Born and bred among the leafy green vineyards of the West Coast, the Karoo is not a region I frequented much growing up. I have only visited Oudtshoorn on a few occasions for its yearly cultural event, the KKNK, but have always yearned to see more of this ostrich mecca. I was therefore quite excited when Johan Keller invited me to spend a spring day at Highgate Ostrich Show Farm and an evening at Bakenskraal Ostrich Palace

The morning dew was still glimmering on my windshield when I took a left turn from my Cape Town cul-de-sac and started the six-hour drive to the heart of the Klein Karoo. With the excitement of Highgate and Bakenskraal as my destinations, pit stops didn’t interest me much. Carole King’s Tapestry was my travel companion and, as I slowly traded the lush green of the Cape Winelands for the stretches of succulents that mark the Karoo, I was once again enamoured by Mother Nature’s eclectic style. With the endless plains and intriguing rock layers lulling me into a dreamlike state, my GPS’s voice announcing that I had arrived at my destination came as quite a surprise. 

Nestled in the fertile Elephants River Valley, just 5.8 kilometres outside Oudtshoorn, Bakenskraal welcomed me with a 38-degree sun and a crystal-clear swimming pool forming a royal blue grin on the face of this magnificent property. Bakenskraal’s resident hostess, Annatjie, greeted me on the red steps of this privately-owned ostrich and production farm’s manor house with a much-needed glass of ice-cold grape juice. She waved Brendan, the gardener, over to assist with my luggage and directed me to my Victorian-style home for the evening ─ the Supreme Suite. Dinner was set for 19:00, so I had the rest of the afternoon to relax and unwind.

Bakenskraal offers wide open spaces and beautiful views of the Swartberg Mountains. Accommodation is offered in twelve guest rooms, each equipped with air-conditioning, panel heaters, tea- and coffee-making facilities, complimentary home-made rusks, a safe, an honesty fridge, an alarm clock radio, and selected DStv channels. A laundry service, braai facilities and free Wi-Fi is also available, making this Karoo haven ideal for both long and short stays.

I reported to the dining room at 19:00 to find square wooden tables beautifully laid with crisp white table linen on the wrap-around porch overlooking the front garden and swimming pool. The set menu consisted of a refreshing greek salad with freshly-baked bread as a starter, delicious ostrich fillet cooked to a perfect medium rare on the braai by Annatjie herself, served with root vegetables, young potatoes and red wine jus for the main course, and vanilla ice cream with decadent chocolate sauce to top it all off. I dined under the star-filled Karoo sky that night, with a single cricket’s chirp and a soft piano version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” adding a well-suited score to my perfect evening in Oudtshoorn. 

After a good night’s sleep and a proper farmhouse breakfast, I was rested, fuelled and ready to head to Highgate Ostrich Show Farm to meet the man behind my glorious stay at Bakenskraal ─ Johan Keller. I bid farewell to Annatjie and Brendan, and set off to find out more about the magic that surrounds these ostrich farms.

As I turned left off the tar road to enter Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, it occurred to me that the last time I visited the Klein Karoo was before the drought and, growing up on a farm myself, I steeled myself for a less than optimistic experience. I anticipated a stress-ridden community anxiously awaiting the rainfall they so desperately need, but found the complete opposite. I saw that, despite the ongoing drought, a much different side had risen to the surface of this community ─ a stronger side, determined to prosper despite Mother Nature’s challenging temperament. I saw innovation, aspiration and a sheer passion for the Karoo’s natural treasures. 

As soon as I turned into the pepper-tree-lined entrance, it was clear that I had found one of Oudtshoorn’s jewels. Smiling faces greeted me at my car, inviting me to enjoy a cup of tea at The Pepper Tree Restaurant while I wait for Johan to join me. A few minutes later, Johan pulled up with one of Highgate’s guides, Jean, who would lead my educational farm tour. Born and raised on the farm, Jean knows his way around an ostrich and he explained the entire process of ostrich development to me ─ from the moment the giant egg is laid, until one sees the long-necked beauty when driving past Oudtshoorn’s farms. Jean’s knowledge of ostrich farming and the history thereof in the commercial market was astounding, but his most memorable characteristic was his passion for his work, his loyalty to Highgate and his love for the farm.

After my tour, I sat down for a one-on-one with Johan to find out more about how he has turned Highgate Ostrich Show Farm into an agritourism hotspot in the Klein Karoo. His response was simple: he has a passion for his farm, for tourism and, most importantly, for people. Johan bought Highgate and Bakenskraal in 2013 and 2018 respectively in the wake of 2010’s dreadful bird flu epidemic which wiped out every single ostrich at Highgate. This tragedy lead Johan to turn to tourism to keep his business afloat. Due to low production on the farm, Johan’s staff had to turn to other means of income as well. They stayed on the farm, but were employed at other local tourist attractions in the area, where they spent two years expanding their knowledge of tourism even more. When production at Highgate starting taking off again, Johan could re-employ his staff and restart Highgate’s agritourism journey with an even more savvy group of people with a renewed passion for agritourism.

Motivated to expand and renew Highgate’s tourism experience, Johan realised that tourists want more than just to see an ostrich ─ they want to experience the inner workings of an ostrich farm. And so Highgate’s authentic farm experience was born. The business has been expanding ever since, with hundreds of tourists from all over the world visiting the farm every year. Today Highgate functions as a family-friendly show farm offering tours, traditional ostrich meals at The Pepper Tree Restaurant, an ostrich showroom, a wedding venue and locally manufactured ostrich products for sale.

As I left Highgate on that windy Friday in the Klein Karoo, it was clear to me that Johan and his team’s success lies in the uniqueness of what they offer. A visit to Johan’s farms are much more than the luxury accommodation at Bakenskraal and the feeding of an ostrich at Highgate ─ it is an opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in the agriculture of the area, allowing each visitor to experience the bliss of the Klein Karoo.

Feature image: TravelGround