Knysna, Garden Route, South Africa

Knysna Lagoon

The Garden Route may seem a bit sedate at times, but you won't think so after visiting Knysna out of season. Give yourself a southern-hemisphere winter wake-up and trundle off to Knysna for some action and indulgence. Think pink, think oysters & champagne, shaved legs, lagoon cruises and lost elephants, and you will end up on the right track.

Winter Action in Knysna by Carrie Hampton

Knysna is that cute little town at the heart of the Garden Route, pervaded by tourists and populated by retirees. Its colonial upbringing lends it an air of tradition and conventionality. But for hundreds of years, Knysna's apparent stoicism, has just been a front for the real purpose of being here - seeking pleasure.

And what better way to enjoy yourself than in a Mardi Gras at the annual May Pink Loerie festival. Not all Knysna residents appreciate the pink invasion displayed proudly by gays, bi-sexuals, lesbians and transgenders (also known as GBLT - which sounds to me like a gayed-up version of a particularly tasty sandwich). The GBLT strut their stuff along the main street to an astonished crowd and indulge in four days of pink breakfasts, pink cocktails, outrageous cross dressing and festive clubbing.

Knysna's Regal Past

I attribute Knysna's acceptance of the unorthodox to George Rex - Knysna's most famous historical resident. He arrived here in 1804 with a stylish retinue of horse-drawn coaches containing his common law wife and her four children, plus numerous attendants and friends. Then began a spree of hunting and grand entertaining previously unknown to Knysna.

George Rex's royal bearing, regal name, princely manners and taciturn demeanour, initiated one of the most enduring rumours in South African history - that he was the illegitimate son of King George III of England. He was certainly treated as an aristocrat, and his presence made it very fashionable to settle in Knysna.

Knysna is still a very sought after place to live, nowhere more so than beside the tidal lagoon. The first smart waterfront development at Knysna Quays, began the craze to get as close as possible to the water. This has been taken to the ultimate by Thesen Islands developers, who cut canals through the islands and used the excavated earth to land fill low-lying areas. The average plot of 500-600 square metres costs millions,

Feast on Oysters

Knysna's only outlet to the sea is through The Heads, a narrow channel of water between two huge cliffs. Sailing through The Heads is attempted only by experienced (or crazy) seamen. Spring Tide Charters moor their luxury yacht 'Outeniqua', on the jetty outside 34 Degrees South (just in case you weren't sure of your latitude), and will sail right through the heads on a good day (take sea-sick tablets well before hand).

Or you could just cruise the lagoon on eccentric TV mathematician William Smith's Mississippi-style paddle cruiser, and eat some oysters for which Knysna is famous.

Knysna oysters are so good, that the town devotes the first ten days of July to indulging in them. Masses of lagoon-cultured oysters are consumed during the Knysna Oyster Festival, and at only 100 calories per dozen, weight watchers can eat as many as they like.

The rejuvenating properties of oysters should help with some of the other events of this festival, but I am not sure if they should be eaten before or after the 85km mountain bike race, 100km road cycle race, 42km forest marathon or the Knysna lagoon canoe challenge. Twitching thighs and smooth shaven over-developed gastrocnemius (calf muscles to the untrained,) are scattered all over Knysna at this time.

There are shorter races for the lesser trained, and bars, restaurants and more oysters, for mere mortals. For those without a competitive streak, try a family excursion with a morning mountain biking in the Afro-montagne forest and an afternoon cruising on the lagoon with Deep South Adventures.

Steam Over Water

Their 22 foot cabin boat 'Deep South', will get you to the best point on the water to see the infamous Outeniqua Choo Tjoe crossing the lagoon railway bridge, billowing steam as she goes. The Choo Tjoe is South Africa's only scheduled passenger steam, and has chugged between Knysna and George since 1928.

The 67 kilometres of track originally cost almost 300,000, and was then the most expensive piece of railway in the world. The coastal cliff terrain gave engineers quite a challenge, as they had to cut tunnels through rock and build bridges to span unstable river mouths.

One highlight is speeding across the narrow 210-meter long Kaaimans River Bridge, 36-metres above the water. It is a bit like walking a tight rope without a safety net. There is however one problem with the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe; the train had to stop short of the full journey a couple of years ago due to flooding and mud slides, which ruined part of the track. It is however, still running on the George to Mossel Bay section.

Elephant Dung Reveals The Truth

One of Knysna's most posed questions, is where have the elephants gone? There were hundreds roaming the 200 kilometre coastal belt when George Rex took out his hunting parties in the early 1800s. But just one hundred years later there were only about 20 left in the Knysna forests.

By 1994, it was thought that only one old matriarch survived, and perhaps a younger male, in whom she was not in the slightest bit interested. But writer, researcher and animal fundi Gareth Patterson, has had his nose deep in elephant dung for the past few years, looking for the lost elephants of Knysna. What's more, he has recently been able to confirm, through DNA testing of mucous on elephant dung, that there are five previously unknown female elephants in the Knysna Forest.These Knysna elephants are the only unfenced elephant population in South Africa.

If you want a close up elephant experience in Knysna, you can go to the Knysna Elephant Park. Here you can walk the forest at elephant pace with Harry & Sally - the first two elephants rescued from a Kruger culling and brought to Knysna. The park now looks after 12 elephants, and you can watch them from your own 'Elephant Boma' bed & breakfast accommodation, from whose large windows you look down upon the elephants home.

If you come to Knysna and still think it is dull, I suggest you put on some rose-tinted glasses and take a good look around. Not only is it scenically stunning - go to the top of the Heads for exquisite views - but there is always something interesting to unearth. A train to catch, a boat to ride, a forest to hike or just get on your bike.

Oysters

The Knysna Oyster Club was formed in the 1920's by A.H Swan (aka Swannie), who had an insatiable appetite for them, and who knows what else! You can also indulge in these passion-raisers at the annual Knysna Oyster Festival.

Just one note of caution, the Knysna Oyster Co. suggests you buy them ready prepared, as opening the shell is such a tricky task, that concert pianists, surgeons and artists requiring the use of their hands for a living, are warned not to attempt it.

In Search of Scarlet

If you see a flash of crimson flitting through the Knysna forest canopy, and hear a high pitched kek-kek alarm call, then you have been lucky enough to witness a rare sighting of the Knysna Lourie (now renamed Knysna Turaco). It is exclusive to a home range spreading north along the coast.

There are several other Knysna birds that also reveal a splash of scarlet in the woods, look out for Redbilled Woodhoopoe, Knysna woodpecker, Narina Trogon, Redfaced Mousebird and Lesser Doublecollared Sunbird.

copyright Carrie Hampton

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