At the heart of South Africa's "Garden Route", the town of Knysna (pronounced 'nigh-zna') is a hub for nature lovers and a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Set beside a huge, river-fed lagoon, surrounded by ancient forests and tucked beneath the Outeniqua Mountains, tourists flock here to kitesurf across the lake and scuba-dive beneath its surface, surf the Indian Ocean and skydive over it.
But with so much natural splendour within and surrounding this town, one of the simplest and most satisfying ways to experience the area is on two feet – which is how I spent my time here last Easter, when I visited with my boyfriend Tom.
Wet and wild
Having driven 110km along the Garden Route from Mossel Bay in the west, we arrived into Knysna in the late afternoon and, rather than check into our hotel, continued a couple of miles past the town and followed signs to Knysna Heads East, where the lagoon meets the sea.
Parking up, we paid the car attendant a couple of rand and headed along a narrow footpath beneath the green and rocky cliffs that guard the channel between the calm waters of the lagoon and the roar of the Indian Ocean.
With the tide on the rise, the waters of the lagoon and ocean swirled beneath us and pounded the base of the cliffs. Where the path dipped to sea level we had to time the surge and suck of the swell and dash across the rocks before the waves exploded over the footpath ahead.
A little further on, at the mouth of the lagoon, two monolithic sandstone cliffs – the Knsysna Heads – guard the gateway to the ocean. Throughout history, these turbulent waters have famously sealed the fate of countless ships, smashing their hulls against the headlands and jagged teeth that line the entrance to the lagoon.
For walkers, the twin headlands of Knysna East and Knysna West give stunning sunset views across the Indian Ocean and back over the lagoon to Leisure Island, which juts into the lake. The nature reserve on the Western Head is best reached by ferry, while the Eastern Head, where we stood, is easier to explore on foot. And it was at this lookout point that Knysna is said to have gained its name: the story goes that as two German tourists gazed at the view, one turned to the other and remarked "nice, na?" and so the name stuck.
With the light starting to fade, I called for Tom and saw him standing on a rock, arms spread wide, embracing the power of the ocean. After screeching at him to be careful, we picked our way back across the rocks, the roar of the ocean diminishing as we neared the car.
Walking with elephants
The following day, after breakfast by the lagoon, we hopped in our hire car and drove a few miles east to Knysna Elephant Park. A natural sanctuary for orphaned elephants, this forest reserve gives visitors the opportunity to interact with the roaming ellies in a semi-wild habitat. Feeding and walking with them is the most popular option but you can also take elephant-back rides, sunset tours or even sleep with the elephants by staying in a terraced room above their sleeping quarters.
We started in the information centre, reading the displays and running our fingers along wrinkled hides and plate-sized hoof prints to understand more about African Forest Elephants and the park's role in protecting them. Next, after collecting a bucket of fruit and veg, we jumped in the back of a truck and rattled into the reserve.
No sooner had I picked out their brown-grey bulks in the grasslands ahead, the truck had pulled up and a snake-like trunk was sniffing over my shoulder. Our guide clapped his hands and signalled for the ellies to stand in line behind a bar – the designated waiting area for those who want to get fed.
With a line-up of hungry elephants now waiting eagerly, I placed a chunk of carrot on my outstretch palm and watched the smallest elephant hoover it off my hand and coil it back to a smiling mouth. Several chunks of carrot later, the elephants turned away from the bar and began striding towards longer grass.
"Let's go with them," our guide instructed, and Tom and I accompanied a medium-sized elephant on its morning walk, tripping after it as it paced through the grass towards the forest edge. The elephants indulged us as we stroked them between the eyes and felt the soft skin behind their ears, before they edged into the scrub for some post-breakfast munching.
Hiking in harkerville
Having whet our appetite for one-off walks, on our final day we set out to explore Harkerville Forest, which sits on Knysna's doorstep. Turning off the N2 road, we drove deep into the woods, passing marked mountain-bike tracks and forest huts before pulling up in a parking area. We laced out boots, slung water and snacks in our rucksacks and checked our route on the information board before setting off.
From gentle wildlife trails and strolls to the Kranschoek Waterfalls, to multi-day treks and challenging scrambles, the Harkerville Forest has stacks to keep your hiking boots busy. We opted for a mid-level challenge and set off on a 9km hike through the Kranschoek Valley.
Following a rough trail into the forest, we tracked the course of the Kranshoek River as it cut a deep valley through steep slopes cloaked in fynbos shrubs and pines. Descending gradually for around 200-metres beneath a sub-tropical canopy, thick vines hung over our trail and twisted around indigenous trees. Every now and then we'd stop at refreshing pools that were perfect for summer bathing, or we'd venture out onto rocky viewpoints that jutted dramatically over the valley.
After an hour or so of downhill descent, the path spat us out on a rocky beach where the surging ocean made the pink, gold and rust-coloured coloured pebbles chatter loudly in the tide, while the shoreline itself was guarded by geometrical rock formations, the colour of a Cadbury's Crunchy bar.
We picked our way across the beach, mesmerised by the rocks and explosive waves that crashed against them. Tom called back to say he'd found a sheltered spot, so we sat amongst the rocks and munched our snacks. As we gazed out across the water, we pondered the fact that, from here, nothing but ocean lay between us and the ice caps of Antarctica.
It was our last day in Knysna, so we rewarded our hiking efforts with a big plate of oysters back in town – as the 'oyster capital' of South Africa, it's an opportunity that can't be missed. As we tucked into jumbo oysters that were so big we needed a knife and fork, we mused over our few days here. We may not have quad-biked Knysna's trails or rafted down its rivers, we hadn't skydived off its peaks or sailed past the treacherous Knysna Heads, nor had we felt the need: we'd had an unforgettable three days on foot.