Travel – Knysna: Caves, crags and quirky hotels

2014-11-10 17:00

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Where the textures of ragged rocks tangle with a swirling soup of sea, only treachery lurks. Almost 200 years ago, Emu, a Royal Navy ship, learnt that first-hand. It was attempting to enter the Knysna Lagoon, but struck one of the supersized stones and had to be run aground to avoid sinking.

The crew and cargo were salvaged, but not the skeleton. Specks of the ship may still exist in these waters, but only a submarine can see them.

Shortly after it perished, a second vessel, the Podargus, safely navigated the passage between Knysna’s pair of heads, and a port was established.

It became the artery for the area’s timber industry, and operated successfully for 150 years before being decommissioned and left to stew in its own splendour. Today, it can be explored by adventurers, foodies and seekers of serenity.

Knysna, best known for the midyear Oyster Festival, has become one of South Africa’s most sought-after holiday destinations.

Conveniently located along the Garden Route, it is the ideal stopover for travellers driving between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth who want to break the journey for a night or two. That is all the time needed to admire the Heads, appreciate the town and even venture into the forest.

Before all that, you need to find a place to rest your weary head.

There are any number of self-catering apartments and small guesthouses to choose from, many on the in-demand marina development of Thesen Island.

Attached to the mainland by a causeway and a bridge, this self-contained section is a village of tranquillity. Bicycle rides and runs around the lagoon are a must, but remember that restaurants are booked out during peak season.


The Turbine Boutique Hotel has been revamped from the old power station. Instead of discarding the machinery, all the components remain in the building, but have been incorporated into its décor.

Pipes have been given a pop of colour – bright greens, blues and oranges allow them to stand out against the white walls – while larger objects are treated with a softer style and allowed to blend into the surroundings.

The 25 suites are spacious and modern. Their brick walls have been left mostly bare, and adorned with works of art and photographs of the old building.

With so much comfort, it will be difficult to leave the establishment – and you will not have to.

The hotel has two restaurants and two bars, and is surrounded by water on three sides. So no matter where you choose to spend your time, you will feel like you are on an island of your own.

After a night’s rest there, you will be ready to take on the Heads.

Park at the bottom of the Eastern Head and have a coffee or brunch at the café – a favourite in Knysna – before walking along the pathways and peeking into the caves that have formed along the rock face.

There are many viewpoints where you can stop and enjoy the silence, broken only by the sounds of the waves beneath.

The Western Head is a privately owned nature reserve, called the Featherbed Nature Reserve, reached only by ferry.

If you’re feeling energetic, take the ferry and hike Featherbed. The guided tour includes information on the unique flora and fauna, including milkwood trees, which are a protected species in South Africa. You can make a half day of it by adding on the buffet lunch.

On your way back to Thesen Island, stop at Mitchell’s Knysna Brewery. This is the place where the craft beer revolution, now almost ubiquitous, began.

The brewery was established in 1983 and specialises in English-style brews, including Forester’s Lager, Bosun’s Bitter and Milk & Honey.

Be warned that there is nowhere as dangerous as the surging ocean beneath the Knysna Heads.

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