An index to this trip appears on the first post.
March 25, 2016
What would you call a mix of Seaside, Florida and Mission Bay in San Diego? South Africans call it Knysna (the first syllable is pronounced like Bill Nye’s surname). The city draws tourists in droves, and it offers shops to suit every taste. The lagoon, on the other hand, looks much like Mission Bay must have before Sea World and other real estate development changed its face. In today’s post I will introduce you to the curious history of South Africa’s resort city.
My day started early, when a guest at the Island Lodge Backpacker had an acute struggle with sleep apnea. I decided to make the best of it by journeying to the Heads of the Lagoon for some sunrise photography. The Heads are small mountains that border the channel from the Indian Ocean into the Lagoon. My vantage point was atop the Eastern Head. The parking lot was surrounded by private properties, but a narrow walkway led to four separate small viewing areas. I started with the one closest to Leisure Island (inside the lagoon) and Thesens Island (both of which are accessible by bridges through marshes) and worked my way outward. I gazed with envy at a gorgeous house atop the western Head, but my curiosity was piqued by some caves near the waterline. The sun was less than fully cooperative. The sound of the waves was very hypnotic.
I managed to track the sunrise for a while by the shadow of the Eastern Head on the Western, but a thick layer of clouds soon blocked all the direct sunlight. I retired to the East Head Cafe for a lovely breakfast of eggs, streaky bacon, toast, and mushrooms.
Such a huge lagoon seems like an obvious place for a city, but only a few farms were in the area in 1804. All of that changed when George Rex, a Cape Town lawyer, decided not to return to England when the Cape Colony reverted to Dutch control. George Rex traveled to the Knysna lagoon in style, with a carriage bearing an ostentatious coat of arms and a retinue of riders. People began gossiping that he was an illegitimate son of the English king George III, perhaps with his encouragement. He soon bought several of the other farms surrounding the lagoon. Later he worked with the Royal Navy to establish that the entrance to the lagoon was navigable by ships. Captain Thomas Duthie married George Rex’s daughter Caroline and bought a farm from his father-in-law in 1834. I decided to follow their stories with my travels today.
I first circumnavigated the lagoon to the Belvidere Estate. This community centers on the farms established by Thomas and Caroline Duthie. In 1855, the Duthies consecrated a beautiful little Norman-style church. Based on the photos I’d seen, I knew I had to visit! When I arrived, I soon realized that today was Good Friday. As a functioning church, Holy Trinity had slated services for noon. I knew seating would be limited, since the apse can only seat eight people abreast. The roof was probably the most marked difference with published photographs, since some greenery has thrived on the roof in the wet climate of the Garden Route.
In the meanwhile, I strolled through the grounds, reading gravestones and contemplating this community. The Duthies are very well represented in the cemetery. I was very pleased to find the site where Thomas and Caroline Duthie (the couple who had built this church) were buried. But where was George Rex?
I wondered if he were buried over at Belvidere Manor. I drove over there in a couple of minutes, and I discovered that the Manor has become the central offices and cafe serving a complex of cabins. I had expected a mansion, and the building is certainly large, but it is not particularly ornate. The people working there shared a map with me that indicated positions of major landmarks in the area. The grave of George Rex was over on the other side of the lagoon, where I had started my day!
Another hour had rolled by, and I decided to return to Holy Trinity for the Good Friday service. The congregants welcomed me. The building serves as an Anglican church. The service followed the printed program to the letter, with the exception that the sermon was not printed, and the priest left room for congregants to pray at the rail during a moment in a responsive reading. Almost all of it was conducted in English, with the exception of a couple song verses in Afrikaans.
I know that Knysna is a significant beach destination, but I had mostly seen the marina, not sandy beaches. I headed south from Belvidere to see Brenton-on-Sea, just west of the Western Head. Here I saw a truly lovely expanse of sand, stretching for miles beyond Buffel’s Bay. After snapping a few photos, I felt rain drops again, this time coming in profusion. I ran into the restaurant before the worst of it hit. As I awaited my cheesy baked pasta and salad, I saw the rain and lightning drive the families off of the beach. The restaurant was full very, very soon.
As I returned to the east side of the lagoon, I resolved that the proper moment had arrived to visit George Rex’s grave. The town had not given many signs to it as a tourist landmark, so I was lucky to have my map. I followed Heron Street, looping back and forth, and then I bounced on a dirt road in poor repair. My Honda Jazz splashed through mammoth mud puddles. At last I reached the grave, in sight of the N2 and next to a large power transformer site. A metal security fence surrounds a low wall. Inside that wall is a somewhat-landscaped garden, and two graves could be seen: one for George Rex, and one for George Rex, Jr.
I stood in the rain at the grave for a few moments. I told George Rex that he would be very happy with how his life’s work had turned out. His self-marketing methods were somewhat unorthodox, but George Rex made a real impact in putting Knysna on the map!