Prisoners in a gilded cage

by Tim Dawe

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Through the window I see the electrified perimeter fence and cleared no man’s land. Guards in electric buggies on night patrol periodically shine a light through the crack in my bedroom curtains. Entry to this compound is by fingerprint scan overseen by CCTV and burly security guards.  A hellish detention centre?  No, it’s Thesen Island at Knysna, a pleasant coastal town of 50,000 inhabitants on South Africa’s 520km scenic “garden route” from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay (Plett), just 30km east of here. I’m staying with Pierre Durand and his wife Hentie in their comfortable, white picket fence home in their uniform housing estate. Pierre is a proud descendant of a 17th century Huguenot. In many ways Pierre and Hentie epitomise the issues of post-1994 South Africa.

Knysna, pronounced Naiz-nah, is indeed nice. It has an agreeable climate all year. The modern vibrant town wraps itself around the northern shore of the large estuary (Knysna Lagoon) to developed land at Waterfront quays and the yacht club, while the main street buzzes with free-spending shoppers, cafés, restaurants, art galleries and craft shops. Thesen Island, now made plural with canal development, is a residential development joined to the town centre by an extended street. It maintains strict residency rules: colour – white; picket fence height – 750mm. I catch glimpses from the film Truman. Immediate attractions include cliff-top golf courses, Featherbed Nature Reserve, rocky cliffs extending to a rugged coastline and surfing beaches.

In the 19th century the industry here was not retirement or tourism. It was timber, interspersed by a short-lived gold rush. Knysna started in 1804 when the legendary English “character” George Rex sought his fortune in abundant hardwood from the forests of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikama mountains. The nearby city of George takes his name. Later, Norwegian Charles Thesen and his family stopped en route to New Zealand and stayed, adding milling and shipbuilding to timber exports. My temporary island takes his name. In the 1880s Englishman George Parkes expanded Knysna’s timber exports internationally.

On Knysna’s western shore is Belvidere Manor, near where the Knysna River enters the estuary and where the railway bridge once carried sightseers on South Africa’s last steam train, the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. Surrounded by native forests Belvidere is a tranquil hideaway resort with cottages looking over the Lagoon. Sheltering from inclement weather I take a drink at The Bell, a tiny pub with its own Elizabethan atmosphere. Oyster beds here produce the 200,000 top quality oysters consumed during the winter 10-day Knysna Oyster Festival, the town’s biggest event.

A little out of town is Knysna Forest, a lush rainforest in the mountain foothills. A forester guide takes me on a 7km round-trip elephant walk through lush rainforest to see the ancient hardwoods that built the town: Outeniqua Yellowwood (masts to furniture), Real Yellowwood (beams/floors), Milkwood (boatbuilding), and colourful Stinkwood (furniture). There are no elephants sighted, nor expected. The Knysna elephant, the last of the southern African elephants numbered 10 in 1969 and just one cow in 1994. Officially extinct, there is no evidence for the regular sightings.

Featherbed Nature Reserve on the western side of the roaring heads is unusual: it’s privately owned, the legacy of William Smith, a chemist and celebrity teacher turned conservationist. Its pristine wilderness, home to the Knysna Loerie and the endangered seahorse, is accessible only by boat. After lunch at the yacht club overlooking the lagoon the private ferry takes me to the tiny jetty in rare still water to be met by a tractor. In carriages visitors are hauled up steep cliffs to panoramic views of Knysna and ocean rushing through the heads. Views from the mansions on the edge of the eastern head must be stunning.

There’s a 2km nature trail fringed with aromatic fynbos under milkwood trees down to the beach on the Southern Ocean, stocked with migrating whales. Magnificent sandstone sea caves, the ancient homes of the Khoi Khoi, make dramatic backdrops among the cliffs. After four hours wandering the returning ferry adds to the experience circumnavigating the lagoon.

Getting here is easy. From Cape Town simply drive down the N2 and enjoy the route or there are flights to George (pop 175,000) 55km west. Near Plett are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden and further afield Oudtshoorn 120km offers Cango Caves and ostrich farming and racing.

Back to Hentie and Pierre on Thesen Island. Their day dawns with light dancing on water. It’s deathly quiet. But down by the gatehouse on my early walk I hear a soft thumping, then see an army of black mamas, some already in their blue smocks, marching 9 or 10 abreast over the causeway. They come from the “settlement” up the hill behind the town and spend their day cleaning spotless houses without children. Over breakfast Pierre agonises whether to walk or take the boat around the tiny man-made island. He tells me that that as a 45-year-old middle manager he found himself with a promotion – and a catch. Under the legislated black employment empowerment program (affirmative action to rebalance the post-apartheid workforce) the offer came with a black South African trainee who, when ready, would assume that position, and Pierre would retain his old job. Proudly he took a generous retirement package and retired to quiet and secure paradise in Knysna. He talks not about a “rainbow nation” or “born-free generation” or even the S in “BRICS” but about his Huguenot relatives; looking backwards, whether in decades or centuries. Hentie plans lunch with the tennis girls. On my evening return Pierre has not left the house so we take a short walk.

After two confining days on Thesen Island I’m ready to move on. Staying longer would make me feel like Pierre and Hentie – prisoners in a gilded cage. Knysna is a highlight of South Africa’s garden route, a lovely country town with wonderful attractions all around. To experience it fully you need a vehicle – oh, and take accommodation in town.

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