Inverted knees and stalagmites

A little while ago, I wandered into a shopping mall in Sydney’s CBD for a bit of late-afternoon window-shopping. Prowling malls is not something I do on a regular basis, but with fifteen minutes to spare before attending a seminar in the adjacent building and with nowhere else to go, it seemed like a good idea. Among the designer stores was a handbag shop that sold animal skin products: crocodile, snake and ostrich, painted in garish colours and wearing price tags that would never tempt me beyond the threshold.

As I looked at them behind the glass barrier, I thought about my ostrich-skin wallet. The distinctive figure of the bird on the card holder section showed a ridge of wear; above it, the word ‘genuine’ was still detectable, but all that remained of the word, ‘ostrich’ below was the letter, ‘o’.  The coin purse was held together by staples.  By rights, the wallet should have gone years ago. But such is our attachment to things, especially those that have acquired meaning through association with people or place, that we are loth to part with them. Sentimentality is often associated with a shallow emotional state, but I think this underestimates its range. Objects which belonged to deceased family members, people who were special to me, have provided strength, insight and comfort through the simple of act of being held or gazed upon. Like my late mother-in-law’s beads which she’d seen me admire; or the hard-backed 1937 edition of Gone with the Wind, presented by a bank manager to my then 22 year-old mother after he’d agreed to her request for funds to refinance the family business.

Ostriches, and farms dedicated to producing these birds, can be found in many countries and in some of the least-expected places. Like a mountain-side garden overlooking the hilltop tourist town of Sapa in northern Vietnam, where we found a pair of birds languishing in a fenced-off area in 2008. They seemed as out-of-place in this environment as the hearth our hotel proprietor had installed in the reception area, modelled on one he’d admired while studying in Dunedin, New Zealand.

These birds prefer sandy and arid areas, and open country. Savannas, woodlands, desert and semi-desert, dry grasslands and scrub areas are typical habitat. And it is Oudtshoorn – where my wallet was sourced – that meets a number of these criteria.  Less than 300mm of rain falls annually, and long, hot summers alternate with short, often cold winters. Thickets and succulents rub shoulders with Cape fynbos – a rich and varied floral kingdom – making this area unique botanically as well as ideal for raising ostriches.

According to my brother, our family visited Oudtshoorn twice between 1960 and 1965, occasions related to exhibition and swimming competition. I can remember only one childhood visit and I have no memory of the pool.   I carry an image of the central timber staircase of the hotel where we stayed, but nothing else about the accommodation.

Oudtshoorn, of course, is less-celebrated for aquatics and the facilitation of movement between floors, than it is about other things.  There were two ostrich farms open to the public, Safari and Highgate. I think its name may have tipped the balance in Safari’s favour; I’m sure Highgate would have been as good. A tour guide took us through the life-cycle of the bird, how the feathers were plucked and dyed, and appraised us of the various other uses that ostriches could be put to. Like handbags, shoes, steak and biltong.
‘This egg can make an omelet for twelve people.’ I eyed the oval monster with a degree of distaste. Eggs were something that went with bacon; a taste for omelet would come later.
‘Would you like to come and see the ostriches?’
Yes, I would. He led us to an open pen where several birds were standing. Some had thick black body feathers with the occasional white feather poking out from under a wing or around their tails. They were tall, majestic and beautiful. The others were a dusty brown colour.  Rather dull.
‘The males have black feathers.’
I inferred that the others were the hausfraus of the species.
‘Would you like to ride one?’ he said, pointing to a male.
I looked at the bird’s legs. The knees faced backwards, the feet finishing in sharp claws. Despite these design idiosyncracies, we’d been told that ostriches could run much faster than humans. I declined the offer.  We left with a hollowed-out egg painted with a scene of an ostrich running in the veld.

The other reason to visit Oudtshoorn was, of course, the Cango Caves. These limestone caves, parallel to the Swartberg, are a short drive from the town.  The ante-chambers with their towering stalagmite and stalactite formations were grand places, but they were for old people like my parents. I couldn’t wait to get into the more confined spaces of Lumbago Walk, the Devil’s Workshop and, particularly, the Chimney, a narrow chute at the top of an iron ladder. Once in the chimney, I had to lever my body upwards, getting traction by wedging myself into the sides of the tunnel, before passing through to the next chamber. I was filthy by the time I returned to the entrance chambers.  But I was happy.

I suspect that my father knew as little about a family connection to Oudtshoorn as I did about the anatomy of an ostrich leg. Years later I would learn that the bird’s knee faced the same way as mine and that what I had taken to be its patella had, in fact, been its ankle joint.

I still have the ostrich-skin wallet.  The staple is doing a good job.