm crawling across her vast monobosom. The lady is engaged in pleasantries with a second grandee who has an entire fox twisted around her hat, biting its own tail. Behind them stands a third figure, partly obscured, wearing what appears to be an arboretum. A stuffed robin crowns the mass of vegetation (moss, satin pansies, cabbage roses) that adorns her head. The robin's beak hangs wide open, frozen in twilight song. These late Victorian ladies were the original deadheads. A salon of posh hats would contain piles of bird remains, violets and roses and bluebells, wired bows of lace and velvet, bronze buckles and steel ones, scads of jewellery and frothy veils of tulle, net and gauze. Trimmings seems too frail a word for such voluptuousness.

In the quest for extravagance and upward lift, the ostrich feather had no rivals. A prime plume could tower 22in above the head. The giant bird's feathers had been used for adornment since the Roman empire, but in the 1880s they became stylish as never before. Even after the century turned and the stiff corpses of Victorian taxidermy became passe, ostrich feathers stayed in vogue. Cascading things came in: crepe de Chine, chiffon, lace, tulle, chenille and wilting feathers, as belle epoque fashions grew frothier. Ostrich plumes again had no equal, this time in evoking flutter, bobbing and flouncing with every dip of the head.

So by 1913 a single top-notch ostrich plume fetched pounds 12, roughly the cost of the four-week sea voyage from England to South Africa, and foreign fashion consumed 100,000 tons of Karoo feathers annually. By then, ostrich ranching was making people richer faster than any other kind of farming anywhere in the world.

Oudtshoorn's ostrich elite - whether Jews, Afrikaners or Scots - were typically pious people who came from simple backgrounds. In this, they hardly differed from their desert neighbours who farmed tobacco and sheep. But rubbing shoulders with the sophisticates of European haute couture, whom they hosted on their Oudtshoorn farms, the ostrich barons began to hunger for some swank themselves. And so the palace idea caught on.

Dad was driving us through a dust storm towards Oudtshoorn the first time I saw a feather palace. Suddenly it was there, as if conjured from pure air. I stared at the fantasia of turrets, spikes, columns and twirly gables looming through the dust. I loved the way the roofscape punched holes in the big sky. I'd never seen anything so alien, so grand.

Dad told us the story of the feather palaces. How the ostrich barons had erected them during the height of the feather craze. How the barons had had so much money they'd run out of ways of spending it, so they'd started erecting rival palaces, each one bigger and fancier than the last.

Feather palace: even the phrase seemed to have tumbled from the clouds. Palace wasn't a word that fitted the Karoo. It didn't belong with mimosa thorns, goats, ostriches, drought, and sun-scrunched faces. Palace had a greener feel to it, spoke to me of velvety lands, full of princes and princesses, far away and long ago.

All nine feather palaces were the handiwork of two architects: a British settler, Charles Bullock, and a Dutch immigrant, Johannes Egbertus Vixseboxse. Each palace rested on a financial foundation of feathers, and each stood as a reminder to neighbours that the owners' ostrich wealth bound them to a finer world than the Karoo: a world of salons, promenades, balls and lustrous garden parties, where flair, sensuality, fine breeding and profligacy ruled.

The walls were typically built from sandstone, cut and dressed by immigrant Scottish masons. Karoo sandstone was cheap but hardly prosaic, and Bullock and Vixseboxse turned it to brilliant advantage, so that it responded to desert textures and light. The Karoo sun gilded the walls; here, in the Jerusalem of Africa, sand, like ostriches, could be turned to gold. Inside, the rooms are darkish. The architects' attempts to filter out the sun suggest a touch of cultural cringe; as if light itself were philistine and sophistication could flourish only in a European gloom.

The Gormenghast roofscapes of the palaces seem to mock Oudtshoorn's tight- wrapped Calvinism and the encircling landscape's dour aridity. Some stand in solitary splendour on isolated farms; others in town, intimidating the box houses that surround them. The feather palace is a grab-bag of allusions; the ostrich barons and their architects mastered the art of the magnificent mismatch. Everything was deemed appropriate as long as it had once evoked opulence. Baroque parapets, pyramidal turrets, gazebos and Spanish arches mingle with neo-Cape Dutch gables, cast-iron porticoes, iron lace tympanum, red Belgian fish-scale tiling and odd borrowings from the dreamlife of a Byzantine potentate.

The barons did what the desert rich do everywhere, from Arizona and southern California to Mexico, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They spelled out their wealth in water. It was the obvious way to flash their opulence. When nothing is as priceless as rain, tinkling water and the sheen of well-fed grass become trademark ways to announce that you've moved beyond the reach of scarcity. So each palace had its emerald spread, beyond which sprawled the parched thorn desert.

AT WHAT point does optimism turn into hubris? When the rich start lighting their cigars with pounds 5 notes? When ostrich barons bathe in brandy? Such were their rumoured activities in Oudtshoorn in 1913. Fine plumes fetched pounds 500 a pound. As feather prices shot through the ceiling, land prices went soaring after them. It was easy for the barons to forget they were merely fashion farmers. They talked of the "feather industry": a comforting phrase that gave their line of work a ring of solidity. But in haute couture sudden change is the only certainty.

