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Jun 2013

Words by Fiona McIntosh, Pics Shaen Adey and Fiona McIntosh

The Knysna Oyster Festival is a party of note that draws sports enthusiasts, foodies, families and fun seekers back year after year but the Garden Route’s adventure capital, Knysna has a host of activities on offer all year round. It’s best known for its elusive wild elephants and its oysters. Here’s how to enjoy them.

‘Watch out when you’re taking photos’ warned Greg Vogt. ‘If you crouch down, that little devil might think you’re a ball and come and play’. The young elephant calf was certainly playful enough that we could imagine such an outcome. He’d been indulging in a bit of rough and tumble with another youngster and had nearly knocked me over trying to steal some of the fruit that I was feeding to the well-behaved adults.

This was the highlight of a fabulous morning at the Knysna Elephant Park. We had gone out early to observe the matriarchal herd as it wandered around the reserve. Now it was the touchy-feely bit. As the visitors approached, the mature animals stayed dutifully behind the wooden rail while the cheeky youngsters took liberties ducking under or around the barrier to cadge some treats. ‘Don’t feed them,’ insisted the guides. ‘They must learn the rules.’

After the adults had gently snaffled the grapes that we proffered, we had a chance to admire the big beasts. We stroked the rough, wrinkled, hairy skin of their bodies, then felt the inside surface of their great flapping ears – so smooth, if leathery, in comparison. The guides explained their habits, habitat and social structures.

The park started as an orphanage in 1994. Although it has since grown into a tourist attraction, the emphasis is still on letting the elephants be themselves. We can interact with them – and they clearly love it – but the elephant walks are not about holding their trunks and leading them on a path. Rather, visitors see them doing what elephants do. Demand, and thefact that the young bull elephants needed the exercise in any case, led to the introduction of elephant rides and these are a popular option.

The highlight has to be watching the babies being hand-fed. The arrival of the bottles, each with a big teat, produces a veritable scrum as the youngsters excitedly start swilling. They dexterously pick up and hold the plastic containers in their trunks as they drink. Debate rages about how many wild elephants remain in the Knysna forest. SANParks scientists have photographed one female several times, while DNA studies on elephant spoor suggest that as many as five animals roam free. Whatever the truth, the indigenous forest is the largest unfenced elephant habitat in South Africa. Though the forest is criss-crossed with hiking and mountain biking trails, your chances of spotting them are remote to say the least. So being ‘touched by an elephant’ here is a treat that you shouldn’t miss, however short your stay.

The second pillar of tourism in Knysna is, of course, a mollusc. You either love ’em or hate ’em, but everywhere you go in Knysna, oysters feature. If you’re visiting, you should make a point of trying both the cultivated oysters brought in from the Knysna Lagoon and Port Elizabeth, and the wild oysters gathered along the coast. If you have a permit, you can even collect your own oysters off the rocks at low tide – just be careful to harvest the right size.

The best time to sample oysters, of course, is in early July when the town celebrates in style with one of the liveliest parties in South Africa – the Knysna Oyster Festival. The festival draws visitors from all over South Africa and overseas to take part in its main events. These are the Pick n Pay Weekend Argus Rotary Knysna Cycle Tour, held over the first weekend, and the Pick n Pay Cape Times Knysna Forest Marathon, the grand finale. The week in-between is full of other sporting events, including the now-famous Salomon Featherbed Trail Run, the HANSA Waterfront Rush and Totalsports XTERRA. There are also colourful pageants, exhibitions and gastronomic delights. The key ingredient – the oyster – is on special at the oyster hot spots. If you have a competitive bent you can always enter the wicked oyster-shucking competition.

The Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival runs from 28 June - 07 July 2013

Knysna Elephant Park

Nightjar Travel