Knysna is one of the most popular coastal towns along the Garden Route. Situated on the edges of the Knysna Lagoon and separated from the ocean beyond by the massive Knysna Heads and fierce water currents, this area is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. If it involves earth, air, and water, it involves Knysna. From abseiling and paragliding to snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, and windsurfing to hiking and biking, Knysna has something for everyone. And for those that prefer a more mellow visit, there is plenty of history, retail therapy, natural beauty, and gastronomical delights.
Of course, one day in Knysna isn’t enough to even scratch the surface, but that’s all the time we had. And we hoped to make the best of it. Our itinerary for the day consisted of an eco-cruise to the Featherbed Nature Reserve on the Western Knysna Head, followed by a visit to Thesen Island and lunch. Then, we were to meet two locals, Penny and Ella, from Emzini Tours for a township tour. We hoped that by then, the airlines would have restored our missing baggage. And then we could hit the beach by our resort. We considered making a trip to the Elephant Park as Sonny JJ is such an animal lover. But there just wasn’t enough time to fit it all in.
After the wind and the rain of the previous evening, we woke up to a better day. The rain had stopped, the wind had died down, and the sun was still playing hide and seek. We grabbed some snack bars as we rushed to reach Knysna. We were to start the eco-cruise at 830 am and had to be at the ferry terminal at 8 am. Knysna was about a 20-minute drive from Brenton Haven, our resort.
Featherbed Nature Reserve is a privately owned nature sanctuary on the western Knysna Head and can only be accessed by ferry. The Reserve was initially bought by a famous ichthyologist Prof JLB Smith, who first identified the coelacanth, a critically endangered species of fish thought to have been extinct for millions of years and then discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. His son, William Smith, then took possession of the property. A featherbed is how travel-weary sailors described sleeping while anchored in the tranquil waters of the Knysna estuary. And the name remains.
The tranquil Knysna lagoon flows out into the Indian Ocean. The waters pass two massive sandstone rock formations called the Heads, eastern and western. Navigating this part of the waters is said to be dangerous as there are submerged rocks that can run a ship aground. Besides, the currents here are said to be very tumultuous making a ship’s journey into the lagoon very treacherous. Many a boat has been wrecked trying to get into the Knysna lagoon, and eventually, the port was shut down.
The Featherbed Nature Reserve offers many different tours in this area. The one we chose was called the eco-cruise. It was a three-hour trip and included a ferry ride to and from the Reserve. There, a bus would take us to the top of the Reserve on the western Knysna Head. A guide would accompany us on both these trips while detailing the history and ecology of the area. We could do a coastal walk to see the sea caves before heading back to the reception area. Those wishing to avoid the trail can drive back down in the bus and wait in the reception center. The reception area is home to restrooms, a gift shop, and a restaurant. A variation on our cruise was a 4-hour trip with lunch at the restaurant.
Once we reached the Ferry Terminal, we checked-in and tried to grab a quick breakfast. Before we could even sip our coffee, our guide showed up and asked us to board the ferry. Although outside food and drink is not allowed, we were able to keep the coffees we bought. After some safety instructions, we were off. A drizzle started as we set off. A cold wind steadily blew, making us huddle together despite our jackets.
Our guide gave us a synopsis of Knysna history as our ferry made its way through the waters. The name Knysna comes from the Khoikhoi language and translates to “place of wood.” First settled by the Dutch around 1770, a lot of the forest was cleared away for lumber, farmlands were established, and huge timber industry was built. Eventually, a port was built here, and that aided the growth of the timber industry. Finally, due to the difficulties of navigating the dangerous waters, the port was shut down. The eastern Knysna head is more easily accessible by road and is thus, more densely populated. While the western head is home to the Reserve. Several houseboats were anchored in the lagoon, some of which are available for a more leisurely exploration of the area.
Once at the Reserve’s docking area, we were met by more torrential rain. We quickly made our way to the lobby of the building. Our guide indicated that it was prudent to use the restroom facilities as none were available on the trail. Next, we walked a short distance from the building to reach a bus that took us to the top of the Reserve.
The views from the top were simply breathtaking! We had a great look at the eastern Knysna head. And the treacherous waters below that looked so deceivingly placid. In 2017, a great fire ravaged this Reserve, and most of the vegetation was destroyed. The Reserve has been working on reforestation and regrowth of local flora and fauna. And it has been very successful so far! They have also used this opportunity of regrowth to root out an alien species of African wattle that had been stifling local flora for years. In support of this project, the Reserve sells seed balls that can be bought and then shot into the hillside from the top, using a slingshot. This was a unique way of supporting the Reserve as well as the local environment. And a lot of fun!!
After the necessary photos and viewpoints, we were ready to hit the trail. Most of our group went on the walk, while a couple of the elders decided to ride the bus back. The walk is about 2.2 kilometers (1.3 miles) and not difficult, either. One has to watch for roots that can trip but the guide was careful to point out potential hazards. We wore sturdy shoes, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses, and of course, our jackets. We came across the fynbos and forests of the Reserve.
Fynbos is the name given to the vegetation that grows in this area of the Cape, spread over its mountains, coastlines, and valleys. Interestingly, the Fynbos of the Cape is said to be the smallest and most diverse floral kingdoms anywhere in the world, with about 9000 different species. It’s home to 3% of the world’s plant species and 20% of Africa’s plant diversity. Sadly, nearly 1700 of these species are facing extinction. The heat from fires, like the one that ravaged this area, helps their seeds germinate and regrow.
Our guide took us down a well-worn track with great views of the lagoon on one side and lush green vegetation on the other. The weather had gotten better by then, a warm sun shining benevolently on us. We saw small critters hurrying away from our paths. Along the trail were many flowering plants. More than halfway past the trail, our guide pointed to some sea caves that were natural formations. We took the step down to the viewing deck to enjoy the play of water, light, and shade in the caves. These caves, tucked away into a corner, were among the most beautiful places on this trip.
As we walked further down, we were at level with the beach. We followed the boardwalk to the restaurant and reception area. The scenery along this walking path was fantastic, with waves crashing against rocks, forming tide pools, the green of the vegetation contrasting with the burnt orange and rust-brown of the stones. The views of Knysna in the distance and the eastern head across the glittering waters were fantastic. I could envision the feather-like touch of the lagoon; it felt so serene at that moment.
Back at the lobby, we ordered coffee, and before we could even finish it, the guide was back, herding us onto the ferry for our ride back to the terminal. With the weather changes all morning, the glory of the nature around us, and the invigorating air, we hardly noticed the three hours that had gone by, in a trice.
Consider an eco-cruise to the Featherbed Nature Reserve, on your trip to the Garden Route. A few tips:
- Book ahead to schedule the trip. Children 4 to 15 are charged the child rate, above 15 are charged adult prices, Under three are free.
- Dress in layers, the weather in Knysna changes often.
- Wear sturdy shoes, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.
- Carry some cash for tipping the guide and the ferry crew.
- No outside food or beverages are allowed on the ferry.