Knysna has a fascinating and colourful history that includes the Khoi-khoi, sailing ships, timber harvesting and even a short gold rush!
The greater Garden Route area has been home to humans for close on one million years. With protection from the mountain ranges to the north, the bounty of the sea to the south, fresh water and forests, the area was a natural sanctuary. The earliest evidence of people living in the Garden Route comes from Stone Age implements found along the coast, as well as shell middens preserved in caves.
Archaeologists have found many artefacts that also show how hunter-gatherers (Khoi-khoi) used to live in the area, and use the sea as their main food source. They prospered in the South Cape for about 10 000 years and it was not until 2 000 years ago that the nomad herders starting moving in to the area.
A few hundred years ago, when European explorers were searching for a sea passage from Europe to the East, some Portuguese sailors passed the coast. In 1488 Bartholomeu Diaz stopped to get fresh water in Mossel Bay, but it wasn’t until much later that the first Europeans started settling in the Southern Cape. Once the Dutch East India Company was established in the Cape in 1652, travellers from the settlement started exploring the surrounding area and became aware of the riches of the Garden Route.
In 1770 some of these explorers made Knysna their home. They had a mighty challenge travelling by ox wagon or horses as access to Knysna by land in those days was extremely hazardous and gruelling. The pioneers negotiated their way through dense Afro-Montane forests and deep ravines, crossing many dangerous rivers.
Some of these settlers started establishing homesteads and farms in Knysna, and the most famous of them all is probably George Rex. Legend claims that he was the son of George III of England and a quaker woman and was apparently banished from England in 1797. George Rex arrived in Knysna in 1804 and one of the best known-landmarks left by him is the beautiful old Belvidere Church built in 1855. He died in 1839, and his grave in the suburb of Old Place is a National Monument.
Another family that was very influential in Knysna were the Thesens. They left Norway with the aim of settling in New Zealand, but when they stopped to deliver cargo in Knysna in 1869, they decided to stay, bringing with them their knowledge of trade and sailing. The Thesens started shipping and timber businesses and had a large impact on the development of Knysna. Soon, timber was being exported to the Cape from the vast areas of forest surrounding Knysna, and a steam sawmill and small shipyard were established. Later, these were relocated to Paarden Island, now known as Thesen Islands.
It was not only timber that attracted other settlers to the area .... A gold nugget was found at Millwood in the Knysna forest in 1876, and the word spread like wild fire! Soon fortune hunters from all over the world arrived in search of gold. By 1888, Millwood had grown into a small town, however, not enough gold was recovered to maintain a growing town. News of gold-finds on the reef arrived and many diggers left. The mining industry in the area collapsed, and some of the remaining miners moved on to Knysna, bringing their little homes with them. One of the houses, known as 'Millwood House', now operates as a museum.
While the settlers were responsible for beneficial development, they were also responsible for a lot of destruction. There was plenty decimation of the Knysna forests, as well as its precious inhabitants, the Knysna forest elephants. It took less than 200 years to all but destroy much of the indigenous forests and sensitive eco-systems and to hunt the abundant wild life to the point of extinction. Today the indigenous forest areas are protected by SANParks, but only one elephant is believed to still be roaming the forests ...