Walk 101: Knysna, South Africa Town Walk: A place of contrast

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3.04 miles (4.9km)

Time to walk: No time limit as this is just a stroll, sit, eat, drink & enjoy

Difficulty: All on flat, hard surfaces

Parking: Anywhere on the street in Knysna, but please give the local parking boys & girls more than the daily rates

Public toilets: Cafes on the way

Map of the route:

This is the second of our walks we did whilst holidaying in South Africa in 2017. The area was just recovering from a devastating fire during which many of the homes in the forested areas were lost

Knysna, probably from a Khoikhoi word meaning “ferns” is a town with 51,078 inhabitants in the Western Cape Province of South Africa & is part of the Garden Route. We took this walk from a great local leaflet by Margaret Parkes & Vicky Williams

Little is known about the indigenous inhabitants of Knysna, the Khoikhoi. The area east of present day George was separated by high mountains & deep gorges, making it virtually inaccessible to European travellers. Nevertheless, the first Europeans arrived in the area in 1760 & the farm Melkhoutkraal (literally translating from Afrikaans as ‘milk wood kraal’) was established on the eastern shore of the Knysna Lagoon. Stephanus Terblans, the first European farmer to settle in the area, was given a loan permit to farm here in 1770

Upon moving to Knysna George Rex, a British-born entrepreneur credited as being the founder of Knysna, acquired the loan rights to Melkhoutkraal in 1804 & later, in 1816, to the farm Welbedacht, which he renamed Eastward. He gave 80 acres to the Colonial Government, on which the Royal Navy established the township of Melville. Rex’s properties were sold when he died in 1839

The next major settler in Knysna was Captain Thomas Henry Duthie, who married Caroline, George Rex’s daughter, & bought a portion of the Uitzigt farm from his father-in-law which Rex had named Belvedere. We stayed on that estate

The settlement’s population grew slowly, & in 1858, Knysna became a separate Magisterial Division, new stores & accommodation facilities were opened, & Knysna became the new commercial centre of the region

In 1878 a gold nugget was found in the Karatara River, near Ruigtevlei. Soon fortune hunters from all over the world arrived at the Millwood Forest in search of gold, & Millwood grew into a bustling town. Millwood was declared a gold field, the first in South Africa. However, soon not enough gold was being recovered to sustain a growing town, & the mining industry in the area collapsed. Some miners relocated to Knysna, bringing their little homes with them. One of the houses, known as ‘Millwood House’, still exists & we’ll see it on this walk

By 1880 over 1000 people had settled in Knysna & the timber industry peaked when George Parkes arrived from Britain & saw the opportunity to use the hardwoods of the Knysna Forest for export to elsewhere in the country, & even overseas. He established the Knysna Forest Company, later renamed Geo.Parkes & Sons Ltd., which is still trading to this day

We’ll look at some more of the history of this fascinating town as we go so…

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk around this town starts at the Knysna Library which is located on the square just off the main road & behind the war memorial

Built in 1893, this building replaced a small wooden reading room . The committee was proud that only local wood was used in its construction. It’s been added to over the years & was extended during 2013, before being reopened in 2014

2. Turn round & you’ll see the town’s war memorial behind the fence which commemorates the fallen of both World Wars & the “Bush” war

The Memorial Square used to be known as Church Square when it was used for gatherings. The Memorial was built in in 1922 & was funded by public money & unveiled on the 17th December that year. It was draped in the Union Jack that the Reverend Captain AG Duthie of Belvidere had used at all burials at which he officiated at in Flanders

3. Exit the square & walk left along Main Street…

Just beyond the traffic lights is one of the most easily noticeable properties in Knysna, called the Melville Centre, with its double storey & numerous gables etc. Over the years the building has had several uses including a bank & a general store. The store closed in 1976 when it succumbed to the mights of the supermarket

4. Further along’s the beautiful Lych Gate which marks the entrance into the churchyard which contains two churches

It’s made of solid teak & was donated to the church in 1935 by the Thesen family. It originally contained teak benches, but these had to be removed due to vandalism

5. Walk through it & turn right arrive at the “Old” St George’s Church

The foundation stone of this lovely small church was laid on 21st April 1849 & the customary coins & documents were placed underneath them. However they were stolen in the night & had to be replaced & the stone relaid

The church was open so we had a look inside…

6. In the same grounds is the “New St George’s Church

The old church had been expanded, but it became clear that it was too small for the expanding community & a decision was taken to build a new one.

