Travel South Africa. Knysna Travel Guide for First Time Visitors

It is easy to see why Knysna has been awarded several times “South Africa’s Favourite Town” status. Let’s say you want to spend a few days relaxing, and that not too far from Cape Town. You would like to visit a place where the scenery is as magnificent as in a coffee table book and people welcome you into their community? You should visit Knysna.

The Knysna Travel Guide for First Time Visitors

It is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, with a rich history and heritage. Knysna and the Garden Route in the Western Cape Province are easy to reach from Cape Town in under five to six hours. The friendly town on the Garden Route sits between George and Plettenberg Bay, and there is so much to see and do. Knysna is home to a lagoon, the ocean, and the forest. There are areas within the Municipal boundaries that are simply beautiful to visit, and Sedgefield, Noetzie, Buffalo Bay, or Brenton are all included in this guide. Knysna means “Place of Wood” in Khoisan.

San hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors had lived in southern Africa for tens of thousands of years, were joined by Khoekhoe herders (pronounced koi-koi) about 2000 years ago. They lived in caves along the coast and depending on the season also inland. They fished, gathered roots and bulbs of wild plants and hunted small mammals in the nearby forest, and didn't do much harm to ecological systems apart from starting fires to shoo away wildlife. After the Europeans arrived, the hunter-gatherers became farm labourers. The settlers needed wood for pretty much everything they built from furniture to houses. The first wooden house was erected in 1798, a wharf and harbour were later built and Knysna slowly became a town. Over the following 200 years the surrounding forests were heavily destructed. Today SANParks looks after the protection of forest areas.

Knysna Travel Guide for First Time Visitors

Knysna Forest Elephants

Until the 1900s around thousand elephants roamed the Knysna forest. As a recent scientific survey conducted by SANParks, where 70 cameras at almost 40 locations in the forest were used, found, there is sadly only one surviving Knysna elephant (Loxodonta africana), a female of about 45 years. One lonely elephant lives in the Knysna forest.

Lizette Moolman, SANParks scientist explains on the SANPark website "because elephants move along defined elephant pathways, we placed our cameras on these paths and covered the elephant range evenly, with spaces between camera traps no larger than the smallest range recorded for elephants. In other words, an elephant would not reside in a gap area, between camera trap locations, for the duration of the survey. The cameras were all active for 15 months, and during this time the same female elephant was identified in 140 capture events, always by herself. No other elephants were photographically captured."

Imagine, that elephant is the last free-roaming elephant in South Africa. All other elephants live in protected national parks and/or reserves. Humans took away the elephant's habitat (deforestation), and pleasure-hunting (as well as for ivory) played a big role in the decline of Knysna elephants. It is man-made. We humans do this to animals, as if we were the masters of the universe.

As a rule, we should leave the elephants (and all wildlife) alone, and not capture and tame them so they can entertain us in parks or sanctuaries. If you love nature, wildlife and believe in the future of our planet, do not visit places where you can feed, interact, walk, and or ride on or with elephants (wildlife). I know, we all want to hang out with a cute elephant… The thing is, that elephants don’t want to hang out with you. If you want to support elephant conservation efforts donate to a charity, however there is no need to pet wildlife in return. If you would like understand elephants better, the best thing is to watch a wildlife documentary and or find books about elephants.

A beach in the featherbed reserve in Knysna in South Africa.

The Knysna heads at the entrance of the Knysna lagoon in South Africa

Biodiversity of the Knysna Lagoon

One enters the calm lagoon from the wild Indian Ocean through what is known as the Heads, two massive sandstone cliffs. To cross through the lagoon, one would need to swim 14.5 kilometres. The view over the lagoon is simply magnificent.

According to SANParks the Knysna estuary ranks third of South Africa’s estuaries in terms of botanical importance, eighth in terms of importance for conserving fish, 19th in terms of water bird-conservation, and first in terms of overall conservation importance which includes criteria such as size, diversity of habitat, zonal rarity and biodiversity.

