Ducks in a Row

Vergenoegd(roughly translating to ‘far enough’) is a well-established wine estate in the Stellenbosch region outside of Cape Town. A short drive from the city, it still made me chuckle to see the film studios at the freeway turn off with the to scale ships used as sets (for shooting the pirate television show Black Sails) raised, ‘dry docked’ and looking strangely abandoned in the middle of a drought ravaged landscape. We were, however, on our way to a different spectacle on that particularly sweltering January day.

Duck statues dressed as elves for the season
Driving into the estate we knew we were in the right place by the clear sign highlighting this wine farm’s unique method of eco-friendly pest control. Since the mid-eighties, the farm has kept a herd of Indian Runner ducks which are released into the vineyards daily to consume snails and other manner of creepy crawlies that could potentially damage the vines. Affectionately referred to on the estate’s website as the ‘waddling workforce’, this herd of over 1000 birds has earned Vergenoegd WWF biodiversity certification.

An onsite breeding programme has kept this workforce strong over decades and the flock have recently become a popular tourist attraction. Twice a day the ducks are herded across the estate toward the vineyards and the public are welcome to line the route to ‘cheer’ them on. Only learning about this fantastic and strange event in the last year, I had to play tourist in my home town and witness the march.

Casually wandering through the estate we weren’t entirely sure where the best vantage point would be or indeed which direction the poultry procession would be heading. Joining what seemed to be a congregation of people also hoping to see the ducks we noticed some herders on the other side of a low wall beginning to assemble the foragers.

A brief welcome by a herder announced the birds were ready to move and asked that we kept a particular path clear. Without much ado the birds began appearing with incredible hilarity and cacophony. Their webbed feet slapping on the dried peach pip lined path along with a chorus of quacks mixed with squeals from excited children (and adults alike) created the most wonderful noise.

Who let the ducks out

This particular breed of duck is flightless and very slender. They stand quite tall with elongated necks giving them the appearance similar to miniature geese. They don’t necessarily waddle as one would expect, they appear to walk (basically run) by leaning forward and using momentum – as a human would do on a Segway. This comparison made the spectacle even funnier for me since I was imagining them to be like tiny armless people leaning forward; en mass. (I think you had to be there)

On a mission
Duck army

Some of the ducks strayed off the official path and started to walk in between the spectating crowd. A few ducks started walking over my exposed toes, the unusual yet wonderful sensation made me giggle and join the kids in making delighted sounds and gestures.

En route

As the last of the ducks passed us, we followed them as they quacked along a few bends and turns along the perimeter of buildings and into a soggy (and smelly) field adjacent the vines. Here it was possible to buy a bag of feed and interact with the birds. Chasing them was of course strictly prohibited – but hand feeding was encouraged.

I picked a favourite bird

The birds were so tame, as soon as a hand was extended they almost ran towards it with eager beaks and demanding quacks. I braced my open, pellet filled palm for a potential nip or two, but for all the ‘bark’ there was no bite. For all their bravado, the ducks were remarkably gentle at picking the food out of human hands.

It was an absolutely delightful experience for kids and adults alike, an excellent learning opportunity for the little ones as well as a great example of natural farming methods. We chose to move on to another estate for lunch, but Vergenoegd offers a range of other activities including wine tasting, cellar tours, historic walks and artisan picnics which is enough to keep both locals and tourists happy.

Tours of the duck pens as well as the breeding room guided by one of the herders are also available hourly for those who wish to know more.