The foundation stone for this one was laid in September 1926, but due to funding issues wasn’t consecrated until April 1937. Again it was built completely with local materials

Interestingly the windows in the sanctuary were cut by the same craftsmen who made the Battle of Britain windows in Westminster Abbey

7. Come out of the church & turn left through the graveyard. There were some superb specimens of South Africa’s national flower, the Protea, in the churchyard

Exit the churchyard onto Queen Street & walk up the road. the locals say that this view is how the streets of Knysna used to look with grass verges & trees lining them…

The oaks along here were planted in 1891 & the street was named after Queen Victoria

8. We’re now going to walk a block & there’s several properties of note on the way. Firstly, on the left the building with the tower is St Boniface Roman Catholic Church which was blessed in December 1950

The Roman Catholic community in Knysna was founded around 1861, when a small chapel & schoolroom were built in Queen Street by Father Rooney of George, near where the present presbytery now stands. The first church was consecrated in 1863 & the first resident priest was appointed in 1891.

The design of the new church is in the modified Mediterranean Revival style

9. Almost next door on the same side of the road’s Melrose House / Convent

The land on which this double-story building stands was originally part of a farm.

This building was hired by the Colonial Office & used as Government Offices & a Courthouse until the early 1880’s when the Magistrate moved to what is now the Police Station in Main Street. The Standard Bank opened its first branch here in September 1881 before relocating in 1882

It was bought in 1902 by the Royal Hotel, which we’ll see shortly, as an annex before being sold in 1930 to the Catholic Church. The German-born Nuns of the Pallotine Order lived in this convent & are fondly remembered by the locals for their teaching of needlework to the black community. Two sisters also set up a primary school for black children here

The Convent & school eventually closed due to the lack of nuns & it’s now a care home

10. The scrubland at the top of Queen Street was known as O’Reilly’s Bush which was the site of the town’s one & only hanging, of a man called “Jacob” whose crime isn’t known. We didn’t go up there as the guidebook says the area isn’t one of the safest in the town

Instead our route lies to the right along Metcalfe Street . On the corner, on each side of the street, are two houses that are typical of the old style ones that used to be all along this area

11. Walk up beautiful Metcalfe Street…

On the grass we spotted one of South Africa’s most colourful birds, a Doubled Collared Sunbird

12. On the left’s one of the town’s most picturesque house…Primrose Cottage which dates back until around 1866

As with many of the houses in the Cape, Primrose Cottage has a large Dutch gable & was built by Dr Hare, the District Surgeon. His wife & daughters opened the first girls’ school in the building to the right of it. Locals say that when the Great Fire of 1869 came close to the cottages, the schoolchildren helped water down the thatched roof

13. At the crossroads turn right down Montagu Street, named after John Montagu who served in the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo

There’s two distinctive buildings on the right. Firstly the Wesley Hall…

…& then the Methodist  Church. Before the church was built in the town the minister from another one rode on horseback over 16 miles up & down a rough road through a mountain pass to hold a service every Thursday. The church here cost £600 to build & the first service was held in 1893

The church was enlarged in 1955 to accommodate a larger congregation

14. Rejoin Main Street once more. Across the road straight ahead’s the Police Station & Courtrooms…

This Victorian building is one of the oldest in Knysna, being built in 1860 as a department store. It then had several uses until in the early 1880’s it became a the Court House. Today it also houses the local Police Station, cells & mortuary

15. Back across Main Street is the Post Office…

…& the extremely attractive old building slightly further along is The Royal Hotel which is the oldest one in Knysna. It was here that Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred spent his first night in Knysna in 1867 on the way to the forest to shoot an elephant – he returned with two!

Alfred granted permission for the hotel to change its name to The Royal. It was rebuilt in 1938 & reopened on 1st December 1939

16. Cross the street once more to arrive at the Old Gaol complex which is now an art gallery & museum

The Old Gaol is free to visit & well worth a look to gain an insight into Knysna’s history. It was the first public building to be built by the Colonial Government & was built by some of the local convicts

The Gaol’s bell served several purposes, including being an alarm in the event of a fire & also as a tool to stop the locals from overcrowding the Post Office when the post arrived. From 1883 a double peal was sounded 15 minutes before the delivery & the people were ordered by the Magistrate to “post & collect their mail forthwith & no lingering!”

The cells are still there & really bring home the harshness & reality of spending time in this gaol

There’s also some quite stark information boards showing the different categories of inmates including ones on self tattooing

17. Walk back up to Main Street & turn left passing the garage. This was the site of one of Knysna’s first sawmills. After that pass the property with the veranda which used to be the old Post Office in the 1800s

18. Just after this we arrive at the lower part of Memorial Square, which today was full of people trying to sell their wares (“Looking & touching is free!”)

