Notebook: Big birds worth their weight in gold

Driving towards Oudtshoorn, five hours east of Cape Town, an uneasy feeling came over me: the feeling of being watched. Here and there across the dry rocky plains dark figures caught the corner of my eye, singly or in pairs, staring balefully at the passing world or stalking along the fence lines like restless inmates of Stalag Luft III.

These jailbirds will never fly the coop. Here between the coastal Outeniquasberg range and the rugged Swartberg mountains lies the beautiful Klein Karoo, for more than a century the heartland of the world's ostrich industry. The Great War may have long since put paid to the great feather boom, when the demands of high fashion turned dozens of poor sheep farmers into overnight millionaires, but time seems to be smiling on Oudtshoorn once more.

According to Alex Hooper, owner of the Highgate ostrich farm, the forthcoming millennium celebrations have sparked a mini-boom in the ostrich feather industry. Not only are feathers back in favour with the world of haute couture, but tens of thousands of New Years Eve parties, balls and extravaganzas have boosted demand for the long wing feathers without which no carnival outfit would be complete.

"I go to the auctions at the co-op and you get buyers coming in from overseas, or local people bidding for them. In the last few months the price has gone from 1,000 Rand (pounds 100) for a kilo of feathers to 1,800 or 1,900 Rand," said Mr Hooper.

Last year, in anticipation of Rio's apocalyptic millennium bash, one Brazilian dealer alone placed an order for 23 tonnes of feathers - twice the valley's usual monthly output.

Another big factor in the upturn has been the phenomenal rebirth of ballroom dancing: no self-respecting Tina Spangles would even consider essaying the Tango at the Pan-Pacific Finals without a couple of pinion feathers prominent about her person.

The relationship between ostrich feathers and lightness of foot may not be purely cosmetic, a somewhat partisan Mr Hooper told me. His second cousin Bobby Irvine is a ballroom legend, who won multiple world championships after emigrating to Britain. She was born and bred in Oudtshoorn - "There has to be a connection," he says.

Despite the upturn, nobody in Oudtshoorn expects a return to the glory days of the last fin de siecle, when a few hundred pounds of plumes would pay for one of the grandiose "feather palaces" that still adorn the dusty valley with their faded splendour. The most splendid, Thomas Edmeade's "Pinehurst", is today a tourist attraction in its own right, gazing across sculpted lawns at the sleepy tin-roofed town. Complete with turrets, columns, great hall and first-floor verandas, this outlandish stone mansion was built in 1908 at the then princely cost of pounds 27,000 by masons imported specially from Scotland. When the boom ended five years later its owners went bust.

In the intervening decades the cannier farmers have survived on the residual demand for feathers and the much more lucrative market for supple ostrich- skin leather, still the most valuable part of the bird. The Hoopers struck an even richer vein in 1938 when they opened their farm for tourism - these days 200,000 visitors a year are shown around the hatching rooms, nurseries and breeding paddocks or take the opportunity to sit on a tame ostrich - adults weigh 100kg (220 pounds), much of it muscle - as it trots around a ring. There are also ostrich races in which, somewhat predictably, the contestants all tend to ignore their jockeys and run off in different directions.

Highgate also claims to be the first farm in the valley to serve guests ostrich steaks, back in the 1970s, when the meat was generally thought to be unfit for civilised consumption. Today it represents the great future hope of the industry: although it looks and tastes rather like beef, ostrich meat contains less fat and cholesterol and more protein than do chicken and turkey. Worldwide demand is booming as health scares and fitness fads turn people off traditional red meats.

Several of the region's 300-plus ostrich farmers went to the wall in the brief recession - many of their redundant managers are reported to have been hired by foreign producers looking for expertise to beef up their own fledgling businesses.

Oudtshoorn producers say that it is this know-how, together with soil and rainfall conditions uniquely suited to producing lucern (aka alfalfa, the main ostrich fodder), which has allowed them to hold on to 70 per cent of the world's market for ostrich products.

In the old days other methods were used to try and fend off the growing competition from Australia, the US and even Europe. To try and preserve South Africa's near-monopoly on farmed ostrich products, the government until recently imposed strict bans on the export of live ostriches, and even eggs had to be irradiated before they could be shipped abroad.

For several years this led to a lucrative black market in smuggled products, with eggs going for up to $100 (pounds 62) a piece and prime breeding birds - worth a few hundred dollars on the local market, fetching up to ten times as much if they could be got abroad for "re-export". At the height of the trade adult birds were being shoved into light aircraft and flown from South Africa into neighbouring territories where bans were not in force, such as Namibia and Botswana. History does not record how they reacted to finding themselves back in the air.

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