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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

The Garden Route is a true South African beauty

What you won’t like about Knysna is the traffic.

It’s around 120 steps from the car park down to Knysna’s Noetzie Beach – and that’s not counting the couple of hundred metres you walk to get to the steps. It’s fine on the way down but coming back feels like summiting Everest. What makes it even more tiring is that you must take all you need with you. And that includes umbrellas and fold-up chairs (we trusted beach towels alone and, trust me, it’s not that comfortable), as well as camera, picnic bag and books.

Noetzie may be an area of outstanding natural beauty … but that is always one of the best places to enjoy a good read. Noetzie is worth the hike up and down, because even on a crowded day, there are seldom more than 60 people spread out along about a kilometre of pristine sand. Rocky cliffs that fringe the sand are the locations for some bizarre castlelike houses made of rock and looking as though they have landed from the set of a Frankenstein movie.

It’s one of our favourite spots in the Knysna area, mainly because you don’t get swamped by people like you do at Buffalo Bay or even Brenton-on-Sea. And that’s one of the best things about Knysna, even in the hectic festive season period – you easily get away from the madding crowd. Apart from a range of excellent beaches – which stretch from Plettenberg Bay on one side to Wilderness on the other – this part of the world is not known as the Garden Route for nothing.

Picture: Brendan Seery

Vast indigenous forests ring Knysna and, although they were battered in the devastating fire which swept the area in 2017, they suffered less than the fast-burning stands of invader trees like pines, wattles and bluegums. The parts of the deep forest, where there is said to be at least one still surviving forest elephant, are still places of great splendour, peace and silence (if you don’t count the noises of the birds and the Knysna Loerie in particular). So, you can go from a few hours roasting on the beach (remember the umbrellas and slops, because walking on the burning sand is an experience you won’t soon forget) to a picnic in the forest.

In the Diepwalle part of the forest, there is a museum to the elephants which used to freely roam the area and a huge, imposing skeleton of an elephant is definitely a highlight if you have curious kids. If you are the physical exercise type, the forest tracks are great places to go mountain biking. Another wonderful experience is to see the tiny, exquisite Knysa Seahorse in acquarium tanks at the SA National Parks offices on Thesen Island, in the middle of the Knysna Lagoon. The seahorse is unique to the estuary and lives among the fine grasses in the shallows but, sadly, is perpetually under threat as its environment experiences the impact of humans.

Knysna’s lagoon grows and shrinks in size daily, driven by the tides of the Indian Ocean. Leisure Island, linked to the mainland by a causeway, is a popular spot for swimming and for afternoon and early evening strolls … or early morning energetic walks, runs or bike rides.

Picture: Brendan Seery

If you prefer your exercise to be taken in the company of the little white ball called “dammit!”, then the Garden Route has plenty of gold courses to choose from. We lugged my brother-in-law’s clubs and his golf cart down with us over Christmas … and he pronounced the two rounds he played at the municipal course in Knysna to be very good. It was also a lot more affordable than the course up at Pezula, possibly one of the most scenic in the country (if not the world). I once walked a few holes on the course with a fourball (I don’t play but I’m a great observer). The views and the fynbos set Pezula apart.

There is the excellent Simola course in Knysna and further afield there are other courses in Plettenberg Bay and in George (and a few at the world-class Fancourt spread). Knysna also has a good range of decent restaurants. Less pretentious and a lot cheaper than their counterparts in Cape Town and the Winelands, they can get quite crowded in season. The Waterfront has a number of them, as does Thesen Island – and most come with a good vibe and a view of the lagoon.

One evening, after a long afternoon of sight-seeing, we were even pleasantly surprised about how good a fish-and-chip meal was that we bought from a small shop in the main street.

What you won’t like about Knysna is the traffic. In the festive season, or during the busy times of year (Easter, and the Oyster or Pink Loerie Festivals), the main road through the town – which is the N2 between Cape Town and Durban – can become a slow moving, semi-congealed mess of traffic. The bypass route, which goes via the Waterfront can also get clogged up. But, hey, you shouldn’t be rushing anywhere in a holiday seaside town like Knysna…

Again, the popularity of the town and the surrounding area means that accommodation options at peak times can be taken quite quickly. It’s a good idea to finalise your plans early and to book ahead. There are hotels, guest houses and self-catering flats available on a number of different Internet platforms, as well as more options on Airbnb.

Picture: Brendan Seery

One of the things which does surprise me about Knysna is how many people I know, people born in SA, who have never been down to that part of the world. Sure, it is a long way (a 1 200km drive from Gauteng or a near two-hour flight to George), but you can break the journey at a number of places in the Free State, Northern or Eastern Cape on the way.

There are three ways to go to Knysna, each with its attractions. First option is going down the N1, you turn off at Beaufort West and head towards Oudtshoorn, then on to George and then Knynsa. This takes you through the spectacular Meiringspoort, with its dramatic cliffs. Alternative, you can turn off at Colesberg and go through Graaff Reinet towards Willowmore, Uniondale and George. The scenery along this route is open Karoo, with the mountains of the Camdeboo around Graaff-Reinet being the stand-out feature.

Finally, you can head from Colesberg towards Cradock and then on down the N10 to Port Elizabeth and then on down the N2 to Plettenberg Bay and then Knysna. The mountains of the Eastern Cape make the trip less monotous than some of the other routes. If you haven’t sampled the Garden Route, you’re missing one of South Africa’s truly amazing beauties.

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