Travel – God’s waiting room

2012-07-20 14:44

Cushioned by mountains, forests, hotels and oyster eateries, Percy Mabandu takes an inside look at the town of Knysna

Like many of her peers in Knysna, the elderly woman who calls herself Nancy wears silver hair, diamond rings and other things that bling.

It’s an all-too-familiar sight in the marquee where restaurants from across Knysna showcase their special dishes.

It is part of the elaborate programmes and competitions that comprise this year’s Knysna Oyster Festival.

She smiles and shuts her mascara-heavy eyes tightly before she responds to my question about what the busiest place in this town is.

She then purses her lips on a glass of red wine and giggles like a naughty child with a delicious secret: “Well, it’s the cemetery. This is God’s waiting room,” she says.

We crack up then fall into the rhythm of the merry night as we go our separate ways.

Nancy is one of the many wealthy people who relocate to Knysna to live out the rest of their privileged days.

They share this tiny paradise town with people like Patrick Sibeko. He is a 49-year-old father of three from Witlokasi, a township perched at the top of Thesen Hill.

It stands on the right-hand side if you drive into town on the N2 coming in from Port Elizabeth.

Part of the Outeniqua Mountains, the hill stands between the ocean view town and the rest of the country to the north.

I meet Sibeko at his workplace, an eatery called The Oystercatcher, located on Waterfront Drive.

Sibeko has been dominating the yearly oyster shucking and eating competitions for the past four years.

The two competitions include a team contest, which involves one person shucking while the other team member eats the shelled delicacy.

Then there’s the other leg where individuals compete to shuck the most oysters in a given time.

It figures why Sibeko would be a champion here.

He opens oysters for a living.

He’s been doing it for the past 17 years, employed at the same eatery that hosts the competitions.

Just like the town, Sibeko’s life and livelihood revolves around tourism and the famous delicacy harvested in the nearby lagoon.

Each year, he joins more than 34 000 other people who call Knysna home to welcome an estimated 65 000 guests.

This year marked the 29th instalment of the festival, which saw about 200 000 oysters consumed in 10 days.

The short and sturdy old timer Sibeko says he moved to this town in 1987.

“Before I started working for Oyster Catcher, I worked for a cabinet-making factory in Wierda Park, Pretoria. I moved with my then boss to open another factory here,” he says while boasting about the “great tables” he used to make.

Wearing a Tabasco-branded red T-shirt, Sibeko beams with pride when he talks about his family.

“I live with my wife Bonisiwe and our children. We have two boys, Robert (28) and Nkosinathi (seven), and a girl, 15-year-old Thembi.”

Oldest son Robert has since joined his father at the restaurant as a barman.

It’s to be expected in this town that survives solely on tourism.

Young people here are either absorbed into the small retail sector or other tourism-related service industries.

The nearest university is the satellite campus of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in George, about 30km away.

Except for media reports about biodiversity and other nature-related disputes that seep in and out of the town, Knysna speaks to the world through its waiters and barmen chatting to occasional strangers who visit during festivals.

Other outside contact comes through those who make a quick but vital stopover as they pass through on the N2 between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

This means the delicate set of elements that make Knysna beautiful remain undisturbed.

Hence it is still South Africa’s best-kept secret.

However, the locals are eager to share its charm with the rest of the world.

There seem to be hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments on every second street corner, jostling for attention with the numerous restaurants and eateries.

Visitors are encouraged to check out Thesen Island, which is perched on the lagoon like a pleasure hive and hosts an assortment of restaurants specialising in all manner of cuisines.

These invitations are matched only by the sparkle, like the one in Sibeko’s eye as he sits for a drink after a day’s work.

“Thank you guys for coming. We like to have you here,” he says with his nose gaining a glow.

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