The Knysna Basin Project aims to ensure the conservation of the Knysna Estuary and the surrounding catchments.  The Not for Profit organization believes in ongoing scientific research and the education of those that depend on the estuary and surrounding environment, to conserve the region. With ShoreSearch, they monitor the invertebrate species that live between the low and high tide lines, and with that gain insight over the biodiversity into the intertidal zone of the Knysna estuary.

A water quality monitoring programme (Knysna Estuary Monitoring Platform, KEMP), collects data on a real-time, 24/7 basis and measurements are taken on an hourly basis.

The Knysna Basin Project also works on how to incorporate sustainable urban drainage systems into catchments to control stormwater, and Knysna Municipality provided substantial funding for that project.

If you would like to become a citizen scientist, are interested in research work, or want to know more about projects, a good first step is to visit the website for more information.

There are obviously sharks living in the waters on the garden route coastline and when spotted that can lead to temporary closure of beaches. Sometimes sharks come and visit the Knysna lagoon to avoid the colder water of the deeper Indian Ocean. Get out of the water if you see a shark, and wait till it is clear to go back in. Always listen to lifeguards’ advice and to local municipal authority warnings. The National Sea Rescue Institute NSRI and Knysna Municipality inform about shark activity in the lagoon and near the beaches in the area.

To better plan your activities in the waters of the Knysna lagoon check the Knysna tide calendar. You can go on several boat trips on the lagoon, one is a trip to the Featherbed Nature Reserve.

Panorama of Knysna Lagoon in South Africa

Featherbed Nature Reserve Western Head Knysna

On the Western Head is the privately owned by a mining magnate featherbed nature reserve, which is only to be reached by ferry. Daily visitor numbers to this South African Heritage site are restricted. Back in the days, when sailors came into the lagoon from the wild sea, they felt that this was “like sleeping in a featherbed”, and with that the name was established. Visitors can jump onto a ferry to the Featherbed Reserve and go on guided walk through the coastal milkwood forest and fynbos to learn about the region and its history. It is also possible to arrive in your own boat (just saying, in case you bring your own boat).

Steps down to the ocean in the Featherbed Rocks Nature Reserve

Knysna Marine adventure

We all need Vitaming Sea. I researched eco-labelled boat tours to go on a dolphin watch tour and I soon found the one. Ocean Odyssey is an eco-labelled (Blue Flag) sustainable boating tourism operator. With their work Ocean Odyssey attracts tourism and with that they create jobs in the community. I go on a boat tour and see lots of dolphins and a baby dolphin. For more details, please read Knysna and Dolphins: Eco-labelled Marine Boat Cruise.

Bottlenose Dolphin mother and calf in the Indian Ocean in Knysna in South Arrica

Beaches and beach walks in and around Knysna

There are so many options to go swimming in and around Knysna. Natures Valley Beach, Cola Beach in Sedgefield, Sedgefield Beach, Robberg Beach in Plettenberg Bay, Wilderness Beach, Gerickes Point (ideal for snorkelling in rock pools), Victoria Bay Beach between Wilderness and George. Always check whether there are lifeguards on duty before you head out into the water and stay in for swimming designated areas. Remember, safety first.

There are ideal spots for endless walks on the beach. The beach in Brenton on Sea sits between a lush indigenous forest and the mighty Indian Ocean. The rather isolated Noetzie Beach in the Sinclair Nature Area is protected by the Noetzie Conservancy, and if this is not enough already, believe it or not, there even is a real castle to look at. The beach of Buffalo Bay between Knysna and Sedgefield is in the Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected area.

Footprints in the sand at Buffels Bay beach in Knysna in South Africa.

Castles on Noetzie Beach in Knysna in South Africa.

Three beautiful festivals in Knysna

The Sedgefield Slow Festival is an annual festival with a focus on a natural way of life. They want you to remember that one can have fun without TV, internet and smart phones. The Knysna Literary Festival is for bookworms and book lovers and showcases hand-picked authors from South Africa. The Knysna Timber Festival is organized by the Knysna Timber Initiative, inspired by the region's heritage and history of timber. Best to ask at the tourism office for more event details.

