Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rare Pleasures

This blog is a piece of unashamed theft. Knysna is definitely Stan’s territory – it is where he lives when he’s in South Africa - and I have absolutely no business writing about it. However, there are extenuating circumstances. Three of them in fact. First, he asked me to write the blog for him this week. Second, I’ve just been visiting him in Knysna, so at least this is based on recent first-hand experience. Third, he wrote a piece about Johannesburg last week (which is where I live).
So what makes Knysna so special? That’s very easy to answer. It’s the lagoon. It’s beautiful, exiting to the sea through a crevice in the surrounding hills called simply The Heads. Stan’s house is up on the left hill (or Head) in this picture that looks from the town out through The Heads to the sea.

Not only does the lagoon provide a wonderful scenic feature and a home to all sorts of water sports, but it is also home to the Knysna Oyster. The canny folk of Knysna have a knack of taking their natural advantages and turning them into commercial advantages. For many years one would drive onto a small island in the lagoon –Thesen Island - which had a desultory timber business on it, and the Knysna Oyster Company. The Knysna Oyster Company was a beacon attracting tourists and locals alike. At first it consisted of an oyster farm where oysters were cultivated in the lagoon and sold –open or closed – to visitors and local restaurants and hotels. After some time, a few outside tables were added where you could sit in the sun, enjoy the lagoon and eat your oysters with your own wine. Then it became a café, then a restaurant, then a landmark … and then it disappeared.

Knysna specialises in rarities. There are the famous Knysna elephants, by far the rarest of their clan. Believed extinct for many years, it has now been established that a few still wander deep in the Knysna forests keeping well away from humans. For visitors who don’t have a few months to invest in trying to find them, an Elephant Park with non-Knysna elephants has been situated nearby.

At Brenton on the sea side of the town, there is a butterfly – the Brenton Blue – which occurs only there. In common with several other species of Blue, it has a complex relationship with a species of ant. The caterpillar secretes a sweet substance that the ants enjoy, and in return they protect it and help it with its complex life cycle, even excavating a hole for it to feed on roots and eventually pupate. Since this is sea front property, the Blue was hardly likely to have been left in peace, but at least an area has been set aside to attempt to preserve the species. Brenton Blue tours are doing rather well too.
Then there’s the Knysna Seahorse – the rarest species of seahorse and the only one on the South African coast. It occurs only in three estuaries along the Cape coast. All seahorses are fascinating creatures with their languid behaviour and charming faces. Fortunately they’ve caught the hearts of the people in the area. But that brings me back to the disappearing Oyster Company. Thesen Island has become a residential development. Suddenly this small island, practically at sea level, has been packed with houses. We are assured that no damage will result to the lagoon or the seahorses. Just what happens to the effluent from all these new dwellings is best left to the imagination. The oysters packed up and left, bag and baggage.

Well, perhaps global warming has one saving grace after all. Thesen Island will be among the first to go…



  1. Why do people feel that every space has to be used and abused by humans? The butterfly is exquisite and isn't everyone just a bit enamored by sea horses? Seahorses and unicorns play big parts in the fantasy lives of little girls.

    I don't live in the country but we do abut some land that is a stopping off place for Canadian geese on their way south as well as home to a number of other birds. About twenty-five years ago, a national non-profit worked with the neighbors when they were planning their headquarters. When the facility was completed, it blended perfectly with the woods. A duck pond was protected and the design of the building was re-configured when the original building was going to be too close to a stand of very old trees.

    A jogging and walking path was created and neighbors have access to the facility's gym.

    My kids, with a bags of bread in their hands, spent a lot of time at the duck pond and watching for birds.

    The key to the protection of the area is, of course, the fact that the facility was built by a non-profit. Before they began building there were many meetings with the neighbors in which promises were made. All were kept.


  2. Gosh, Beth, I wish more stories had a happy ending like that!

    I must say that there are groups working hard to try to protect the elephants, Blues and seahorses (no unicorns regrettably). It's not a lost cause but it's a delicate balance...


  3. Shame about those oysters. I love them and they looked delicious. Hope they come back one day.


  4. Hi Michael,

    My farm is in a rural area where building is not encouraged by the municipality, county or state. It's almost as if the denser parts of the state have developed a communal conscience dedicated to making sure that "somewhere out there" will always be picturesque country roads where folks can take a drive and show the kids what a tree looks like in its natural habitat.

    Whatever their reason(s), God bless them. Now, about that climate change thought of yours...