Come out of your shell

2011-07-15 14:51

It’s when the Kruisfontein Forest is securely behind you and the N2 turns into Main Street that you know you’re in Knysna.
From your left, the lagoon will send you a humid, salty breeze with a promise of delicious seafood; and to your right, perched at the back of Thesen Hill, the shanties of Witlokasie contest for the reputed view of a paradise town.

In this mix brews the charm that defines the yearly Knysna Oyster Festival.

This revelry saw its 28th instalment last week.

Along with an oyster-eating competition and the Oyster and Wine Mardi Gras – which came highly recommended – the festival also includes a beauty contest and a fun run/walk, among other more adventurous sports events.

I spend three nights there amid all sorts of lovely strangers – from hordes of housewives looking to find new meaning in their lives and elderly couples in search of their romantic second wind, to young men on the prowl for local pleasures.

Knysna provides an ideal stage for all sorts of games, if you catch my drift.

But, “thou shall not hunt on an empty stomach” is the cardinal commandment of the pleasure explorer, and this town knows how to feed a stranger.

So, having settled on one of the many accommodation options – the Protea Hotel at the Knysna Quays Waterfront – it is time to oblige the cooks.

For an extended lunch, yours truly takes a drive across the bridge on Long Street to Thesen Island to explore a variety of restaurants and eateries, and ends up at 34?Tapas and Oysters.

The joint overlooks the water and has an international reputation for great seafood. The luncheon, which goes on for more than three hours, begins with a basket of crispy rosemary and sea-salt baguettes.

On account of the festival, we are served an assortment of large coastal and medium-cultivated oysters with black pepper, salt, Tabasco sauce and dices of lemon.

With some help from the waiter, we learn to spot the cultivated oysters by the dark line that runs along the edge of their flesh, unlike their wild or coastal cousins that sport paler rims.

Because everybody tends to rely on culinary crutches like Tabasco and pepper to eat their oysters, few people seem to know how the ocean delicacy actually tastes – even the waiter.

To find out, you have to dispense of the pleasantries, stab the flesh out of the shell and land it in your mouth. Then you discover a slippery and wet chunk of flesh that tastes like sea water.

Against the waiter’s recommendation of dry white Bordeaux, we choose Knysna’s local brew to wash down the munchies, Mitchell’s Lager – a flavourful beer with a well-rounded body for eager drinkers.

While sampling Knysna’s favoured delicacies, small-talk over lunch is another way of learning about the town from locals or fellow travellers.

Like a bubbly lady called Taryn with rose-coloured lipstick who said she was born in this “lovely town”. Loud and merry, she and her lady pals confess that they’ve “come home for our favourite aphrodisiacs”.

And, as in many small towns, the rich-poor divide is very apparent here, especially for a town that survives solely on its tourism industry.

In the evenings, after a long day’s work, the working class make a steady walk up Gray Street toward their homes on the hill.

Well, all except Patrick Sibeko, who is having his night of glory after winning the oyster-eating contest.

The short and sturdy father of three from Witlokasie and his team set a new record of downing 48 oysters in 3 minutes.

Sibeko’s also the ­oyster-shucking champion. He won the individual prize earlier in the week.

It figures, he cracks oysters for a living, working seven days a week at the same eatery that hosts the contest.

Like any proud local, Sibeko is the type that will invite you to tour his neighbourhood as soon as he meets you.

The township and shebeen experience has been included into the festival experience this year. It is perhaps the safest way to study the town’s living diversity.

But beyond the treats of the oyster festival, Knysna also offers boat cruises, art galleries and the Friday farmers’ market, which sells the local fresh produce and home-made goodies.

Any curious traveller passing along the jewel of South Africa’s famed Garden Route is sure to find something in this quaint little town.

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