The founder of Knysna (pronounced "nize-na") was one George Rex. In 1802, at the age of 39 -- having shocked the Cape community by shacking up with a woman "of color" -- he purchased the farm, which included the whole basin containing the Knysna lagoon. By the time of his death in 1839, he had engaged in a number of enterprises, the most profitable of which was timber, and had persuaded the Cape authorities to develop Knysna as a port. Knysna's development and the decimation of its forests were well underway. That any forests escaped the devastation of the 19th century is thanks to far-sighted conservation policies introduced in the 1880s, and today Knysna has the largest areas of indigenous forests left in South Africa. The Knysna elephants have fared less well -- attempts to augment their numbers by relocating three young cows from Kruger National Park failed miserably when it was discovered that the last remaining Knysna elephant was also a female. The surviving cows have subsequently been relocated to the Shamwari game reserve in the Eastern Cape. Detractors believed that the forest pachyderms were extinct and that the only free-roaming elephants left in Knysna were those painted on road markers warning drivers to "beware." Then in October 2000, a 20-year-old elephant bull was spotted and photographed deep in the forest, making headlines throughout the Western Cape. A few years later, author and environmentalist Gareth Patterson set about collecting dung for Lori Eggbert, a scientist from the Smithsonian Institute, to perform DNA tests and hopefully prove his theory that at least 9 or 10 elephants remain at large. The jury is still out on the findings, however; besides the rare appearance of the older surviving female (plus one good photo), you're most likely to spot one by overindulging in the local beer.
Knysna used to be a sleepy village inhabited only by a handful of hippies and wealthy retirees, but the last decade has seen a tourist boom that has augmented numbers substantially -- nowhere is this more evident than on the congested main road that runs through town. Still, Knysna has retained a great deal more of its original village charm than either George or Plettenberg Bay, and remains the emotional heart of the region, with a resident population who actually live here year-round (unlike Plett, which turns into a ghost town in winter). Its raison d'être is the large tidal lagoon, around which the town has grown, and the towering sandstone cliffs (called the heads) that guard the lagoon's narrow access to the sea. The eastern buttress has unfortunately been developed, but this means you can now overnight and play golf surrounded by a spectacular sea and fynbos environment, and the western side remains untouched -- a visit to the Featherbed Nature Reserve should be high on your list of priorities.