site zip: AF ZA JA005 | neighborhood: Garden Route, Route 62 - Klein Karoo, Cape Overberg | region: South Africa, More>>

A Delightful Day on Knysna Lagoon

Sylvia Ferguson, Sedgefield, South Africa

More journal entries by Sylvia:
Caprivi - 1st leg of our Namibia Adventure | Ngepi to Etosha – 2nd leg of our Namibia Adventure | Etosha to Waterberg Plateau – 3rd leg of our Namibia Adventure | Waterberg to Epupa - 4th leg of our Namibia Adventure

Editorial Note: Knysna Lagoon is situated mid-way along South Africa's Garden Route, a coastal region of mountains, forests and trails, lagoons and beaches - an ideal travel destination for families, active adults and high adrenaline adventurers.

Knysna Lagoon

A delightful Day on Knysna Lagoon
Sylvia Ferguson, Sedgefield, Garden Route

Knysna known as the Garden Route’s “Beautiful Town” has evolved around the Knysna Estuary, a port being its first reason to exist. The estuary is a particularly attractive large body of water, providing many recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike. The river is contained with steeply sloping hills covered in Cape fynbos interspersed with plantations and indigenous forest, before it enters the sea through imposing rocky cliffs (the Knysna Heads). The town picturesquely adorns the banks and hill slopes without overwhelming the inherent natural beauty of the area. The main N2 highway winds along the lagoon into the town offering splendid views across the bay to Leisure Isle and Knysna Heads and tantalising glimpses of the ocean beyond.


Knysna Lagoon, Garden Route - South Africa

In early January, after the Christmas rush some friends took us out for the day in their motorboat on the stunningly beautiful Knysna Lagoon. It was a perfect summer’s day, as armed with swimming costumes and sunscreen, we launched the boat from one of the best places to do it, the boat club on Leisure Island.

Casting off - Knysna Lagoon

We first motored off to get a close up of the magnificent Knysna Heads. For safety’s sake, you can only go out to sea if you have 2 engines and as we had only one we had to stay within the confines of the lagoon (not that that was any hardship!)

The Knysna Estuary is permanently open to the sea but the Knysna Heads are notoriously difficult to navigate through safely because of submerged rocks and sandbars that deflect winds and powerful currents.

Knysna Heads and Sea Caves

Many ocean-going ships and boats over the last 150 years have been shipwrecked sailing through this unpredictable channel. (The remains of a few still lie on the sandy bottom of the estuary providing interesting diving spots.) It was essential to have pilots that knew its treacherous ways guiding ships into the harbour. Four generations of Benns acted as pilots for ships entering the heads from 1868 to 1945 except for 20 years when non-related pilots filled the post. During the Benns’ service not a ship was lost whose captains listened to their advice when entering the estuary.  The port was officially closed in 1954 and today recreational and small fishing boats only are found in the harbour. Navigation through the Heads is still tricky and the locals still treat it with respect.

It is easy to be infused with a joyful sense of well being when surrounded with beautiful scenery, cruising on sparkling water, feeling warm sun on your body combined with a fresh breeze to keep you cool. We headed Sailing - Knysna Lagoonup river passing under the old disused railway bridge, then under the white bridge over which runs the N2 highway. It’s the main access route into and through the town of Knysna.

We passed boats sitting lonely and silent in the water and others filled with passengers and full of life. We took in the sights of the Knysna Waterfront shopping area and picturesque suburbs of Brenton on Lake and Belvidere. The waterways were humming but not congested and things got quieter until passing slowly under the old red bridge, our skipper turned off the motor so we could peacefully listen to bird song in the trees and shrubs along the banks.

Returning the way we had come, we diverted to go through the canals of Thesen Island.

Thesen Island, Knysna

This island was initially a sawmill owned and run by the Thesen family for 50 years from 1924 –1974 until it was sold to Barlow Rand. By the mid 1980’s Barlows realised that their ecologically unfriendly factory was out of place both from a visual and environmental perspective in this quaint and colourful arty tourist - oriented  seaside town.  Dr Chris Mulder an urban designer and landscape architect presented them with a viable solution – by suggesting they convert the island into an eco-environment by means of an upmarket housing estate with a sensitively designed shopping centre incorporating hotels and restaurants.

Great care was taken to ensure that nature and the environment won the day. The poisoned soil was decontaminated and now over 20 000 trees line the roads and waterways and have been planted in gardens. Added to that a community vegetable garden, a bird sanctuary, thriving mudflats full of sand prawns and estuarine sea creatures has transformed the sooty smoke laden eyesore into the serene and picturesque Thesen Harbour Town – a town within a town  - an example of what can be achieved with mindful and attentive planning.

