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Knysna (pronounced /ˈnaɪznə/; probably from a Khoikhoi word meaning “ferns”) is a town with 76,431 inhabitants in the Western Cape Province of South Africa and is part of the Garden Route. It lies 34 degrees south of the equator, and is 72 kilometres east from the town of George on the N2 highway, and 25 kilometres west of Plettenberg Bay on the same road.
A hamlet Melville appeared on the lakeshore in 1825, and was followed by another, Newhaven, in 1846. Knysna town, a 1882 amalgamation of these hamlets, was named after the Knysna River.
Knysna’s port could provide shelter for up to 50 ships, and the region’s abundant timber was exported from this bay as early as 1787. Landowner George Rex, who landed at the Cape in 1796, played a significant role in the town’s early development and is considered the town’s founder. Being a difficult port to enter, a harbour pilot was employed to assist large vessels. One of the better-known pilots was John Benn, originally a shipwright from Mossel Bay, appointed as pilot in 1868 and whose name is borne by a double-deck pleasure cruiser currently operating as a tourist attraction on the Knysna lagoon. The port was officially closed in 1954.
The Norwegian family, Thesen, played a considerable role in the development of Knysna from 1869 onwards. Arnt Leonard Thesen (1816–1875) and his son Charles Wilhelm Thesen in particular, founded and expanded the family timber and shipping business. Charles Thesen was mayor of Knysna for a number of terms.
The town is primarily built on the northern shore of a large warm-water estuary, fed by the Knysna River. The estuary opens to the ocean after passing between two large headlands. These are popularly known as “The Heads”, and have become infamous due to the loss of boats and fishermen passing through their treacherous and unpredictable waters. Near them are geological formations, known locally as “The Map Stones.” To the north of Knysna, Afro-Montane or temperate rainforest covers the hilly terrain for 20 km until changing to fynbos or macchia high up in the Outeniqua Mountains.
The town is a popular destination for both tourists and senior citizens entering retirement, especially among the British and former expatriates due to the year-round warm climate. Recently the town has also become a preferred destination among golfers, as the town boasts several world class golf courses including Pezula Golf Course, Simola Golf Course and the well established Knysna Golf Course situated on the lagoon. Knysna too is a favourite haunt of artists, restaurateurs and hippies. The nearest beach is located at Brenton-on-sea which lies directly west of the heads and is continuous with Buffel’s Bay, a popular surf spot.
Knysna’s other claim to fame is the home to the fabled Knysna forest elephant.