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Inter-species love in Knysna: They danced by the light of the moon



Hotel’s gaudy little wooden horse tells the tale of a tragic love story

There once was an unlikely – and ultimately tragic – love affair between a grey crowned crane and a Shetland pony in a town called Knysna…

As soon as I heard these words, I knew I’d done the right thing asking for the story behind the gaudy little wooden horse in front of the St James of Knysna Hotel.

The five-star St James is a chic country house on the banks of the Knysna Lagoon on the westernmost edge of town.

There are 17 rooms in two main buildings plus a garden rondavel. The manor house dates back to 1991 and was originally intended as a holiday retreat for a Gautengbased entrepreneur and his wife.

It became their permanent home when he was sentenced to house arrest as a result of dodgy business dealings.

During this time, says long-time general manager Sandy Rahmouni, the couple set the place up as the St James Club, “a small but upmarket bed and breakfast establishment run alongside a very nice restaurant.” The property was bought by Trish and Derek Goldby in the mid1990s.

They turned it into a hotel, which they ran until 2017.” With the Goldbys came their adopted crowned crane.

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Where it all started

All went smoothly with the family and thebalearica regulorum until the year they hired some ponies from nearby Welbedacht for one of their daughter’s birthday party.

The crane was immediately smitten with one of the quadrupeds and, when the latter returned to their paddock, the love-struck bird took wing in pursuit.

The pony’s owners returned the crane to its home but it immediately flapped off again to be with its beloved.

This, says Rahmouni, “went on for ages and ages until, eventually, the two eloped together back to the St James. “They were sitting on the jetty, watching the sun go down and planning what to do with their lives, when they were hit by an enormous wave.

“The following morning, we found a wooden horse wearing a crown at that exact spot.” The last bit, she laughs, is complete nonsense but insists the rest is gospel.

“The truth is the two continued their close friendship but, in the end, sadly the pony accidentally killed the bird.”

Rahmouni is coy about the exact cause of death, saying only that “horses and cranes don’t really go too well together”.

Sometimes in the morning, guests will find the horse wearing a crown… other times more exoticc headgear.

“He’s a very gender-fluid pony,” confesses the manager. The St James is currently owned by family of the late Peter Meese, who acquired it from the Goldbys and, as Rahmouni phrases it, “did the reconstruction and redesign of the property which changed it from a very grand, rather echo-y building into the awesome place it is now”. Meese died in 2022.

Two-day stay in Knysna

The hotel is the most recent addition to the portfolio of properties associated with Cape Country Routes South Africa (www., a leading group of owner-operated and managed accommodation and activity establishments.

Accommodation comprises more than 20 individually owned hotels, lodges and guest houses – carefully selected for their character, charm and romance – in the Western and Eastern Cape.

During my two-day stay midJanuary, I found Knysna (and, by extension, the St James) inundated by British tourists and I ask Rahmouni what percentage of her guests are foreigners.

“About 95%,” she says. While many visitors use the hotel as a base from which to explore the Garden Route with all its charms and surprises, conversations overheard at the breakfast table indicated that they were also learning to share the locals’ love of the lagoon and open ocean.

The St James has a lot to offer its guests – said breakfasts being one of them – but the single greatest impact was created by the late night and pre-dawn tranquillity of the lagoon itself.

I hate sleeping with doors and windows closed in a place such as the St James. Such, however, was security on the 1.2ha property that I felt perfectly happy opening everything up to the sounds of the night; from the piping of plovers and dikkop to wavelets gently lapping at the shore not 20m from my stoep.

Where to eat

I arrived after a long day of motoring and was thankful I’d made an early dinner booking at Social Eatery at the Knysna Hollow Country Estate just around the corner from the hotel (the St James kitchen prepares light meals but guests are encouraged to try the plethora of restaurants in Knysna for dinner).

The meal was a winner… a lovely starter of creamy mussels accompanied by a pint of the local Red Bridge Lager, followed by an even more delectable mushroom and garlic tagliatelle washed down with Babylonstoren Mourvèdre Rosé.

I arrived “home” to a captivating sight – the jetty twinkling red, white and blue while the reflected lights of town danced on ripples stirred by a soft breeze.

A sliver of moon made its way across the sky and there was time for a single night-cap before the pull of bed got too great. Perhaps I dreamed of the owl and the pussycat…

At sunrise, only the occasional cat’s paw disturbed the water’s surface and the St James’ pleasure-cruiser, known simply as “The Boat”, lay almost motionless at its mooring, despite the incoming tide.

A few hundred metres away, a solitary fisherman pumped for prawns in the shallows. It’s a rare January day, though, that the calm holds and by the time a friend and I clambered aboard one of the motorised vessels operated by Ocean Sailing Charters for a scheduled afternoon booze cruise, a freshening on-shore wind was whipping up white-caps.

We followed the company’s flagship catamaran, LaraBella (named after owner Neil van Deventer’s young daughter), as it tacked under shortened sail towards the Knysna Heads and the open sea beyond those imposing cliffs.


Ocean Sailing Charters is another member of Cape Country Routes and launches from the Scirocco Jetty at Thesen Island.

Sadly, some of our fellow passengers began to look a little offcolour as we entered the deepening swells at the mouth of the lagoon and we missed the chance of seeing the maw-like caves set into the rocky shoreline on the way to Brenton-on-Sea being poundedby the waves.

Nevertheless, there were some relieved-looking South Americans who stepped ashore a few minutes later.

As for my friend, the plucky “Travelbug Rose” Bilbrough, and I… we headed straight to Tapas ( where we promptly hoovered through a half-dozen panko-crumbed prawns and a salmon platter for two.

The food was so good and my appetite so stimulated by the sea air that, had I known it was “halfprice Wednesday” for sushi, I probably would have ordered a second.

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