Steenbok Nature Reserve

It was great to quietly cruise along the waterways passing under gracious arched bridges that connect 19 man-made islands, admiring houses with their jetties and boats tied up alongside them. The restful atmosphere was reflected by people on decks outdoors under umbrellas reading or chatting and drinking cups of coffee. What a life!

After several hours in the outdoors we were all feeling hungry and our skipper, John took us back towards the Heads and steered the boat across to the opposite side of the Knynsa Lagoon to a beach restaurant at Featherbeds Nature Reserve where we were able to lay anchor and wade through the shallows to enjoy a simple but mouth watering meal of fish/calamari and chips with a few drinks to wash it down.

Featherbeds - beach restaurant

Featherbeds is a World Heritage Site on Knysna’s Western Heads. The Blesbok trail takes visitors on a 2.5 km (1.5 mile) guided trail through fynbos and coastal forest with magnificent views out to sea and into the Heads and eventually down to the shoreline, to wander through weather-ravaged caves and a beach pathway back to the restaurant under milkwoods and Blue Duiker Curio Shop complex.
Formerly a privately run 70 hectare nature reserve, it was owned by William Smith, the Maths and Physics guru of TV’s Learning Channel. He inherited it from his father, JLB Smith who had identified the ancient fish the Coelacanth. A trawler had bought the fish ashore amongst the rest of its catch on 22 Dec 1938 at East London and the captain had presented it to a young curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer who worked in the local natural history museum. She realised the find was something extraordinary and went to great pains to contact a Chemistry Professor and amateur ichthycologist at Grahamstown University.

JLB wasn’t there but he eventually made contact and identified it on 16 Feb 1939.  It was a discovery that amazed the scientific community worldwide. A prehistoric fish thought to have existed over 100 million years ago had been fished out alive from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. In the last number of years a number of these fish have been found variously off Madagascar and the Indonesian islands giving marine biologists opportunity to observe them in their natural environment.

Featherbeds is now owned by an international consortium but it is still run on the same lines as its previous owners. 

After lunch we were ready for a swim in the warm lagoon waters, and later we dozed on beach towels whilst we dried off on the warm sandy beach. Too soon it was time for the return boat trip to Leisure Island.

Leisure Isle boat launch and beach

Once the boat was out the water and back on the trailer, it was time for a relaxing late afternoon stroll around Steenbok Nature Reserve on Leisure Isle.

Leisure Island was called Steenbok Island in Knysna Town’s early days so it seemed appropriate to call this small but ecologically important nature reserve after the island’s original name.

It developed from humble beginnings in 1995 with a small group of island resident volunteers who determinedly initiated the project. The results of their efforts eventually won the support and participation of the Knysna Municipality. This demonstrates how even a small group of people can make a big difference! The Steenbok Nature Reserve has become an example of how a community can conserve and nurture their environment and live in harmony with it by consciously protecting vital species and enabling natural processes to work when controlling pollution and degradation. 

On an open area bordering the shoreline they have created an interpretive boardwalk over valuable and vulnerable salt mashes. Wild untidy areas full of building rubble and alien vegetation have been removed and an extensive indigenous garden has been planted that draws butterflies and a multitude of wild birds, adding to the number of waders to be seen in shallows and mudflats close by.

Leisure Island's Steenbok  Nature Reserve

An Owl box has been placed in an appropriate rough barked tree for a pair of resident Spotted Eagle Owls.  Plants and trees have been identified and labelled and bird lists and flora lists are available on-line for those visitors that might be interested. The rare and endangered Satyrium princeps orchid has been found in this reserve. The rarest seahorse, the Knysna seahorse finds protection amongst eel grasses some of which are located in the salt marshes.

Leisure Island Nature Reserve - salt marshes and Knysna Seahorse

The community is encouraged to make use of the Reserve and people have enjoyed activities such as a Kiddies’ cycle race during the Oyster Festival, Garden Club and School walks and talks, an Animal Welfare dog walk and events during the Leisure Island Festival.  “Friends of the Steenbok Nature Reserve” support the ongoing maintenance and improvement of the Reserve financially and with personal effort.

Our beautiful day is over and its time to head home to Sedgefield.  Slightly sun-drugged, we decide it won’t take any of us long to fall asleep tonight! Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, I once again reflect how fortunate I feel to live along the Garden Route in this magical part of South Africa. Click here for more information on Knysna, the beautiful town!.

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I live on South Africa's Garden Route and am always delighted to hear from visitors. You're welcome to visit my website if you would like to ask a question or learn more about the region.


Sylvia Ferguson
Sedgefield, South Africa 

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