“But I thought the Oyster farms had closed down,” said the old Knysna hand. “Don’t all our oysters come from PE?”
I was having my morning espresso at the usual spot, and I’d been boasting that I was about to go out onto the water for a tour of the oyster beds with Knysna Charters.
“It’s a reaction we hear over and over again, but the truth is that while Port Elizabeth is an important supplier, the Knysna Oyster Company is still actively farming about 6 hectares of the Knysna Lagoon,” said Knysna Charters’ Brad Cable.
The company offers daily boat tours to the beds at low tide. And, as I discovered, it’s a tour that’s really all about stories.
“What we’re doing is telling the history of the Knysna Oyster Company, but we’re also telling the stories of the people behind the oysters - from the old Dutch farmer who spent nearly thirty years experimenting with oyster farming in the Lagoon before finally succeeding in the mid ‘70s, to the Sedgefield family who own the concession to harvest wild oysters along our coast,” said Brad.
Even our pilot - Zamile ‘James’ Hiti - and our guide - Sebenzile ‘Warren’ Lansatyi - have their stories.
“We were both skippers on the fishing boats that used to go out through the Knysna Heads, but when the new laws came in in 2006 it became unprofitable for many of the owners to run their boats - and we were laid off,” said Warren.
“That’s when we came to work on the oyster tour.”
The result is an engaging, hour-and-a-half-long look at life on an oyster farm.
We met at the company’s jetty (directly behind 34 Tapas, and across the way from the new Turbine boutique hotel in Thesen Harbour Town), and boarded a comfortable cruiser for a gentle ride westwards - upstream - to the railway bridge and the farm itself. As an avid bird watcher, I spotted herons, African black oystercatchers, and pied kingfishers as we sailed, but the talk on the boat was all about oysters.
The difference between cultivated or Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) and wild or common rock oysters (Crassostrea margaritacea); the use of the intertidal rack system (which allows the bivalves to feed by filtering the water at high tide, and to bask in the sun at low tide); and whether or not it’s better to enjoy your oysters au natural, or splashed with a drop or two of our local mampoer-based Nyati jjj Strawberry Chili liqueur.
Of course we had the opportunity to taste both kinds of oyster, and the boat was stocked with snacks and drinks (all included in the cost of the tour). And then there was the fun of shucking - or opening - the shells: we all donned thick welding gloves to protect our hands, and tried our best to pop the shells as cleanly, and naturally as James and Warren.
Good thing we had the gloves (although they didn’t protect us from the terrible - but inevitable - puns: “we’re having a shucking good time!”).
At the racks, James tied the boat to a pole in the water, and those of us who didn’t mind getting our feet wet (it’s only about knee-deep at this point) climbed out to examine the oysters in their mesh bags on the racks.
“They have to be shaken and moved at least once a month or they start to grow onto one another, and then you’ll never separate them,” said Warren.
Back on board, Brad explained that the company offers three different tours: a lagoon cruise to the Knysna Heads; the oyster bed tour; and a 2-hour-long sunset cruise that includes snack platters, drinks, and an introductory tasting of three oysters. “After which, you can always buy more…”
As we glided gently downstream with the town of Knysna on our port side, the Yacht Club, the Waterfront, and the forest of masts along the shore reminded me that very little has changed: Knysna is still very much a harbour town.
And, like its oysters, is still very much here.