Fishing and angling, coelacanths and old ships, coffee and home-baked treats, modern art and the ancient culture of the Khoisan people of the Southern Cape coast - if you’re interested in any of these things, the Old Gaol Museum Complex in Knysna will certainly deliver the goods.
The Gaol is situated on the corner of Queen Street and Main Road - an intersection that used to be known as ‘Temptation, Condemnation, Damnation and Redemption,’ since its four corners are home to:
• The Royal Hotel - where temptation ruled (see the annexe on the north side of the building? The one with the quaint leaded-lights in the windows? That used to be one of the town’s - er- rowdier pubs);
• The police station and magistrate’s court - where the tempted would be condemned;
• The Gaol itself - to which the tempted were damned; and
• St George’s Church - where the tempted might find redemption.
The original portions of the Old Gaol were built in 1859. Its first inmates were the convicts who were sent to work on the construction of the Prince Alfred’s Pass (over the Outeniqua Mountains from Knysna to Uniondale). It’s no longer used as a jail, of course, although the original visiting room and one of the cells remain unchanged - which allows you to get an idea of what life was like for prisoners in the old days.
Lovers of the sea will enjoy the Maritime Rooms - with its model ships and model square riggers, and its collection of pieces from Knysna’s history as a port, and the local Thesen family’s history as owners of the Thesen Line (which ran steamships between Knysna and Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and other ports on the South African Coast); and the Knysna Angling Museum - which is probably the only museum of fishing and angling in South Africa, and which includes a room dedicated to the coelacanth (since the story of the ancient fish’s discovery for science is intimately linked with Knysna).
The Knysna Art Gallery hosts regular exhibitions by local artists, as well as an annual group exhibition by members of the Knysna Art Society, while Stanley Grootboom (a painter with a particular interest in Khoisan culture) has a permanent exhibition in the Old Gaol Coffee Shop, where the Green Chefs provide refreshments for locals and visitors alike - with quiches and sandwiches and such (and really, really out-of-this-world cakes and treats).
After you’ve seen the Old Gaol Complex, may we suggest you amble on down Queen Street to visit the Millwood House Museum? This group of old timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings houses a local history collection, with fascination pieces from the old days of South Africa’s first gold rush, which took place right here in Knysna - where life’s always been interesting!