South Africa: Knysna forests and mythical elephants

As we ambled through the Knysna forest, gradually falling behind the faster hikers in the group, conversation turned to the topic of the near-mythical elephants said to still roam here. Once thought to number around, the herd had been reduced to an estimated five females. None have been seen for years and many believed the elephants to be extinct.

Then in 2014, cameras designed to capture leopard sightings caught images of a female elephant lumbering through the trees. Two years later, while searching for dung and footprints, a park ranger captured a few seconds of wobbly phone coverage as an elephant stepped onto the path in front of him.

Why Knysna

Aside of the mythical elephants, Knysna is known for its outdoor pursuits. Sandwiched between dense forest and a cerulean blue lagoon, this is the quintessential Garden Route town. There are opportunities to scale cliffs, tackle mountain biking trails, whoosh down dunes on a sandboard and paddle the lagoon in a kayak. But we had gentler pursuits in mind, starting with the 6km forest hike.

We continued to plod the undulating path, past the towering yellowwood trees that helped establish Knysna as a timber town in the 19 th century; past the ferns thought to give the town its name (in the language of the indigenous Khoi people). Above our heads, the grunting call of the Knysna Loerie could be heard, but we never spotted the beautiful, emerald green bird.

Knysna is a holiday town par excellence. The line the main road, visitors both local and international flock to the waterfront for lunch, coffee or to take a boat trip, and guesthouses, cottages look out onto the placid lagoon. Our destination was Thesen’s Island, surrounded by the lagoon but connected to the town by a low bridge.

We refuelled with a seafood lunch and a glass of locally-produced in the The Turbine Boutique Island, its outdoor terrace overlooking a canal. The hotel, itself a landmark, began its life as a power station, using waste from the timber industry to power the turbines. The current building dates back and fascinating remnants – chains, pulleys, discs and dials – of the power station remain, dotted around the rooms and public areas as part of the unique design.

Thesen’s Island

Thesen’s Island is a collection of islands – 19 in total – separated by man-made channels and connected by arched footbridges. The majority of the islands are residential and off-limits, but the main island is easily accessible from the town. Home to a cluster of waterside, an exceptional patisserie, an implausible number of real estate agents and of course, the Turbine, it’s a charming place to wander and grab a bite. For something a little more strenuous, you can rent kayaks or bikes to explore the island and lagoon beyond.

Swapping boots for a bike in search of the Heads

The following morning, we swapped hiking boots for cycling shorts and set out for a day in the saddle. Our bike tour took us away from Thesen’s Island, heading east along the lagoon’s edge then making a sharp turn towards the famed Knysna Heads.

The headlands form an entrance to the Knysna Lagoon from the Ocean, and strong currents have led many to refer to this as one of the most ports in the world. For most though, the Heads are viewed from the safety of a bench,or lookout point at the lagoon’s edge. The East Head is a particularly popular spot, serving crunchy salads and hearty burgers, but we headed instead for a quiet on Leisure Isle, a 1.6km-long island filled with holiday homes. Freshly pressed juice was the order of the day, but after another hour of peddling, we decided a stiffer drink would be required.