Knysna. The name alone conjures up happy memories of holidays spent with family and friends, adventures had on her rivers and beaches, but to me the allure will always be the forest. Dalene Matthee, iconic author of many award-winning books, Circles in The Forest and Fiela se Kind in particular, encapsulates the essence of forest life in all its beauty and intricacies. A staunch conservationist at heart, her love for the Knysna forest, in particular, with its animals and people, inspired a generation of nature lovers to take up the baton and run with it. What it must have been like to be the first settlers of the area, discovering the richness of the Knysna Forest!
I had the privilege of getting into the thick of it with entrepreneur Matt of TripOut Adventures, http://tripout.co.za/. A mine of information, Matt took me on a trip through the byways and craggy dirt roads of the Knysna Forest. We headed off on our intrepid adventure by way of the Old Cape Road and headed for the Simola Hill. As we traveled, with an open car window mind you on a freezing cold day, it was the smell of the forest that caught my attention. Every forest has its own unmistakable smell and by the time we reached Gouna, I hardly noticed the cold air streaming in but rather focused on the perfume of the flora. It was through a childhood friend of Matt’s, ecologist Dr Jasper Slingsby, that he cultivated his love and knowledge of the indigenous growth in the area. He regaled me with stories of how the witchhazel that grows in abundance, cools down the forest on a hot day and how the indigenous trees formed a natural firebreak. So serious are SanParks and Cape Nature about preserving this pristine ecology that even when a tree falls in the area, it may not be removed. This ensures the health of the forest floor as decomposition generates new life.
In the early 1800s, immigrant Italian silkworm farmers made this forest their home. In Gouna, stands a little Roman Catholic church, the San Ambroso Chapel, built in 1891, as a reminder of their lives. Now a museum, with a beautiful fresco on the main wall, photos of those who once worshipped here and the two rooms filled with memories, she is a reverent step back in time. We drove on through Kom se Pad and Petrus se Brand, all the while chatting about the wonder of it all the rich history of the place. Next stop, Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle. The museum is dedicated to the legendary Knysna elephants, and also to the woodcutters of the 19th and early 20th Centuries who harvested the indigenous forests. I was thrilled to gaze up at the mounted skeleton of a male elephant discovered in the forest in 1983. Old photographs and woodcutter documents and equipment can be viewed in the museum and once all of the history has washed over you, it’s a good time to wash it down with a cuppa and a snack at the tea room. Alas, my forest adventure was at an end.
Making my way to Thesen Island, my head still somewhere in the forest, it occurred to me how versatile the region is. From the thick verdant forest kingdom to a cobalt blue ocean, there is just so much to see and do on the Garden Route. From the giants of the forest to the giants of the ocean, the whales. I hopped on a beautiful Ocean Odyssey, https://www.oceanodyssey.co.za/, boat and headed for the big blue, for a spot of whale watching. Our informative, bubbly guide took us through the history of the Heads and the stunning properties that line the shore. Our exit through the mouth at The Knysna Heads was as smooth as you like and before I knew it, we were atop the great blue sea, searching intently for whales. What we did see was a host of cheeky, playful seals, following our every move. Peering back to shore from this watery abode, it’s easy to see why Knysna is so popular. Beautiful from all angles. Rough and dangerous in some places; smooth and peaceful in others, the town is a gem. We came upon a whale just as it was diving, tail up in salute to us. So graceful they are, despite their size. The sea is host to immeasurable life.
As we returned to terra firma I was excited about meeting one of Knysna’s celebrities, the seahorse, and yes...it’s a fish! A peculiar looking darling, that looks more like it belongs on a chess board than in the ocean, the Knysna Seahorse is only, on average, around 7 cm long. The Knysna Basin Project has on display on Thesen Island, an aquarium teeming with these interesting little creatures. I was fortunate enough to spot a tiny baby and marveled at the beautiful, varied colours of the adult seahorse. If you are ever in the area, please go and meet these unusual, petit locals.
It was time to meet passionate young local, Anita Best of Hashtag Tours Knysna, https://www.facebook.com/hashtagtoursknysna/, for a little mozey through town. A fascinating and very knowledgeable young lady, she leads visitors and school pupils through all the historic sites in town. She also conducts a Nature Tour and a Meet My Community Tour. Walking through town, learning more about the roots of this vibrant community, makes one appreciate the sacrifices made in the sculpting of a great community. Anita has a genuine love for her community and the history that has permeated every corner of every street and historic building. I shall never look upon it in quite the same way. Thank you, Anita.
The day was coming to an end and I was looking forward to spending an evening soaking up a little Knysna afterhours hospitality. And where better than at the picturesque Brenton on Sea, at Brenton Haven Beachfront Resort, https://brentonhaven.co.za/. What a fantastic venue! Virtually on the white sand, the accommodations are spacious and elegant and with the picture-perfect Butterfly Blu Restaurant, https://butterflyblu.co.za/, on-site, I couldn’t wait to kick back, relax and enjoy a good meal. I’m not sure exactly how it happened but I was talked into being a member of a quiz team at dinner. Being ever so slightly competitive, I absolutely had to be on the winning team. It was wonderful fun and the hotel staff made it a thoroughly entertaining experience. We even managed to win a bottle of wine, always exciting.
I had the pleasure of being treated to a gin tasting whilst at Brenton Haven. The dynamic young husband and wife duo who have created the phenomenally good, locally crafted, four times distilled Phanton Craft Gin, http://www.phantomcraft.co.za/, blew me away. Apart from the fact that the gin is the colour of the rivers of the local forests, almost black coffee like in appearance, the taste is velvety smooth. Deliciously fragrant, spicy notes of ginger and coriander filled my senses as I tried it, first neat and then with both plain tonic and then ginger ale and various citrus peels and fresh rosemary. Listening to their passionate story of the humble beginnings of a copper still invasion in their living room, to the fulfilment of a dream, I can only wish them all success with their gin making journey. Don’t take my word for it though, do yourself a favour and order a bottle of this craft gin and get hooked!
After a fantastic night’s sleep, dreaming of gin and delicious dinner, I was ready to hit the road once more. Sedgefield is one of those places you hardly notice when driving through via the N2. But turn off and explore a little more and you will be amazed at what you find. Home to one of the largest Saturday Markets, The Wild Oats Market, http://www.wildoatsmarket.co.za/, Sedgefield is packed with charm. In its 15th year of thrilling visitors with fantastic food, crafts, art and of course a few adventures thrown in, this is a must for the whole family. So, what does a girl like me do when you throw her at a market with all its fun? She grabs a handcrafted bow and takes a stab at archery. Like maid Marion in the Sherwood forest, I donned the gear and tried my hand at traditional archery and boy did I have fun. The team at Primal Shot, http://www.primalshot.co.za/, showed me a few moves and then I showed them a few of mine! Nothing like the sound of an arrow leaving a bow to get the heart pumping with excitement. A fantastic activity for birthday parties and corporate events, Primal Shot offers hours of fun for the whole family. In no time at all you can be transported back to a time where men wore tights and forest creatures were nervous. Fantastic fun and well worth taking a shot at it.
From the forest to the ocean to market fun, Knysna and Sedgefield are beautiful destinations for those who live for adventure. See you on the Garden Route!