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Thesen Islands

Knysna, Western Cape |

Piece of Heaven. Peace of Mind.

Thesen Islands

Knysna, Western Cape |

Piece of Heaven. Peace of Mind.

7 min read

While the forests, the beaches and the fascinating little towns all contribute to making the Garden Route a pretty special place, it’s the lagoons and coastal lakes that really set it apart.

For a long time estuaries and wetlands were considered “waste” land: wetlands were “swamps”, and the best way to deal with them was to drain them, fill them in and build over them – and estuaries were mostly seen as convenient harbours if they were considered at all.

But that’s all changed. Society has come to realise that wetlands are essential elements in maintaining water catchments and preventing soil erosion, and that estuaries are invaluable breeding grounds for ecologically (and commercially) important fish species.

So it was hardly surprising that, when the Thesen Islands development was first planned, the preservation – even improvement – of the estuarine ecosystem was given priority. Long before building began, a team of divers carefully caught seahorses and gently relocated them to other parts of the lagoon, and immense resources were dedicated to ensuring that the size, shape and relative placement of the channels allowed a constant flow, so there would be no nasty little stagnant backwaters, nor a flow too fast for aquatic life to survive. In fact, it’s a matter of pride to Thesen Islands residents and developers alike that there has been an increase in both the biomass and biodiversity within the development. The placid and iconic Knysna seahorses sway in the gentle current, sea hares roam the gabions quietly grazing on a generous carpet of marine algae, and a range of fish species swim through the canals.

But getting to this point was not easy. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism imposed more than a hundred conditions on the developers, who had to ensure cultural, environmental, historical and aesthetic integrity. And the systems set up during planning, dredging and construction continue to contribute to the preservation of, and knowledge about, the Knysna Lagoon and other coastal lakes, estuaries and wetlands.

While this is all very good, what’s really exciting is that it makes Thesen Islands such a great place to live. The water quality ensures that all manner of water sports can be indulged in safely, and the health of the ecosystem makes for rewarding snorkelling, birdwatching & general enjoyment of the scenery.

And, of course, Thesen Islands, while being a neatly enclosed world unto itself, is also part of the larger Knysna community. The development is built on what was once a rather degraded island with a sawmill and other hard-core industrial elements, many of which have been preserved and converted into stylish industrial-chic premises for anything from restaurants and shops to hotels.

The Turbine Hotel and Spa is possibly one of the best examples in South Africa of an industrial space being converted into a hospitality property. The hotel and the many fashionable food and retail outlets in the Thesen Harbour Town are open to the general public, but the residential section is accessed via continuously monitored bridges. The vehicle bridge is staffed 24/7 by dedicated security personnel, and access to the pedestrian bridges is by electronic tag.

It’s the combination of location and security that makes Thesen Islands a very desirable place to live, a sentiment that is underlined by the increase in capital gains that homeowners have experienced year on year. New homes that come onto the market are snapped up very quickly, with about 40% of the homes used as primary residences and the rest as secondary homes or investment properties. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to spend a few days on Thesen Islands finds it very difficult to leave.

The enviable Thesen Islands lifestyle is complemented by the many positive features and facilities of the town itself, the lagoon and, just beyond the Knysna Heads, the ocean. Residents can enjoy a game of golf, world-class mountain bike and hiking trails, and a range of fabulous food outlets nearby. The lagoon is great for paddling, snorkelling, swimming, sailing, boardsailing and even – for experienced divers only, and only at slack tide! – scuba diving at the Heads. And, if you’re brave enough and skilled enough to take a boat out through the Heads, you can watch whales and dolphins, and get to a whole lot more diving sites.

One thing you can be sure of – you will never be bored in Knysna, and living at Thesen Islands gives you the best of the best.

The room feels too small and too hot. Everyone collectively holds their breath as a well-manicured hand plunges again into a rather gaudy hat. One by one names are called out. One by one groups cheer. One by one hearts sink. There are only a few residential plots still available. As the hand plunges into the hat again, you see lips moving in silent prayer. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes or in the sales office for the Thesen Islands Estate. A name is called and with only two hours to pay the deposit for a slice of heaven. This sunny afternoon in 2003, Sue Abernethy’s 12-year adventure begins. For the developers of Concept Design, number 23 better known as Thesen Islands and Thesen Harbour Town, this marks the final sales in the 13-year long project.

