If you live anywhere in the world, other than South Africa, you might well ask – Where is Knysna?
Let me, for the next few moments, take you on a magical journey into a part of the Southern Cape coastline which abounds in sun, sea, towering bridge heads and rustic tidal beaches; where tourists wend their way on steeply-rising footpaths to gaze on the majesty of the mighty Indian Ocean or settle into comfortable restaurant seating to enjoy a tasty meal and wallow in the natural beauty which surrounds them.
I was privileged to spend three glorious weeks on Leisure Isle in Knysna and I cannot fully describe the peace and tranquility which accompanied my little journeys to the nature reserve, the stretches of tidal beaches and many trips to the Headlands, which are known as ‘The Heads’. This surely must be a little paradise!
Even legendary places must have their origins in bygone eras and it is accepted that the indigenous Khoi-Khoi people lived peacefully in the silent forests and beautiful lagoon surrounded by the Outeniqua Mountains. It was only after 1652 the European immigrants began to colonize the area.
The later history of Knysna is interesting, particularly as its founder George Rex was believed to be the son of George III of England and a Quaker woman, but the authenticity of the story is clouded in mystery and one can only surmise the truth of his validity. He bought Milkwood Farm and soon became excited about the commercial potential of the surrounding forests.
It appears that he was banished from England and arrived in Knysna in 1804 and played a key role in its development, working hard to establish it as a viable port. He died in 1839 and his grave in the suburb of Old Place is a National Monument.
The Thesen family were also major contributors to the making of Knysna with its peaceful lagoon, rich forests and captivating charm. In 1869 they had set out from Norway in their stalwart vessel, The Albatross, with firm intention of establishing a new home settlement in New Zealand. Well, this was obviously not meant to be!
After difficulties with their ship near Cape Town, they eventually made the necessary repairs and then elected to live in Knysna. They started a timber trading company and in 1904, Charles Wilhelm Thesen, bought Paarden Island, located in the Knysna river estuary, and this soon became known as Thesen Island
Today Thesen Island is part of a contemporary commercial and residential area with expansive marina type accommodation and enticing restaurants which tempt even the most fastidious palate.
Establishing a dockyard at Knysna became of paramount importance in the early years, especially as the Cape needed the vast supplies of timber available from the Knysna area and it seems that by 1818 plans were afoot to establish a port.
John Gough was appointed the first pilot with responsibility of safely guiding the ships into the lagoon.
This was an extremely difficult task and so many ships were wrecked at the entrance to the Heads that it took men of great skill to accomplish the task. John Benn was one of these men and his family members retained this position until the closure of the harbour in 1954.
Today you can enjoy a 90 minute round cruise to the Heads on the floating John Benn while enjoying a scenic adventure and a pleasant on-board meal.
Many large ships were wrecked at the mouth of the port and Knysna became infamous for its treacherous entrance.
However transporting goods by sea was still the only practicable solution for gaining access to the valuable timbers of the Knysna forests and shipping lines continued the hazardous journey.
Perhaps one of the most famous of Knysna’s wrecks is the Paquita which lies on the lagoon floor and is explored by adventurous scuba divers. After twice having her anchor fouled she ran aground on Beacon rocks and lay there for 18 months till she sank beneath the waves.
The town itself has its own particular treasures, from the absorbing tales of history at the little museum to the refreshing paintings and sculptures of enterprising and talented artists at Thesen House Gallery.
As a visitor to this delightful holiday destination, what would I want to see and do? First task would be finding somewhere to stay. There is such an abundance of accommodation that choice will be difficult.
A happy retreat from tourist hustle and bustle is Belvidere Manor with its gracious little cottages and scenic splendour. The manor lies in an exclusive historic area of Knysna and was once the home of Thomas Henry Duthie who married George Rex’s daughter Caroline. I visited the hotel complex and was greatly attracted by the tranquility and peacefulness. I knew immediately that a holiday here would suit me admirably.
Knysna has so much to offer in luxury and affordable accommodation that it will be a pleasurable past-time scrolling through the endless offers available to the visitor.
The Turbine Hotel on Thesen Island is a rare and unique structure. It was once a wood-fired power house that provided electricity as far away as Plettenberg Bay. Ingenuity and flair converted the old station into a luxury boutique hotel and as you amble through the establishment you can see how the original machinery has been incorporated into the structure giving it a distinctive quality of bygone days.
I have noted a number of reviews from previous guests at the hotel and comfort, good service and hearty breakfasts all make this an exceptional accommodation choice.