Hiking in the Tsitsikamma National Park

The Tsitsikamma National Park is in the Eastern Cape in only a short one hour’s drive from Knysna. No matter where you are, the scenery is simply spectacular. There are several longer and short hikes you can do. Visit the San Parks Website and check out the Tsitsikamma section for deatiled info. Crossing one of the suspension bridges over the Storms River is one of the things dreams are made of.

You might see lots of dassies in the National Park. Based on their DNA, Rock hyraxes are the closest related relatives to African elephants and also of the manatee and dugong. Yes, you read that right. You’d always meet these in groups, as they doze in the shade of a tree, climb into bushes... or on street signs. I watch a group of six guys trying to pet the dassies. Why on earth? You’d not walk over to the next human to pet her/him. One of the dassies bites one of the guys. Remember, to not touch or feed wildlife please. Visit the SANParks website for more info.

Boulders and rock formations on the beach in the Tsitsikamma National Park in South Africa.

A close-up of rock horax, also known as dassie in South Africa

Two wooden suspension bridges over the ocean in the Tsitsikamma National Park in South Africa.

Boulders and wood on Drift Wood Beach in the Tsitsikamma National Park in South Africa.

Two people walking over a suspension bridge in the Tsitsikamma National Park  in South Africa.

Viewpoint Map-Of-Africa

As the Kaaimans River meanders its way through the valley with its hills and thick forests, it shapes the Map of Africa. It is a natural wonder, and there is a local woman at the viewpoint who happily tells you all about the area. You only have to drive 50 kilometres from Knysna to reach the Map of Africa viewpoint. After a short drive over gravel from Wilderness near Hoekwil you can park your car and see the Map of Africa from above. Use a tiny bit of imagination, and you can better see the map of the African continent.

White Houses in Hoekwil near Wilderness in South Africa.

Viewpoint Map-Of-Africa; green forest in Hoekwil in South Africa.

Information Map-Of-Africa View Point: Hoekwil, Wilderness, South Africa. It is sign posted off the N2. Tickets: Free.

Wilderness and Wilderness Beach

A 2500 ha National Park has five rivers, five lakes, two estuaries and 18 kilometres of coastline. You find Wilderness between the Kaaimans River and the Goukama Nature Reserve and see the Outeniqua Mountains in the distance. Dolphin Point is a viewpoint that has the most amazing view over the Indian ocean and Wilderness beach. Be patient and you will probably see large pods of dolphins in the sea. The Kaaimans River Bridge that was once built for a train line over the ocean and the river is another fantastic photo opportunity you have from Dolphin Point.

Wilderness beach is one long stretch of fine white sand. The beach is patrolled by lifeguards, check out the times when you visit to be on the safe side when you go for a swim. Best to ask lifeguards for rips and to always stay in designated swimming areas. Remember: safety first.

Wilderness is an easy 50 kilometres drive from Knysna and will only take a bit over thirty minutes. You find lots of restaurants and cafes in Wilderness.

House next to the The Kaaimans River Rail bridge, with a view over the Indian Ocean in South Africa.

Bright yellow hardy coastal plant on the beach in South Africa

Beach houses with lush green hills in the background, in Wilderness in South Africa.

Mosaic Village and Outdoor Market in Sedgefield

This is the place to shop locally designed products and food. Search the stalls for clothes, plants, trinkets, jewellery, honey, fudge, chocolate, roasted coffee, handmade wooden bowls, mirrors, paintings, reusable shopping bags, hats, and toys. When you have done your shopping, find a place to sit and listen to live music. This is the perfect thing to do on a Saturday morning. Make it slow, visit Slow Roasted for hot drinks and cakes, sit down and avoid using a takeaway cup.

Art and design at the Mosaic Market in Sedgefield in South Africa.

Mosaic Village and OUtdoor Market. Paul Kruger Street, Sedgefield, Knysna 6573, South Africa. Hours: Saturday 8am to 2pm. 

Watch the sunset in Brenton-on-Sea

From Knysna go on a short drive around the lagoon and over the hill to reach Brenton-on-Sea. The place founded in 1960 is named for the guy who declared Knysna a harbour in 1818. The, to South Africa endemic and sadly IUCN red listed as endangered, Brenton Blue butterfly is also named for him. Thanks to the butterfly the area is a protected nature reserve. Come sunset, the Brenton-on-Sea beach gets the Midas touch. For about an hour the sun turns everything to gold. These are the moments when I realize once more how magnificent the world is and that we need to protect that. 

