Oudtshoorn feels like the set of a new Tim Burton/Wes Anderson film. Everything about this place can be described with one of the following adjectives: Quirky, zany, dysfunctional, dark, charming, and exotic in a retro kind of way. The drive from Botrivier to Oudtshoorn was freckled with the most peculiar restaurants and curios. 'These are the chips you can have when you don't want potato chips because you are watching calories' explained one shop owner as we tried his imposter version of what should have been delicious biltong but was instead meat flavoured to taste like salt and vinegar chips. Even the landscape sets the tone as the greens of the cape disappear and are replaced by arid desert-like conditions. This place reminds me of Palm Springs in setting and strangeness, except the animals of choice aren't small dogs in strollers but rather ostriches. And not just a few ostriches but rather the world's largest population of ostriches - fact.
Being in ostrich country, we decided to try a stay at the Rietfontein Ostrich Palace. We were greeted by one of the owners, Kobus Van der Merwe, the quintessential South African Afrikaans farmer. When we made the reservation, we were unaware that there were actually two locations to the property: the original farmstead a few kms away and the newer more lively location near reception. We were whisked away to the original farmstead, forging a bridge-less river in our 'aqua-car' to discover we would be the only humans to inhabit this location. Presented with the opportunity for pure undisturbed tranquility in this character build we did the only thing possible - we pulled out our phones. No cell reception. My next thought: a hot bath to warm up as the sun set and the temperature dipped. No hot water (or rather hot water in very specific windows in very small quantities I later learned). It was clear now that the character build was in actuality, a haunted house.
Tired and hungry, we decided to save ghost-busting for later. We had more pressing matters to attend to, the onset of two cases of the hungrumps. Turning to the professionals, aka TripAdvisor, we settled on a 1920's themed restaurant called Nostalgie. If there is anything I have learned travelling, it's that Trip Advisor will rarely if ever let you down. And this was no exception. We were greeted by the large loud warm and welcoming Afrikaans chef/owner/hostess who was quick to ensure we were seated next to a large crackling fire. The small dining room was decorated with a handful of small wooden tables draped in lace table clothes and old records for placemats. It was entirely charming and set the mood for the feast that ensued. Fresh Greek salad with creamy feta cheese, smoked salmon rosti, tender lamb shank and lamb curry had us revising our opinion on Oudtshoorn.
The following day we awoke at the break of dawn with the team at De Zeekoe Meerkat Adventure Tours to spend some time with our favourite member of the shy five - meerkats! Owner Devey spent six months with one particular meerkat family to habituate them to humans. The habituation process involves tracking the family across the vast desert, sitting closer to them each time, talking loudly near them, and generally appearing as a crazy person. The reward of which is the ability to take a few guests with lawn chairs and blankets at the break of dawn to watch the meerkat morning routine. And what an experience it is! Anyone who spends that much time with meerkats clearly will know a thing or two about these amazing little creatures as well as the various species of tourist. I could write at great length about how it became apparent that the De Zeekoe team is at the forefront of meerkat understanding (unlike the popular television series Meerkat Manor who don't seem to recognize the impact they have had as humans) or about the weird and funny thing tourists do upon seeing meerkats (uncontrollable laughter, tears) but I wouldn't do it justice. This is just one of those things you have to experience for yourself.
After a quick breakkie, we drove the 30km trek from town to check out the Cango Caves to try our luck with the 'adventure tour'. Jon and I have done a lot of athletic or adventurous things - white water rafting, surfing, ironman - so we assumed that Cango Caves would be easy peasy. However when our tour guide pointed to the crack in the wall known as The Chimney, we both laughed nervously. Maybe a small rabbit could fit in that hole but a full grown human? One of our tour guides was not kidding when she explained that certain sections should not be attempted if you were 'big and sexy' like her. In fact, there was an instance when someone disregarded this warning and became stuck in the Tunnel of Love for over 10 hours. Luckily with the help of our guides, we both managed to find our zen, wiggling and crawling our way through the section. The Cango Caves are definitely not for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, but if you can reign in the fear it's definitely exhilarating.
Our last stop of the day was to La Chocolaterie Rococo. What I thought would be a quick chocky stop turned out to be something much more. While the Diemersfontein chocolate is one of the best I have ever tried, the real treat is owner and chocolatier Marita Lamprecht. So many times in life you will be told to 'follow your passion' and while the advice is sound, the reality is that it's difficult and requires you to leave your comfort zone. Not an easy task. And what if you fail? It's a question that stops many people from trying but not Marita. Marita told Jon and I her story - how she left the corporate world to pursue her passion for chocolate and how if she would have realized how much more enjoyable life would be she would have done it ten years earlier. As she explained, 'Sometimes you just have to take some risks and jump off the cliff. Lucky for me, I landed in a pot of chocolate.'