Active Getaway

5 great adventure activities to do in Knysna

This coastal town in the Western Cape is a dream destination for adrenaline junkies, with canyoning, hiking, kayaking and more

16 December 2018 - 00:06
Visitors paddle around the residential marina on Knysna's Thesen Island, with its Cape Cod-style homes.
Visitors paddle around the residential marina on Knysna's Thesen Island, with its Cape Cod-style homes.
Image: Paul Ash

1. PADDLE A KAYAK AROUND THE CANALS

The residential marina built on Thesen Island in the Knysna Lagoon took years to approve. One creature whose future the developers had to protect was the endangered Knysna sea horse.

After years of environmental-impact studies, the marina - 19 man-made islands, linked by 21 arched bridges surrounded by some 25ha of waterways - finally got the green light. The pleasant network of canals, on which are built homes that echo the best of Cape Cod in New England, are a fine spot for some easy kayaking - out of the wind and with enough going on around you to keep you absorbed.

Kayaks can be rented from The Turbine Hotel's adventure centre. 

2. TAKE A SUNSET CRUISE TO THE KNYSNA HEADS

The famous Heads are the rocky promontories that guard the entrance to Knysna's lagoon like two craggy gargoyles. The current throughout the heads is so swift and the shifting sandbanks so treacherous that ships routinely came to grief while attempting it.

Indeed, the first ship to attempt them was the Royal Navy brig Emu - a former convict transport - which had voyaged from Cape Town and tried her luck at getting through. She struck a rock and was beached by her desperate crew to save her cargo.

These days, it's much safer and infinitely more pleasant to take a sunset cruise to the approaches to the Heads, while gazing at the shoreline and sipping bubbly. If you're staying at The Turbine Hotel & Spa, they will organise it for you. The view of the Heads and the Featherbed Nature Reserve from the water offers a chance to experience the drama of the lagoon approach without even getting your feet wet.

Canyoning in the tea-coloured Salt River.
Canyoning in the tea-coloured Salt River.
Image: Paul Ash

3. SWIM DOWN A CANYON

Canyoning is the sublime art of travelling down a gorge or kloof in the river's embrace. There are plenty of narrow kloofs in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains but one of the best to explore is the tea-coloured Salt River as it works its way down to the sea at Plettenberg Bay.

Operator Africanyon will lend you a wetsuit, PFD (that's river-speak for a life jacket) and booties - essential in the coolness of the kloof - and, along with two guides, take you into a world few are lucky enough to see.

Expect some abseils, a few high jumps into deep pools, at least one foefie slide, and lots of swimming like an otter, surrounded by green ferns and old trees and a sliver of blue sky overhead. It's R800 for a three-hour trip. 

4. DRIVE THE PRINCE ALFRED'S PASS

The R339 gravel road that heads north from Knysna over the Outeniqua Mountains to Avontuur and Uniondale is an epic drive, any way you look at it. It begins right off the N2 just outside Knysna and, by zigzags and switchbacks, makes its way over the mountains.

Some say the 69km-long route is pass-builder Thomas Bain's most spectacular work. On your way up, make the quick detour to the Spitskop outlook from whose lofty 918m-high summit you will have a superb view of the surrounding treetops as well as the mountain you are about to climb.

While you drink in the view, spare a thought for Giuseppe Sciociatti (memorialised on an information board below), one of the descendants of a party of Italian silk spinners brought to Knysna in a crazy scheme to spin silk, but who had to find other work on account of there being no mulberry trees for the silkworms. Sciociatti spent a lot of time on Spitskop as a fire-watcher, looking out for telltale signs of smoke in the valuable forests below.

On your return to town, stop by the Sam Ambroso Chapel (ask locally for directions as the Visit Knysna website is useless in this instance), which was built for the Italian immigrants and which is now a museum that tells their story.

5. WALK IN A REAL FOREST

Some time in the later part of the 18th century, Governor Joachim Van Plettenberg - making an inspection in loco from the Cape of Good Hope - had some harsh words for the wasteful woodcutters and other fortune hunters who were rampaging with saws and axes through the ancient hardwood forests of the Tsitsikamma coast.

Despite his objections, the pillage continued - and would do so for another 200 years - before it was finally stopped in the 1970s.

Not much of the great yellowwood and stinkwood forests survive but there are enough for you to go hiking in along some easy, well-marked trails to give you a glimpse into what, for the Khoikhoi people, might have seemed something of a paradise.

Marked forest trails lead you through a wonderland.
Marked forest trails lead you through a wonderland.
Image: Paul Ash

There are various walks, including the three-hour, 9km "Circles in a Forest" trail - named after the eponymous book written by local author Dalene Matthee - which leads to some of the last surviving yellowwood giants.

Listen out for the lovely call of the Knysna turaco, which lives here, and think of a time when this really was an Eden.

See dalenematthee.co.za.

Ash was a guest of The Turbine Hotel & Spa.