Thesen Islands lies in one of three estuaries in the southern coast and is home to the Knysna Seahorse and a wide ecosystem of marine organisms. Settlers started to inhabit the area from the late 1700s and by 1890 more than 1,000 people had settled in the area. With Thesen and Company having set up shop, the Knysna River timber industry was a thriving business. It was only in the 1980s when Barlows (Barloworld) purchased Thesen Island from Thesen and Company that the decision was made to close the timber process plant, bringing the Thesen and Company era to an end.

Barloworld quickly ascertained that with the sensitive marine ecosystem and concerns over chemical and air pollution, it would be impossible to maintain the timber industry in the area. Something else needed to be done with the island, but there were multiple challenges to consider including a visible 92-hectare haphazard factory site, a 10-hectare salt marsh, contaminated soil with thousands of cubic metres of wood waste, low-lying land an average of 1.3 metres above sea level and no existing sewer system; and this coupled with the issue of employment. The factory had provided employment to 800 individuals and for many this was the sole income in the household. In 1990 Chris Mulder Associates Inc. (CMAI) was commissioned to investigate alternative uses for the area.

The team started at ground zero. With no management plan for the lagoon and no data to establish the impact of current pollution sources, it was imperative that a scientific profile of the lagoon was recognised. Secondly, due to the historical uses of the land, Thesen Island was a private industrial owned entity; no residential development had previously been considered and therefore the island had to be zoned accordingly. Thesen Island was the first and currently only island suitable for residential development, hence a golden opportunity to develop prime waterfront living as long as the environmental and zoning issues could be resolved.

Each concept was evaluated from a construction, environmental, financial and practical stance. After 8 years of planning Concept Design Number 26 detailed 19 individual islands separated by canals and connected by bridges, each populated with various size homes and a mixed-use waterfront development housing 605 residential units and commercial space. The design also retained the historically important buildings that are visible in the infrastructure today and was approved with construction on the waterways beginning in 2000 and all major works completing in 2005.

Homes on Thesen Islands range from smaller properties priced at around R 4 million for 300m² to larger properties at approximately R 10 million for 900m² depending on the location within the estate. The variety of sizes allows for different architectural styles within the overall unity of Thesen Islands.


Properties on Thesen Islands are highly sought after, with a staggering 43% growth in the average selling price of residential units over the past 3 years. Whereas in 2013 the average cost for homes was R 4.375 million, today the average is R 6.465 million. The capital value growth is compounded by supply and demand, with on average of 33 units being sold over the past four years. Homeowners already living on Thesen Islands move around within it as their needs change, and there is a growing trend for the families to have primary homes on Thesen Islands with the breadwinner commuting to larger metropolises.


For those who do not reside on Thesen Isands there is the option of renting through the secure environment offered by various letting agents. For the holidaymakers, this ensures a wide selection of homes and apartments that are within walking distance to all amenities that Thesen Islands has to offer.

The Islands’ lifestyle, assisted by the structural interconnectivity, calls for a wide range of activities, and there are cycling and running routes circulating the island, while the canals allow for kayaking and other water sports. Thesen Islands has three private beaches, children’s play parks, a dog walking park, bird watching hide, floodlit tennis courts, squash court, as well as a golf course for putting.

Security at Thesen Islands is outsourced and traffic is directed through the main gatehouse entrance. This entrance is manned 24/7 and pedestrian access from Harbour Town via the scenic bridges requires the use of a personal electronic tag. Cameras are positioned at various locations throughout the Islands’ and are monitored from the control room. Thesen Islands has a large element of natural security offered by the surrounding waterways and on foot, vehicle and water patrols run day and night. All homes are linked to the gatehouse and homeowners can contact security directly in an emergency. With low picket fences between homes and a warm and friendly relationship between residents, Thesen Islands has the added security of all eyes on the roads.


Thesen Islands is very proud of their Blue Flag Status which they have been awarded since 2013. A Blue Flag is an international award given to beaches, boats and marina’s that meet excellence in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness and environmental standards. The strict criteria of the programme are set by the international coordinators of the Blue Flag campaign in Europe, the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE).Thesen Harbour Town is the commercial village of Thesen Islands with both commercial and retail space, as well as a selection of boutiques, furniture stores, restaurants and hotels. Visitors and homeowners can hire bikes and kayaks or book a sunset cruise from various companies. All the restaurants overlook the lagoon and have a central play area for children under 12.

Drifting along the canals and in between the homes on a warm Sunday afternoon, I fell in love with wide verandas leading onto the water’s edge and the air filled with laughter from families spending time together. At Thesen Islands, one feels that warm glow that tells you that you are home at last.

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