A golden sunset; people walking in the sunset's reflection on the beach in Brenton-on-sea in South Africa

Brenton-on-Sea. Coordinates: 34°04′S 23°01′E

Vegetarian friendly restaurants and cafés in Knysna

I went to all the following recommended places several times over the years and during all my visits to Knysna. At these places I experienced consistently good service and food. I was always welcomed warmly and enjoyed my time.

The Olive Tree. Recommended: Vegetarian pasta dish. Wood Mill Lane Centre, Main Road, Knysna, 6571, South Africa. Book in advance during peak season. Visit the website for more info.

The Drydock Food Co. Recommended: Vegetarian sushi. Waterfront Shop 1, Waterfront Dr, Knysna Central, Knysna, 6570, South Africa. Book in advance during peak season. Visit the website for more info.

Ile de Pain. 10, The Boatshed, Long St, Thesen Island, Knysna, 6571, South Africa. Only open during the day till 3pm. Book (a table for breakfast) in advance during peak season. Visit the website for more info.

Milk taart a traditional South African cake and dessert, served deliciously decorated on a slate

Where to stay in Knysna

Roseroc Boutique Guest House is decorated in beach house style with a slight Frenchie touch. I stayed at the honeymoon suite with an open-plan bathroom and private balcony. The view from my bed over the lagoon is best described as picture perfect. Breakfast is everything one can imagine and more, superb. Delightful to see the hosts having so much fun at work. With views of Knysna lagoon, Roseroc Guest House attracts ocean lovers and all fans of amazing beaches and lush forest surrounds.

Roseroc Guest House (previously Bridgewater Manor). 33 Circular Drive, Knysna, 6570, South Africa. Coordinates S34°02 08.73, E23°01 53.54. Best to book in advance, especially during peak season. Please check the website for rates which are inclusive of breakfast. Please ask whether all rooms can be reached by wheelchair before you book.

Interior, green plants, brekfast and the wooden deck with a lagoon view at Roseroc Guest House in Knysna in South Africa

What you need to know before you visit Knysna

White houses on Knysna lagoon in South Africa

How to get to Knysna


You can reach Knysna along the N2 from Cape Town. It is a drive of about six hours. Break up the trip with spending some days in Swellendam and the De Hoop Nature Reserve. From Port Elizabeth it is a three hours long drive to Knysna. The next airport is in George (national flights only). From Plettenberg Bay it is a short drive of 30 minutes; you can easily plan the boat-tour as a day trip from there.

Wi-fi in Knysna

You will commonly have free wi-fi in guest houses, cafes and restaurants in Knysna.

Best time to visit Knysna

Knysna is a year-round travel destination, it gets rarely cold, temperatures are seldom lower than 16 degrees Celsius (not even in the “depth” of winter, in August). Whale watching season is from July to October; odd sightings are possible as early as April/May. If you visit in the time from December to February, please book accommodation well in advance, summer is a busy time.

Books to read before visiting Knysna

Dalene Matthee is a South African novelist who was born in Riversdale in the Western Cape in 1938. Once can’t think about Knysna without thinking of her writing and stories about the Knysna forest.

Fiela’s Child A boy wanders too far into the Knysna Forest and never returns. With Fiela's Child, Dalene Matthee tells the story of Fiela, a black woman in nineteenth-century South Africa who finds a child at her doorstep. She takes him. Years later, when the boy, by now named Benjamin is a teenager, his original family wants him back.

Dreamforest The author tells the story between the intimate relationship of an initiated “forest woman” and the heart of the forest, and how it becomes an obstacle in her experience of the man she loves. It is such an intense read, Karoliena marries Johannes, moves to town, misses the forest badly and runs back home.

The Mulberry Forest Silkworm farmers from Italy are lured to the Knysna Forest to establish a silk industry. It appears that the government dumped them in the wilderness making false promises. Mulberry trees won't grow in the soil of the forest.

Three different Dalene Matthee Books to read before visiting Knysna in South Africa

From Berlin with love