The Knysna Heads

The Knysna Heads

The Knysna Heads. Probably the best-known, most recognised river mouth in South Africa; maybe amongst the most iconic; and certainly (at least amongst those of us who live here) the most loved.

What makes them so?

Separated by around 300 metres of water, The Knysna Heads are the headlands of two peninsulas that enclose and form the Knysna River Estuary. Formed over geological time beginning as far back as the break-up of the supercontinent, Gondwana, during the Jurassic, 180 million years ago.

Easily recognised by how the land is used, the Eastern Head is given over to residences, fynbos-covered farmland, and, on the seaward-facing slopes, the 18-hole Pezula Championship Golf Course – while the Western Head, with its instantly recognisable, arch-shaped cliff, is the site of one of Knysna’s most popular visitor attractions: Featherbed Nature Reserve.

The Heads: Ancient History

People have always been drawn to The Heads. Although there’s evidence that Knysna was populated as much as 1.5 million years ago, the discovery of a stone tool workshop on the Western Head (uncovered by the Knysna Fires of 2017) shows that The Heads was an important location around 300,000 years ago. The large cutting tools and choppers found at the site were made at a time when sea levels were much lower than they are today. The coastline lay more than 90 km to the south, and the Knysna River trickled lazily across the plain that’s now the Knysna Lagoon – and tumbled through the gap between the cliffs, making The Heads an ideal ambush spot for early hunters.

Archaeologists investigating the caves on both the Western Head and the Eastern Head have found that Middle Stone Age people also lived here for thousands of years. This is the crucial period in ancient history when modern human behaviour was emerging along the coastline of the Western Cape, which is why this coast is now known as ‘The Cradle of Human Culture’.

But, of course, it’s the maritime history of The Heads that captures our imaginations today.

The Heads: Ships & Shipwrecks

Although the colonial period history of Knysna began some time before 1803, it’s pretty much agreed that, George Rex, who arrived here in that year, was the first permanent settler. Rex was the man behind the birth of the timber industry, Knysna’s most important industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After many years of campaigning, Rex finally managed to convince the Cape government to send a ship to survey the Knysna Estuary in 1817 – and that first ship, the Emu, became the first victim of the deceptively narrow river mouth. Deceptively narrow because the navigable channel – which cross the mouth from close to the Western Head to Fountain Point on the Eastern Head – is only 90 metres wide.

Nothing daunted, though, a second ship, HMS Podargus, did manage to safely find and navigate the channel – and thus began a maritime tradition that would see Knysna declared – and un-undeclared and re-declared – an official harbour from 1818 until 1954. It was during this time that the formidable Benn family – John Benn, Reuben Benn, Conning Benn – served the port as pilots and harbourmasters. Read more about Knysna’s maritime history here

Today The Heads remains an important portal to the sea, although it’s mostly used by recreational craft – ski boats and yachts and such. The job of protecting and helping the sailors who use it has been taken over by the volunteers of the NSRI Station 12 Knysna (National Sea Rescue Institute). Well worth a visit, the NSRI museum in Thesen Harbour Town has a wealth of information about the local NSRI station and its volunteers’ many adventures at The Heads.

Visit the Knysna Heads

The Eastern Head has many attractions: the hidden Coney Glen Beach Knysna
with its soft sands and secret rock pools; the Heads Viewpoint high on the mountain at the top of Coney Glen Road; and Fountain Point at the end of George Rex Drive, where the wreck of the Paquita lies in its watery grave in front of the White Beacon (a large, conical navigation light) – and where you can walk along a pathway at the foot of the cliffs, and then return to enjoy a meal or coffee overlooking the water at East Head Cafe.

Top Tip: The final resting place of the Paquita is a popular, but tricky, dive site for both scuba and snorkelling.

To visit the Western Head, take a 4-hour eco tour of Featherbed Nature Reserve – which includes a ride to the end of the peninsula, and a 2.2 km coastal walk with the most wonderful views along the Garden Route Coast, and across the Knysna Lagoon.

To experience the Heads from the water, book one of the many boat trips across the Knysna Lagoon and to (and out of) the Knysna Heads. There are also a wide variety of holiday accommodation at the Heads – a selection that ranges from caravan and camping sites to 5-star lodges.

The Knysna Heads: Statistics

Except in designated areas, the Knysna Heads is generally NOT safe for watersports – so no canoeing, kayking or swimming, please.

Here’s why:

  • Width: about 230 metres
  • Average tidal flow: 1,000 cubic metres per second – maximum flow, 2,000 m3/s (the tidal rise and fall at spring tide reaches 1.8 metres)
  • Maximum speed of the current: 1.27 metres per second
  • Channel depth: about 3.9 metres at low tide.

* Article written by Martin Hatcheul – March 2022