Return of the Knysna loerie to the Featherbed Nature Reserve

Rehabilitated nature reserve just one of the many highlights of Knysna excursion

The Featherbed Nature Reserve reopened in December 2018. South Africans can take advantage of a two-for-the-price-of-one eco tour until the end of September
The Featherbed Nature Reserve reopened in December 2018. South Africans can take advantage of a two-for-the-price-of-one eco tour until the end of September
Image: Karen van Rooyen

It was the birds, Featherbed Nature Reserve’s Nicole Tunmer says, that finally indicated to them all would be okay.

The reserve, now described as the premier rehabilitation project along the Garden Route, was destroyed by a fire in June 2017 that swept across the area.

But it was the same fire that allowed the team at Featherbed to breathe new life into the reserve which offered its first eco tour in 1984.

The fire destroyed all Featherbed’s facilities and 95% of its vegetation, including invasive alien species, such as rooikrans.

A thicket of milkwood trees that now provide a canopy to the new Food Forest, was also damaged in the fire and, despite advice from experts to remove the trees, the Featherbed team decided to keep the milkwoods so it could provide some stabilisation to the cliff during the rehabilitation process and prevent erosion.

Much to their surprise – and delight – the trees soon starting sprouting leaves.

It would take a team of between 20 and 50 horticulturists at a time about 18 months to rehabilitate the area, pulling out millions of invasive plants that had germinated from seeds that survived the fire and the reserve reopened – with a new restaurant – on December 1 2018.

The facility’s Beach Bar opens on September 14 and another restaurant – the Tug Bar – with a conference facility is also scheduled to open later in 2019.

“Nature allowed us to do this,” Tunmer says as we enjoy a buffet lunch under the milkwood canopy.

“As soon as the Knysna loerie returned, we knew that nature had restored itself.”

Featherbed dates back to 1956 when famed Professor JLB Smith, father of TV maths whizz William Smith, bought a piece of land with proceeds from the sale of Old Four Legs, his book about the discovery of the coelacanth.

The nature reserve was our first stop on an excursion exploring Knysna.

Using The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa as a base, we hopped on a boat from the Turbine Water Club adventure centre to cross the lagoon, making our way first to the legendary Knysna Heads before turning towards the reserve on the Western Head.

Once at Featherbed – it was proclaimed a nature reserve and opened to the public in 1985 and declared a Natural Heritage Site in 1987 – visitors who have pre-booked the eco tour, take a guided ride aboard a 4x4 land train to the top of the Western Head, followed by an optional, 2.2 km scenic walk back to the restaurant, and (on certain departures) a buffet lunch in the Food Forest.

South Africans have the opportunity to take advantage of a two-for-the-price-of-one promotion eco tour until the end of September.

And, as part of their latest initiative to rehabilitate the area, the Featherbed recently launched a new initiative – the Seedball Project.

Guests can now aid rehabilitation by buying a bag of seedballs embedded with indigenous seeds and – using a kettie, traditionally considered a weapon – launching the seedballs into predetermined areas.

Magie vol following a sumptuous buffet lunch, including homemade ice cream, we headed back to the Turbine where some members of our party enjoyed a spa treatment before an early supper at the hotel’s Gastro Pub.

The next morning, we were up early and, for the first time in more than a decade, I was back in the saddle – a mountain bicycle saddle that is.

I had mentally prepared myself for at least 1km – I am unfit and was still recovering from a hike two days before, but seeing Knysna like this soon made me forget everything else but the scenery and before I knew it, I’d cycled 6km (according to Google Maps) from Thesen Island, all the way around the lagoon to Leisure Isle.

I took a break while the rest of the group cycled on and had to push my bicycle back the rest of the way as strong winds made it impossible for me to cycle back.

Lunch that afternoon was at the hotel’s Island Café and I opted for Geoff’s Chicken – one of the most succulent pieces of chicken I’ve ever had, flavoured with garlic, lemon and chilli and served with vegetables.

Massages followed later that afternoon and supper, again at Island Café, with cocktails to celebrate the Turbine’s ninth birthday.

Our last morning was spent in the forest at Krisjan-se-Nek where South African author Dalene Matthee is said to have come to “replenish her soul” to write her “forest books” – Circles in a Forest, Fiela’s Child, The Mulberry Forest and Dreamforest.

A memorial and an ancient Outeniqua yellowwood – The Dalene Matthee Big Tree – mark the start of two Circles in the Forest hikes – one 3km and the other 9km.

I started the walk with gusto, spurred on by the possibility of spotting the legendary Knysna elephant: just days before I’d seen photographs on a social media page capturing the elephant and perhaps this would be my lucky day.

Also, though not a birder, the thought of spotting the beautiful Knysna loerie was just too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

But I didn’t get very far – the other trail hike two days before and the cycle had left me a bit battered and so I headed back before I could finish even the 3km hike.

I did get to hear the loerie, thanks to its distinct bark-like call.

And, I got to replenish my soul as we headed towards spring, at this very place where Matthee now rests as I sat on a bench facing her memorial, taking in the calming forest sounds and smells.

Our trip was over far too soon, but I’m determined to return – kettie in hand – so I can also one day say I contributed to Featherbed’s rehabilitation.

The Turbine Hotel - a brief history

Once upon a time, a power station was built on Knysna’s Thesen Island, the hub of timber processing.

The power station, dating back to 1939, produced enough power to supply both Knysna and nearby Plettenberg.

In 2001, the power station was closed.

The end?

Well, not quite. Thesen Island soon started to morph into a residential marina complete with apartments, shops and restaurants.

Then, along came hoteliers Geoff Engel and Dandre Lerm-Engel who bought the power station in 2007 and spent three years turning the building into what it is today – a luxury hotel that honours the building’s heritage by restoring original equipment and making it prominent features in the hotel’s design.

The Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa was opened on August 12, 2010.

 

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