FOR A VEGETARIAN to visit an ostrich farm might seem a bit of a contradiction, but I imagined the Maasai Ostrich Farm, an hour outside Nairobi, was more than just an unhappy ending for ostriches.
A Kenyan keeper shows us where to dip the soles of our shoes in disinfectant and off we set. We pass a huge barn where the ostrich hens brood their eggs for 42 days – twice the length of incubating chicken eggs. They lay 20 – 25 eggs a month over a six-month period. We don’t disturb them, but examine two eggs on display – one is empty for tourists to buy, the other weighing about a kilo and a half could make a very large omelet.
Ostriches with mottled plumage stride around large pens. We learn these youngsters are ready for the Nairobi market. Any bird more than eight months old would be too tough – though they can be used for breeding or for making feather dusters, wallets and bags.
After a year males, females and youngsters become distinct. The males turn black, the young are mottled and so are the females – but bigger. The ostriches don’t roam free in the fields snacking around in case lions have the same idea. No, they are in grass runs and in one a black cock ostrich is turning from pink to red. He has the same idea as a female who advances towards him feathers spread open and shimmering. Inexplicably he walks off in the opposite direction.
Ostriches can run at 65 kilometres an hour and for speed are second only to the cheetah. However, they have only 40-gramme brains. This could account for them burying their head in the sand leaving the rest of their body exposed when lions or other predators are looking for lunch.
One area of the farm is given over to growing sweetcorn. The crop is huge: each sturdy stalk carries a huge corncob. The produce feeds the staff who also grind some up with grass seed and feed it to the ostriches each morning.
The special excitement for us is ostrich riding and (for some of us) ostrich cutlets for lunch. One huge male (ostrich) already saddled – but not bridled –runs round in circles within an open-air arena. His huge pink legs end in just two powerful though somewhat spooky toes.
We learn this is the only ostrich farm in Kenya, but it does have some Somali ostriches too. These are smaller and have blue skin as opposed to the Kenyan pink. A keeper goes off to rustle up a Somali ostrich for each of us to ride because none of us weighs more than 70 kilos. If we did, it would have been the pink one still enthusiastically circumnavigating the riding ring. Sophia, Jeremy and I (one at a time) are lifted aboard the ostrich whose energy is held in check by two other keepers: ostriches are strong and willful. I envisage holding on around the grey-feathered neck, but no, there is a small handle on the pommel of the fabric saddle and I hang onto that.
Curiously, the most-times omnivorous Sophia cannot bear to eat someone she now knows socially. Jeremy has no such hang-ups and scours the menu for the largest ostrich steak he can find. Fortunately for my credit card whole legs are not on offer. Just then the waiter tells us something strange. There is not one ostrich dish. I wonder if they have turned over a new leaf, but then I hear him say
“Next time ring us and order in advance, then we’ll slaughter one for you.”
Judyth Gregory-Smith, nature and travel writer is the author of Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, Sulawesi: Ujung Pandang to Kendari and Southeast Sulawesi – Islands of Surprises. When not travelling, she lives in Kuala Lumpur and can be contacted at email@example.com