Knysna | Garden Route

Knysna | Garden Route

The small town of Knysna is a popular resort on South Africa’s Garden Route, known for its wood carvings, art galleries and fresh oysters. It stands beside a huge lagoon, which attracts large flocks of migrant birds and is home to an endemic species of seahorse. It’s a good base for walkers to explore the coast, and a springboard for boat trips to the lovely Featherbed Reserve.

Geography of Knysna

Knysna stands within the broad area of the Garden Route National Park. On its land side, to the north, it’s surrounded by quite rugged country; to the south is the Indian Ocean. The town itself is split into quite a few discrete areas – Sedgefield, Brenton, Noetzie, Rheenendal, Belvidere and Buffalo Bay – all occupying flat bits of land between the hills and the water. In recent decades, the town has grown quite a lot, with a number of high- and low-density suburbs; it’s now home to over 50,000 people.

The town’s defining feature has always been the Knysna Lagoon, which is really a great widening of the Knysna River, like an estuary, before it squeezes through the headlands – the sandstone cliffs known as the 'Knysna Heads' – and flows into the ocean.

Within the midst of Knysna Lagoon are several low islands – notably Thesens Island, previously named Paarden Island, and Leisure Island. Thesens is right next to the town centre, and easily accessed via a causeway and road bridge. It once had a sawmill and small power plant on it, but in the last few decades it has been completely redeveloped as a popular Knysna suburb for holiday homes.

The ocean coast east of Knysna is rocky and rough, but within the lagoon it’s usually very calm. On the southwest side of Knysna, Breton-on-sea and Buffalo Bay stand on either sides of a stunning beach which is usually relatively quiet, and perfect for soaking up the sun or surfing – it’s a favourite beach for both many locals.

Where to stay in Knysna: hotels and guesthouses

Visitors can choose from a range of accommodation in Knysna – from a tiny lodge in a total tranquillity, for those who seek a hideaway, to a unique hotel with spa, for those who seek something different. See for our selection of the best options. Where to stay

The natural flora & fauna around Knysna

With its very special location and climate, South Africa’s Southern Cape is the smallest of the world’s floral kingdoms. The natural forests on the hills around Knysna are moist, broad-leafed Afromontane forests with many species, which aren’t found outside the Cape. Once these forests would have covered most of the Cape, but after extensive logging for centuries, they’re now very restricted in their coverage. The good news is that there are some stands of primary, virgin indigenous forest which have been protected around Knysna.

Vegetation of Knysna

In these forests there are many towering trees such as yellowwood, stinkwood, white alder, hard pears, milkwood trees and ironwood. Here you will also find ferns, herbs, lichens and fungi, indigenous forest, varied vine species and fynbos.

Knysna’s fauna

Knysna’s forest habitats support a wide variety of animal species, from bushbuck, blue duiker, grysbok and bushpig to the Cape clawless otter. The tiny, much-talked-about population of Knysna elephants seem sadly likely to be extinct now.

The endemic Knysna dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion damaranum) has a very limited range in the forests near Knysna, and notable for a tongue that is twice the length of its body.

The Brenton blue butterfly was first noted in Knysna in 1858, and thought for years to be extinct – until a lepidopterist found a colony at Brenton-on-Sea in November 1991. This is now the only place where the butterfly is known to breed. It became something of a conservation icon in the 1990s, when a high-profile campaign resulted in the declaration of a ‘special nature reserve’ at Brenton-on-Sea. Now the butterfly population is thriving, but the reserve remains normally closed to the public – except for exclusive guided tours led by butterfly specialists around November and February.

Knysna can also lay claim to having perhaps the rarest seahorse in the world: the Knysna seahorse. Sometimes known also as the cape seahorse, Hippocampus capensis is a small, delicate fish is found in just three bodies of brackish water: the Knysna Lagoon; the estuary of the Keurbooms River in Plettenberg Bay; and the estuarine portion of the Swartvlei system in Sedgefield. Knysna seahorses grow up to about 12cm long and is found mostly in areas with high vegetation cover and whilst it is very tolerant of changes is water quality, scientist still regard it as highly endangered because of its limited distribution. For travellers, the best options for viewing the seahorses is probably at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town; seeing them in the wild is very difficult!

Of more practical interest to the visitor, on the coast here, from June to November, you may see dolphins, porpoises and whales, especially the humpback and southern right whales.

Birds in Knysna

Between the lagoon and the estuary of the Knysna River, and the lush forests of the hills behind, there’s a real variety of birdlife to be seen. Beside the water look out for numerous waders including grey plovers, marsh sandpipers, greenshanks, curlew sandpipers, Cape shovelers, Kittlitz’s plovers, whimbrels and the very beautiful avocet. The lagoon also hosts egrets, spoonbills, gulls, cormorants, ibises and the endangered African black oystercatchers.

In the forests look out for the near-endemic Knysna loeries, narina trogons, Knysna warblers and Knysna woodpeckers as well as chorister robin-chats and forest canaries. Raptors include African fish eagles and ospreys beside the waters, and crowned eagles in the forests.

What to do and see: activities around Knysna

Visitors to Knysna will often potter around the town and waterfront, but spend most of their exploring some of the area’s natural attractions out of town.

There are a variety of activity companies in Knysna which can organise guided hiking trips, birdwatching, mountain biking, surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, horse riding and a wide range of other activities in the area. Meanwhile, a few of the area’s more obvious attractions inlcude:

Dolphin and whale watching of Knysna

From June to November dolphins and whales – especially the humpback dolphins and southern right whales – can be spotted offshore or from a boat. Some species of marine mammals are in residence in this area all year, including bottlenose and humpback dolphins; others are occasionally seen here, including Bryde's whales and orcas. The best whale-watching viewpoints in the area are Brenton-on-sea, The Knysna Heads and Noetzie.

The Knysna Heads

The Heads are two large sandstone sea headlands, which tower above the entrance to the Knysna Lagoon, where the river flows into the ocean.
They have become infamous because of the loss of boats and fishermen passing through their dangerous and unpredictable waters. The headlands are a great venue from which great to photograph, and observe the ocean and the nearby area. The Eastern Head has a lookout with spectacular views of the lagoon, Leisure Isle and Knysna. On the other side, the Western Head is a private nature reserve – Featherbed Nature Reserve.

Featherbed Nature Reserve

The Featherbed Nature Reserve, situated on the Knysna’s Western Head, is a natural heritage site and visits here are allowed only in small groups and with the reserve’s guides. To visit the reserve you can choose between a ferry trip across the lagoon and a drive or walk through the milkwood forests onto the sandstone cliffs. Here you may spot the green, elusive Knysna loerie and the blue duiker – one of the smallest and most endangered of the antelope species.

The Knysna Elephant Park

The Knysna Elephant Park, founded in 1994, was the first park in South Africa for orphaned African elephants, including relocated animals, orphaned calves, elephants rescued from culls and ex-circus animals. Since 1994, there have been more than thirty elephants here. Some have been moved onto other reserves and facilities in the Western and Eastern Cape and now they are nine, which is claimed to be the largest domesticated matriarchal herd in the country. Here you have the opportunity to get up close with elephants and book an elephant-back ride.
X  Close