Long known as a tourist hot spot along the Garden Route, Knysna keeps travellers coming back for more

For many travellers along the Western Cape Garden Route, one stop remains a constant. Whether for its placid lagoon waters, numerous outdoor activities that range from hiking to whale-watching or the promise of sighting the ever-elusive elephant said to roam this region, the small town of Knysna beckons adventure -seekers and leisure lovers alike.

Although the devastating wildfire of 7 June 2017 saw the town lose homes, pets, families and entire livelihoods, Knysna’s residents — and South Africans across the nation — rallied together to sustain and uplift the infrastructure, beauty and rich heritage of this much-loved town. Now, it’s back to business.

My friends and I drive into Knysna on a chilly winter’s afternoon. The bridge into town provides us with the perfect vantage point to view the magnificent Knysna Heads, two large headlands that allow the estuary to open to the expansive ocean beyond. 

It is just a day later when one of us experiences terrible seasickness passing through its treacherous waters that have claimed many a fishing boat and life.

Our base camp is the modern yet comfortable The Lofts Boutique Hotel located in Thesen Harbour Town, part of Thesen Islands. The islands are a marina development consisting of 19 man-made islands spread across 90 hectares. From our second-story apartment, we are treated to views of both the lagoon and the waterfront on the mainland. And while our abode is delightful — with high ceilings, modern fittings and luxe interiors — the outdoors await. 

The Lofts' rooms are spacious and modern. © Mohammed Hoosain
The Lofts’ rooms are spacious and modern. © Mohammed Hoosain

On the far side of the little island, which will be our home for the next couple of days, we encounter the Turbine Water Club, an activity centre run by the friendly Schalk Hildebrand. Schalk and his small team offer bicycle rides, kayaking and sundowner cruises on the lagoon but it is the Ocean Odyssey whale-watching boat tour that catches our eye. After getting fitted with life jackets, we eagerly clamber aboard. The boat takes off from the jetty and heads towards the Indian Ocean at a merry speed. We slow down as we spot two whales — a mother and her calf — and watch as these magnificent mammals give us a show. Two hours and a lot of barfing later, we finally head back to The Lofts. Just in time too, as the first rain begins to come down.

The next morning, we are up early to venture into one of the largest-growing forests in the world. Knysna Forest covers an expanse of 540 000 hectares and is the site of inspiration for South African author Dalene Matthee. Our guide for the two-hour adventure through the trees is Meagan Vermaas of Forest Guided Tours. As the official guide of Dalene Matthee, she not only enlightens us with insight into the indigenous fauna and flora, and the rumoured elephants of the forest, but also provides an incredible history of Dalene Matthee and the relationship she had with the forest. Disappointed at the lack fo elephants amongst the beautiful greenery, I convince my group to venture a few kilometres outside of town to the Knysna Elephant Park. The park offers daily elephant tours as well as other experiences where visitors can ride, touch and feed these gentle giants. We opt for the latter and also enquire about the volunteer programme at the African Elephant Research Unit (AERU). The unit and park, the first of its kind, were established to house and care for orphaned elephants. Volunteers are required to help manage and research the welfare and husbandry needs of captive elephants.

Feeding the elephants at Knysna Elephant Park. © Mohammed Hoosain
Feeding the elephants at Knysna Elephant Park. © Mohammed Hoosain

We return to town, elated with the majesty of nature we have just experienced — but our day is far from over. While there’s not much ground to cover on Thesen Harbour Town, what it lacks in square metres, it makes up for with its array of diverse stores — all of which we found ourselves wanting to peruse for hours on end. Dallas Smith Gallery exhibits artworks that exude the essence of summer while Sublime had me handing over wads of cash for their locally produced garments made from 100 percent natural materials. 

Before allowing me to spend any more, my friends whisk me back to The Lofts for one last treat before our return journey home. The Lofts’ spa, Le Spa Tranquille, is situated on the edge of the lagoon and offers everything from massages and facials to a sauna. It’s the perfect ending to a relaxing weekend in the heart of the Garden Route.

Food lovers

While there is no shortage of things to see and do in Knysna, you may want to indulge in the smorgasbord of food on offer too.

1 The Island Cafe at the Turbine Hotel on Thesen Harbour Town offers a formidable spread of hot and continental options for breakfast, and a dinner menu that combines contemporary local and international flavours, +27 044 302 5746

2 Over at Il de pain café and bakery, tuck into local deli fare, decadent hot chocolate and pastries that will have you coming back for more time and time again, ildepain.co.za

3 Out of town, along Rheenendal Road, Totties Farm Kitchen serves farm food and a compelling history. Its interior is decorated with 1920s kaggelkakkies (trinkets) and its Sunday lunch buffet is a huge hit so be sure to book beforehand, tottiesfarmkitchen.co.za

Il de pain café on Thesen Harbour town serves up fresh bread and delicious pastries daily. © Mohammed Hoosain
Il de pain café on Thesen Harbour town serves up fresh bread and delicious pastries daily. © Mohammed Hoosain

A version of this article first appeared in Edition 2-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.