As we ambled through the Knysna forest, gradually falling behind the faster hikers in the group, the conversation turned to the topic of the near-mythical elephants said to still roam here. Once thought to number around 1000, the herd had been reduced to an estimated five females. None have been seen for years and many believed the elephants to be extinct.
Then in 2014, cameras designed to capture leopard sightings caught images of a female elephant lumbering through the trees. Two years later, while searching for dung and footprints, a park ranger captured a few seconds of wobbly phone coverage as an elephant stepped onto the path in front of him.
Aside from the mythical elephants, Knysna is known for its outdoor pursuits. Sandwiched between dense forest and a cerulean blue lagoon, this is the quintessential Garden Route town. There are opportunities to scale cliffs, tackle challenging mountain biking trails, whoosh down dunes on a sandboard, and paddle the lagoon in a kayak. But we had gentler pursuits in mind, starting with the 6km forest hike.
We continued to plod the undulating path, past the towering yellowwood trees that helped establish Knysna as a timber town in the 19th century; past the ferns thought to give the town its name (in the language of the indigenous Khoi people). Above our heads, the grunting call of the Knysna Loerie could be heard, but we never spotted the beautiful, emerald green bird.
Knysna is a holiday town par excellence. Restaurants line the main road, visitors both local and international flock to the waterfront for lunch, coffee, or to take a boat trip, and guesthouses, cottages, and hotels look out onto the placid lagoon. Our destination was Thesen’s Island, surrounded by the lagoon but connected to the town by a low bridge.
We refueled with seafood lunch and a glass of locally-produced wine in The Turbine Boutique Hotel’s Island Café, its outdoor terrace overlooking a canal. The hotel, itself a historic landmark, began its life as a power station, using waste from the timber industry to power the turbines. The current building dates back and fascinating remnants – chains, pulleys, discs, and dials – of the power station remain, dotted around the rooms and public areas as part of the hotel’s unique design.
Thesen’s Island is a collection of islands – 19 in total – separated by man-made channels and connected by arched footbridges. The majority of the islands are residential and off-limits, but the main island is easily accessible from the town. Home to a cluster of waterside restaurants, an exceptional patisserie, an implausible number of real estate agents, and of course, the Turbine, it’s a charming place to wander and grab a bite. For something a little more strenuous, you can rent kayaks or bikes to explore the island and lagoon beyond.
Swapping boots for a bike in search of the Heads
The following morning, we swapped hiking boots for cycling shorts and set out for a day in the saddle. Our bike tour took us away from Thesen’s Island, heading east along the lagoon’s edge then making a sharp turn towards the famed Knysna Heads.