The square was originally called Church Square & was used for welcoming important visitors to the town. To celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, 8 silky oaks were planted on the northern side of what was then a large parking area

19. About turn & walk back down Queen Street past the Old Gaol again…

Towards the end of the street look for some old buildings on the left side. All of these form part of Knysna Museum. Firstly the small wooden building is known as Parkes cottage…

It’s been moved a couple of times before it reached its current resting place & was used as the office for Knysna’s first Town Clerk. Behind it’s a corrugated iron building known as the Company Shop that was used by the workers & staff of the sawmill

20. The larger property next door is called Millwood House & is typical of the houses that were built in the forest in this mining area in the 1880s

It’s another one that was transported here. It was declared a National Monument & today houses the Museum. It was open & free so we had a look around

21. At the bottom of the street turn right & then immediately. Behind the large modern Council Chamber building lies the Old Town Hall, or the Market Hall as it was previously known. The offices had become too small so the new Hall was built in 1963

To celebrate the opening of the old building the Mayor held 3 parties – the first was a dance, the second for the young people & the third for the workers. In those days there was no electricity

22. Continue past the Old Hall down Queen Street, turning right into Union Street…

…& turn left into Long Street where, on the corner, we find the elaborate Thesen House. which was built with turrets, but these were destroyed when a fire broke out in 1926. The Norwegian Thesen family came to Knysna in 1870

The family owned a shipping line known as the Thesen Steamship Company. When the family sold their business one of the descendants bought the actual building so today it still remains in their name

23. Past the Thesen building is the Queen’s Warehouse or Customs Shed…

It was the terminus for the tram line for goods pulled up from the jetty by mules. It was famous for its Oregon pine doors that are now in storage & have been replaced by glass

24. Continue straight down Long Street towards Knysna harbour…

The Knysna Waterfront has clearly had a lot of money invested in it & is well worth a visit. It’s definitely one of the most popular leisure & shopping destinations in the region, boasting a superior marina, a base for luxury yachts & Knysna’s gateway for cruises and luxury charters voyaging in the lagoon

The shops, boutiques & restaurants are all based around a beautiful harbour with some very expensive boats

Our favourite restaurant was ’34 South’ with it’s incredible seafood…6 oysters for £2 & an incredible grilled King Clip fish

25. Walk back towards the town down Long Street again passing the Knysna Primary School on the left…

The school was built in 1947 on an old parade ground that was used during the Boer War & amalgamated the Afrikaans medium free primary school with the English medium fee-paying primary section of the High School

26. The large buildings just past the school were once Woodmill Lane sawmill. The mill changed hands several times, but once exported the wood used to make bobbins in England

The mill finally stopped producing in 1984. Turn left along the walkway where you can see some of the old engines

Continue through the mill buildings passing a very good Biltong shop!

27. At the end turn right up the hill & then left again along Main Street once more…

The rather attractive building with the veranda is Templeman’s Arcade which was built in 1883 as a second shop for another store holder, Mrs Brown. It later converted into a general store

Next door’s a large three-storey shopping arcade that houses the offices of The Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

28. On the corner of Grey Street’s a bank that was originally built as a private home. Note the Dutch gable which is so common of all the properties around here

This branch of the First National Bank, previously Barclays Bank, was opened in 1919

29. Across the road from the bank is the very distinctive Tourist Office which used to be the Post Office which was built in 1924. The first tourist organisation to visit the town was that of South African Railways in 1929 & the first tourist train arrived in 1930

Across the lights at the junction with Grey Street’s ‘Die Ou Fabriek’…

This translates as ‘The old Factory’ & the first property built on it was a church hall in 1898. There was also a police station & then a local newspaper company

30. Turn back along Main Street. The yellow building over the road is Victorian & used to have a veranda

The first owner was Hendrik Smoebel whose widow Cornelia married a Cape photographer, William Groom, who was the person that farmer Hooper brought the first nugget of gold to that was found in the Karatara River to be identified

31. The final old building we’re going to look at today houses the Raasoie Indian Restaurant…

It’s another that’s had many uses including a doctor’s home & surgery

So that’s the end of our walk around historic Knysna & normally we would just sum up & say ‘Go Walk’

But this time we feel compelled to tell another story…a story caused by apartheid. Whilst we were walking around the harbour with all its wealth, we were conscious that just over the top of the hill, out of sight, out of mind are 55,000 people living in properties not much bigger than our garden shed that constitute a township

We chose to visit to try & understand & hired the lovely local artist Peggy Diephu to take us round her beautiful people…it’s extremely humbling & so so wrong. If you get the chance to visit South Africa, you should too…

Go Walk!