The 1914 Paris season brought intimations of bad news. Feather merchants, returning from overseas, reported that demand was down. It had in fact been halved. On 28 June that year, Europe plunged into war. Shipping lines from Europe to the Cape were severed. Many of Oudtshoorn's finest markets - Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg, Vienna - had become inaccessible. And, in any case, calamity drove fashion far from most Europeans' minds. The world of tumbling hats prettified with feathery filigree lay at the furthest imaginable remove from a world in uniform. In Britain the Royal family used its influence to oppose flamboyant wartime dress, and banned plumes at court.

So ostrich feather prices went into free fall. Each year they lost more value, until even the finest plumes were virtually unsaleable. Even in America, where people were little touched by the war, the aura of plumes evaporated. Fashion tastes were changing for reasons more complex than wartime austerity. The First World War may have knocked the ostrich boom on the head, but it was Henry Ford and Coco Chanel who together buried it.

When the first Model T appeared in 1908 it was a gleaming black novelty - a luxury, still moderately expensive. That year, Ford sold 10,000. But once he'd introduced assembly line production, Ford - and his rivals - kept driving down the cost. By the time the final Model Ts rolled out in 1927, 15 million Americans had bought one of his cars. Henry Ford fostered a new culture of mobility, and voluptuous belle epoque fashion now felt immobilising, especially inside a car. Feathered hats proved hopelessly unwieldy. The pricey plumes got crushed in covered vehicles, while in roofless ones, the wind turned bulky headgear into parachutes and shredded delicate arrangements. Women abandoned their boas to avoid elegant strangulation. The automobile changed dramatically the lines of millinery. Hats became tighter and trimmer, shaped for a faster life. With the turn to a sleeker silhouette, pillboxes and cloches became de rigueur.

Women were on the move in other ways. During the First World War, many had joined the military and auxiliary corps or taken jobs as postwomen, bus-conductors, tram-drivers. These expansions in physical and professional liberty were hardly compatible with feathered hats.

Coco Chanel became the prime agent of the streamlined look. An illegitimate child, born in a poorhouse and raised in an orphanage, she brought to the beau monde a disdain for allusions to aristocracy. The "poor look" she made famous was, of course, a look of pricey austerity. Chanel helped to ensure that there was no post-war rush back to ostrich feathers. She scorned the Byzantine confections that women balanced on their heads. "How," she asked witheringly, "could a brain function normally under all that?"

IN 1916, THE Karoo entered the longest drought in memory. As the rains failed and the feather trade failed to revive, many Oudtshoorn inhabitants joined the dust-bowl migrants heading for the cities. Among them were hundreds of Lithuanian Jews. Oudtshoorn's desert diaspora suffered a second scattering: many sank to a level of poverty they thought they'd left behind. Some feather palaces changed hands for what it had cost to import just one of their teak doors. Others were abandoned and slid towards ruin.

By the 1960s - a brutally conservative decade in South Africa, doubly so in a town like Oudtshoorn - an aura of scandal had attached itself to the palaces. There was an Afrikaans phrase which fixed that sense of outrage: "broekie-lace" - panty lace - a reference to the delicate filigree of ironwork that decorated the palace turrets, rooftops, verandas, gates and fences. But in Sixties South Africa, the very word broekie had an illicit ring. What kind of person would decorate their mansion to look like ladies' underwear?

I must have been 12 or 13 when I travelled to Oudtshoorn on a school brass band tour. As a bandsman, I had a weakness for fainting, sometimes denting my E-flat saxhorn in the fall. On this trip to Oudtshoorn, it happens again. One moment, I'm pumping my valves, giving Dvorak my best. Next thing, I feel the desert gather in my head, my brain boil over, the scene sway and liquefy. Then I hit the dirt. When I come round, someone has dragged me to the side. The band plays on while I stagger off in search of shade.

I stumble upon a camel-coloured palace that I've never been inside. A fringe of delicate iron railings separates it from the street. It's open to the public so I duck up the stairs and through the doors. Crossing the threshold, I feel a rush of sudden cool. The walls are thick, the ceilings high, all outside sounds obscured. Pure silence, except for one wobbly fan. It's a relief to be inside, alone. My sun-tightened pupils start to open in the amber gloom. As I move from room to room, I find myself surrounded by cocoons of luxuriance: yellow velvet couches, loose folds of lace slung past pillowy beds, windows whorled with carmine and indigo. The rooms reverberate with the soft rustling of the past.

From a boudoir tallboy, I pick up a mirror set in silver and mother-of- pearl. It sprouts, from the top, a spray of diminutive white ostrich feathers. The mirror startles me with an accidental glimpse of my scarlet-tunicked self. In our family, mirrors smack of self-indulgence. I'm not used to them, especially such operatic ones. They make the rooms - and the past they represent - seem even bigger. But through the looking-glass it's not just the past I see. This bolthole of a world feels like the future, too. It gives me an unexpected rush of hope, a vision of another way of living where the senses aren't smothered with reprimand and fear. I'm loath to leave this quirky palace. It seems to conspire with me against the brutality, the piety, the blankness of the town outside. But I need to find the band.

As I leave, I spot a blue porcelain jar. It's the shape and size of an ostrich egg but it doubles as the world. A trail of white porcelain honeysuckle wanders through the continents engraved on it. The egg-globe is hinged at the middle: it's a biscuit jar. I open it, using the handle - a carved figurine child. I hold him carefully between my fingers, this three-inch boy in yellow knee-length trousers, perched atop an ostrich egg, the world spread beneath his feet.

From `Dreambirds' by Rob Nixon, published by Doubleday on 6 May, price pounds 16.99. Mail order: 01624 675137