The magnificent Garden Route is a must-do for anyone visiting South Africa and without doubt, its crowning glory is the popular lagoon and seaside town of Knysna. The iconic backdrop to beautiful Knysna are the famous Heads – two large headlands that flank this remarkable place where the Knysna estuary meets the sea. Standing like the sentries guarding the town, the heads protect the calm waters of the estuary from the raw power of the Indian ocean which surges and crashes against them as the tide moves in and out.
A history of the Knysna heads
Formed from Cape Sandstone millions of years ago as the waters of inland rivers made their way towards the ocean eroding the weakest geographical faults in their path. Today the Knysna river mouth is around 230 metres wide, with the entire Knysna estuary covering a space of around 350 square kilometres.
In 1817 Knysna was declared a port, however, the first ship to try and enter between the heads, a Royal Navy brig named the Emu, was unfortunately wrecked. Due to the turbulent passage of waters that runs between the heads, this iconic passage between the cliffs has become the final resting place for many sailors. Ultimately a family of well-established pilots grew a reputation for themselves in Knysna for their ability to get boats safely through the heads. This included the legendary John Benn under whose watch not a single boat was lost. He would keep ships out to sea for months until they could navigate safely and sailors named Featherbed bay for the wonderful sleep they had once they had safely entered through the heads – something akin to sleeping on a feather bed.
While operations at the port were never easy it served a purpose until its closure in 1954 when the railway became a cheaper mode of transportation of goods and passengers to the area and timber from the vast forests to the rest of the world.
Thankfully today, Knysna’s National Sea Rescue Station observation point is located directly on the East Head itself and can assist any boats, ships and swimmers that get into trouble in these parts.
Experiencing the heads
The heads provide a range of dramatic viewpoints, overlooking either the waves below or looking back over the lagoon to the town. These breath-taking views can be reached on a variety of different walks, ranging from very short preambles to more strenuous hikes. You can also drive to two lookout points on the East Head via Cony Glen Road. Several restaurants also allow you great views of the heads, the most popular of which is no doubt East Head Café, situated on the water at the Eastern head.
The heads can also be enjoyed through several different activities. Rent a stand-up paddleboard, canoe, or kayak and enjoy venturing out in the lagoon near the heads to catch a glimpse of them from a different perspective. At slack tide, you can even swim or snorkel over the wreck of the Paquita. Just be sure when engaging in any activity on the lagoon to check the tides and the weather before heading out. There are also a variety of charter cruise companies that offer sunset cruises or day sailing trips up to, or even through, the heads.
The West Head is the wilder of the two heads and can only reached via a ferry boat cruise with the Featherbed company or as a private guest of Alkira Lodge, our luxury lodge situated on the Western Head. Much of this headland is part of a private reserve and during a trip here you can enjoy a 4×4 exploration of the head, a short hike, or a delicious lunch under the Milkwoods.
Where to stay on the Knysna heads
Stay at Alkira Lodge mentioned above, and you’ll have amazing views over the entire Knysna area, beaches, mountains, and estuary while enjoying the peace and tranquillity the Western Head offers. However, if you really want to be in the thick of things then the East Head is the most accessible of the two and we have great accommodation options for you here too.
From stunning private homes, some of which can be booked for private stays through the Beautiful Knysna Villas portfolio or, keep driving until you are the road ends at the water’s edge to find accommodation unlike any other. Beacon House is uniquely situated where the heads meet the sea and offers a limited number of fully equipped self-catering apartments with some of the most spectacular views in all of Knysna. Beacon House offers easy access to the beaches, rock pools, swimming holes, scenic walks, and picnic spots on your doorstep as well as the popular East Head Café serving delicious breakfast, lunch, and ‘in-betweens’ as your closest neighbour.
Beautfiul Knysna Villas also offers travellers to the area a variety of private apartments and holiday villas on the water near The Heads. Stay and play in this spectacular part of the world by booking a private villa or apartment for a romantic couples escape, family and friend getaways, and for those who can work from anywhere we have excellent wifi and wonderful staff to entertain, and even to educate, children while you work … with a view! Does it get any better than that?