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Knysna, South Africa's Adventure Capital

The coastline at Swartvlei Beach

One of the most popular areas in the Rainbow Nation, South Africa is the country’s Garden Route, which stretches for hundreds of miles along the southwestern coastline. The area is vast, with many picturesque cities along the highway.

We chose Knysna as our headquarters for a recent trip, and its central location on this part of the Indian Ocean coast served us well. The drive from Cape Town to Knysna took about five hours in total, although you could stretch that out even longer if you linger in some of the other towns along the way.

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Knysna itself is a naturalist’s paradise, with an extensive lagoon/estuary system that attracts bird watchers the world over. Visitors to this part of the country have an abundance of outdoor activities from which to choose, including hang gliding, bungee jumping, boating and more. We tried a bit of everything, but these were our three favorite adventures:

1. Knysna Elephant Park—This wonderful experience brings visitors close enough to actually touch wild elephants. Daily tours depart every 30 minutes, and you’re taken to an area where you can feed the elephants, who are fairly wary of humans.

After that, guides take small groups of a few people each to interact with one of the elephants. It takes months or years for the elephants to accept and trust the guides, and you’re instructed exactly where to stand and what you can do, so as not to spook the animals.

I referred to the park as a sanctuary, and the guide quickly corrected me. The park, he said, tries to rescue and rehabilitate the animals and re-introduce them to the wild. The goal isn’t to keep them there forever. There are also breakfast picnic walks available as well as group packages, wedding options and even a lodge for “elephant sleep-overs.”

Paul Heney - Knysna Elephant Park

2. Whale watching—Ocean Odyssey charters run a number of eco-tours in the estuary and ocean waters all around Knysna. We chose the whale watching close encounter tour, which generally runs 90 minutes to two hours in length.

Our crew was fantastic and very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. They quickly spotted a breaching humpback whale and her calf, wowing the entire boat for about 15 minutes. We also saw a Bryde’s whale, three different species of dolphins, Cape fur seals and even penguins.

The crew was also very cognizant of people who were on the “wrong” side of the boat for the various encounters and made sure people close to the action were sitting, so others could stand for better views—as well as photographs.

A humpback whale breeches during an Ocean Odyssey tour

3. Beach walk with a naturalist—We spent a few hours with Mark Dixon of AMD Odyssey Tours and they were incredibly insightful and memorable. Dixon is one of those people who seems to know endless amounts of information about every part of the natural world, from marine life to geology to fossils. But he’s so genuinely excited to share his knowledge that it never comes across as lecturing—learning and teaching is just his passion.

Dixon has degrees in animal husbandry and livestock science, as well as a masters in ichthyology and fishery science. He has done research in Antarctica as a scientific observer and in the Pantanal on jaguars. Throw in eight years of avifaunal research on wind farms and a citizen science study on ghost fishing and you see what a busy guy he’s been.

AMD, which started in 2004, has three tour lengths as well as a moonlight meander, a night-time tour. It also does itineraries for multi-day tours, from two days up to 10 days. One itinerary starts in Cape Town and participants do 10 hikes in total. There is also a five-day coastal trail, which is the Garden Route coastal trail from Wilderness through to Brenton on Sea. There’s also a lot of birdwatching to be done in this part of the world, so AMD has a lake bird tour.

If that’s not enough, the company also offers snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, photographic walking tours, forest walks and biking excursions.

Paul Heney beach walk with partner and AMD in South Africa

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