The Lofts Boutique Hotel is another venue of intrigue and diversity. Its origin is, of course, from the pages of history and shows the resourcefulness of innovative design.
The architect has transformed an old boat building shed into a vibrant and colourful guest location serving as an imaginative mall and a welcome for visitors.
If golf is a desired option for a holiday itinerary, then look no further than the wonderful Pezula Golfing Estate which has a scenic 18 hole golf course rated amongst the best in the world.
My holiday choice this year was the option of a comfortable and spacious guest house on Leisure Island. Here four guests are easily accommodated and have access to all the necessities of an easy life style, including a delightful lady who efficiently prepares meals and tends to domestic chores.
The guest house has a perfect siting, located at the southern end of the island with Bollard beach 50 metres away and a Nature Reserve right on the doorstep. When the tide is out you can walk half way across the Lagoon almost reaching the famous Heads.
Amongst the many attributes of the island are its tranquillity, privacy and security. Unhampered by frenetic traffic, the visitor can savour long leisurely walks, idyllic weather and gracious living. Friendly chats, affable company and a satisfying cup of coffee are all available at Nadine’s little coffee shop on the island, frequented throughout the holiday periods by enthusiastic annual visitors. If you need to access accommodation info for Cottage-Pie Cottage, Leisure Isle, use this link.
There are so many attractions available to the Knysna visitor. Besides the lure of sun, sea and sand, there are many culinary delights at Restaurants and eating places at the delightful Waterfront.
I had an enormous Pizza at 34 SOUTH on the Waterfront. It was thin, crispy, layered in pepperoni, caramelised onion and smothered in cheese – so delicious, but I couldn’t finish it!
Knysna is renowned for its oysters and these are available at many Oyster Bars and restaurants.
Deep sea and harbour fishing ensure that the diner or the shopper will have nothing but the best from the Indian Ocean. At the Freshline Fisheries Restaurant I enjoyed a dish of sumptuous garlic prawns with savoury rice dredged in garlic butter. Other delights are crab, snoek, trout, tuna, Kingklip, sole or a mouth-watering seafood platter.
The Sedgefield Farmers’ Market is a short drive from Knysna and it is a trip well worth taking. Here you will meet a host of entrepeneurs, skilled craftsmen and entertainers. It is a good time to sample the local produce while enjoying hot coffee, Boere Beskuite or an opportunity to appraise the local beer or an ice cold Castle Lager.
Superior craftsmen can be found throughout Knysna. We made special friends with them as they both hailed from Zimbabwe.
An outing to the Knysna Elephant Farm is a joyful experience. The Park has cared for and raised more than forty elephants.
A visit allows you to get up close to the animals and follow them on a trail as they walk at elephant pace, while you listen to the tour guide as he entertains with wondrous tales of these gentle giants.
The Sea-horse is found in many parts of the world but none is as rare or endangered as the Knysna small range. They are unique as they are found in the river estuary rather than shallow seas.
The little creature is highly sensitive to damaging or harmful conditions and thus they serve as a vital indicator of estuary health.
Because it is endangered, the study of the sea horse and its protection, are part of a vigorous conservation process and the Leisure Island folk are particularly focused on estuarine conservation in their private Nature Reserve.
The Coelacanth, found by a fisherman some miles to the north in East London waters, was identified by the ichthyologist JLB Smith while staying in his Knysna holiday home. Here was a creature thought to have been extinct for 65 million years, surviving close by in the Indian Ocean. The fish is now on display in the Knysna museum.
As tides surge in and out of the lagoon, Knysna throbs with a wild energy. Beneath the turbulent flow lurks the cruel rock formation hiding a pitiless demise for any unsuspecting craft lured into her channel.
This energy is mirrored in the surge of inspiration and creativity perceptible amongst the writers, sculptors, painters and craftsmen who have settled in Knysna.
There is also peace and a boundless strength to be found in abundance. It takes a great spirit to harness the fortitude, the sensitivity, the incredible beauty which emanate from every corner of the town, and Knysna has that spirit.
This is particularly evident when you understand how the town has endured two great fires, one in 1869 and one in 2017. Like a Phoenix, Knysna, with its steadfast little population, has risen from the ashes and given us an incredible environment to enjoy for many years to come.
The spirit of Knysna is evident in their celebration of life. The year abounds with festive activities, the most popular being the Oyster Festival. Through the year there is something for everyone – marathons, hill climbing, fishing, swimming, boating, art, craft, kite-flying – there is even a Celtic festival. There is no time to be bored if you visit Knysna. You can spend your days in peace and tranquility or you can romp through hours of energetic fun.
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.