Garden Route Ramble | 165km
...lies on the banks of a tranquil lagoon, guarded at its mouth by The Heads, and overlooked to the north by the Outeniqua Mountains. Surrounded by lush indigenous forests of yellowwood, stinkwood, Cape beech and red alder, its history is closely linked to the exploitation of the forests and to George Rex, a legendary figure who bought the farm Melkhoutkraal in 1804 and established himself as a timber merchant.
One of the most popular coastal resort towns on South African holidays along the Garden Route, Knysna offers visitors a wide range of water sports (in the lagoon and the sea) and adventure activities. Those in search of a more relaxed holiday can explore the lagoon aboard a houseboat, or on a tour boat. The lagoon is home to the endangered Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis) as well as many of the over 230 bird species recorded in the area to date. It is also famous for its fresh oysters.
Places of interest include Millwood House, dating back to the region's short-lived 1870s gold rush and now a museum; George Rex's grave; and the Angling Museum. Numerous arts and crafts galleries, gift shops, farm stalls and furniture factories abound.
Stretching from Mossel Bay in the west to Harkerville in the east, the indigenous forests of Knysna cover about 45 000 ha of state and private land. Together with the Tsitsikamma forests to the east, this is the largest natural forest complex in South Africa. Towering forest giants draped with strings of hanging lichens, monkeyrope (Rhoicissus tomentosa), colourful mosses, glades of ferns and tranquil streams create a wonderland inhabited by bright forest birds such as the Knysna lourie (Tauraco corythaix).
Among the 125 species of trees are Outeniqua and real yellowwoods, stinkwood, red and white alders, ironwood, white pear and assegai, while tree ferns and dense undergrowth give the forest a fairy-tale aura.
The 20-minute walk to the summit of the 729-m-high Perdekop rewards visitors with spectacular views over the Keurbooms River valley and the Langkloof Mountains to the north. Looking south, the plantations and indigenous forests extend to where the coastal plateau meets the sea.
Originally named Bahia Formosa (Beautiful Bay) by the Portuguese navigator Manuel de Mesquita Petrestrélo, Plettenberg Bay was renamed after Dutch Governor Joachim van Plettenberg in 1779. The town developed around a woodcutters' post established in 1787, and the ruins of the timber store built in that year can still be seen. With 20 km of beaches stretching from Robberg Peninsula to the mouth of the Keurbooms River, Plettenberg Bay, with its luxurious Beacon Isle Hotel, is one of the most fashionable holiday destinations along the Southern Cape coast.
Plettenberg Bay has become synonymous with South African holidays. The brisk winds in the bay make it ideal for sailing, boardsailing, and surfing, while the Keurbooms River offers good water-skiing and canoeing opportunities, and numerous good rock angling sites. Among the town's historic attractions are a replica of the beacon erected by Governor van Plettenberg in 1787 and St Peter's Church (1881). The quaint St Andrew's Chapel was built entirely from yellowwood as a family school and chapel in 1849.
ROBBERG NATURE RESERVE
At the southwestern end of Plettenberg Bay, the white sandy beach gives way to a peninsula jutting into the ocean for 4 km and ranging in width from 1 km to just 250 m at The Gap. Robberg features a rugged coastline with high sea cliffs, patches of drift sand and spectacular rock formations, among them the Blaasbank (Blowhole) and Brugklip (Bridge Rock). Archaeological excavations at Nelson's Bay Cave have produced evidence that the cave was inhabited for more than 100 000 years.
The earliest inhabitants were Middle Stone Age people who occupied the cave from about 120 000 to 50 000 years ago. They were followed by Later Stone Age people, who lived in the cave from about 18 000 to 2 000 years ago, and finally by Khoikhoi pastoralists. The peninsula can be explored along three trails, ranging in duration from 30 minutes to three hours.
KNYSNA ELEPHANT PARK
...is home to three young elephants: Harry, Sally and Duma. Harry and Sally were orphans from an elephant cull in the Kruger National Park and were relocated to their new home in 1994. They were joined three years later by Duma, brought from a game farm. Visitors are taken on a guided safari into the 50-ha camp where the elephants roam, and will gain a fascinating insight into the habits and other aspects of elephants. Once the elephants have been located, visitors can touch and feed them. There is also a 25-ha private nature reserve and a 2,5-km walk, the Bushpig Trail.
GARDEN OF EDEN
...is an apt name for this pristine tract of indigenous forest with its towering yellowwoods, stinkwoods and lush undergrowth. This is an excellent example of the wet forest type, in which the trees attain heights of about 15 m. There are picnic facilities, and visitors can experience the atmosphere and tranquillity of the forest by setting off on a 30-minute walking trail.
The Kranshoek viewpoint offers expansive vistas over the rugged coastline, with its numerous rocky bays, some 200 m below. Picnic facilities are provided here, as well as at the picturesque waterfall where the Kranshoek River plunges into a deep gorge. The Kranshoek Walk, a 9,4-km route that leads through indigenous forest down to the coast and back up to the plateau, can be hiked in about 4 hours.
...lie in the upper reaches of the Noetzie River. After a few gentle leaps over rocky ledges, the river plunges over a sheer cliff into a deep gorge carved into the coastal plain. The name Noetzie is Khoikhoi in origin and means 'black' - a reference to the colour of the water. Picnic facilities are provided. The falls and nearby Brackenhill are named after the bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), a rambling fern which forms dense communities in clearings and is especially abundant after fires.
...has a delightful beach and a small lagoon set against a backdrop of indigenous forest. To the east of the beach is a cluster of holiday homes reminiscent of medieval castles. The history of the stone-built castles dates back to 1913, when Mr HS Henderson bought several plots along the coast. The first house was built in 1932; it incorporated a water tower that made it look like a castle, so crenellated battlements were added. In keeping with the original building, the neighbouring houses were built in the same style.
Dominating the complex is Pezula (a Shona name meaning 'high up'), which features an imposing corner tower. For a number of years, it was the holiday home of Garfield Todd, former Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, but was re-acquired by the Henderson family in 1970.
Guarding the entrance to the Knysna Lagoon, the sheer cliffs of The Heads stand astride the narrow passage that has been cut into an ancient marine terrace. Early attempts to persuade the authorities to ship timber through The Heads were unsuccessful because of the dangers posed by submerged rocks in the narrows. In 1817 the Emu, a Royal Navy brig sent to determine the feasibility of establishing a harbour, struck a rock and ran aground in the entrance.
Over the next 79 years, numerous ships were wrecked or damaged while negotiating the treacherous passage, the last being the Norwegian whaler, Pisang, which capsized in 1914. From below 6 and from the summit of the Eastern Head are views over the lagoon, while the Featherbed Nature Reserve on the slopes of the Western Head is accessible only by joining a cruise on the lagoon.