Thesen Island

Then & Now


Our Ocean Odyssey offices are located on Thesen Island’s Harbour Town, overlooking the blue waters of the iconic Knysna Estuary. Thesen Island is unquestionably the trendy hub of Knysna, and across its 90 hectare expanse, it boasts an award winning Blue Flag marina, a stunning collection of designer shops, art galleries, bustling restaurants, boutique hotels, offices, and of course, the private residential estate, with its vast network of bridges and tidal canals.

Thesen Island was not always the exclusive lifestyle destination that it is today. In fact, it is quite difficult to imagine that not too long ago, the island was an industrial blight on the landscape and an environmental menace. It was once the scene of a busy timber processing plant where eventually the wood waste from the timber mill would be used to start a power station which generated electricity for both Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. For many years the tall stacks from the plant spewed black smoke into the air and over time, wood treatment chemicals such as creosote and arsenic, permeated the soil and leached into the sensitive Knysna Estuary.

The name Thesen has its origins in Stavanger, Norway. In July 1869, Arndt Leonard Thesen, a prominent timber merchant set sail from his home town with his wife and nine kids to start a new life in New Zealand. However, while en route, their ship, the Albatross, ran into difficulties near Cape Town. Arndt Thesen decided instead to settle in South Africa, and chose Knysna, then the centre of the timber trade, as their new home and where they started a timber trading company. In 1904 his son Charles Wilhelm Thesen bought Paarden Island, (now named Thesen Island) and in 1922 he established a timber processing plant here.

In the early 1980’s Barlows, (one of South Africa’s industrial conglomerates), purchased the island and its timber treatment plant from Thesen and Company, but the company quickly realised that the timber processing activities could not be sustained for much longer. For years there had been mounting community concern about the environmental and industrial pollution caused by the factory’s activities on the island. The tides were changing and the factory finally closed its doors in the early 1990’s.

There was now an urgent call to rehabilitate this large expanse of land that had over the years become nothing more than an industrial wasteland. Barlow’s consulted with Dr Chris Mulder, an architect and urban designer (with a doctorate in environmental and urban design) to come up with a plan for Thesen Island.

The Knysna Estuary has the highest biodiversity of fauna and flora in the country and also serves as a major tourist attraction. These factors made this particular development hugely challenging and the multi-disciplinary design team had to comply with more than 100 rigorous environmental, cultural and historical conditions. After almost a decade of research and planning by Dr. Mulder and his team, approval was finally granted in December 1998 – but with strict and complex conditions.

According to their website “An Environmental Management Plan was put into place that would guide the redevelopment of Thesen Islands in a manner that would enhance, rather than be of detriment to the Knysna estuarine environment, and the revered Knysna Seahorse on a sustainable basis. The project provided a technical challenge in that, for the first time in South Africa and possibly the world, all salt marsh areas disturbed by the development had to be rehabilitated in such a manner as to ensure no nett loss of salt marsh. This also meant that no additional soil was permitted to be brought in from outside of the area and no soil could leave the island – instead Mulder and his team would spend the following seven years to obtain the required approvals and work out how to raise the entire island level by the required 1,8 meters from what was the existing 1.2m above mean sea level to the required 3m above mean sea level.”

Fast forward to couple decades later and Thesen Island is now an unrivalled lifestyle destination and is certainly one of South Africa’s the most aesthetically pleasing and picturesque waterfront developments and a notable example of urban design brilliance.