Published: 10-Mar-2020

History of Wilderness

Lying in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains in a region of incomparable beauty is Wilderness, an attractive holiday resort with beautiful beaches and numerous vantage points from which to watch the whales and dolphins. The history of the Wilderness goes right back to the days of the Bushmen.

Evidence of the San or Bushmen in Wilderness

There is increasing evidence that Southern Africa’s coastal plains were once home to early humans. Over time they moved away, spreading out to populate the rest of Africa and the world, but some remained behind. Their descendants became the hunter-gatherers we know as the San or Bushmen. Wilderness itself contains traces of their tales in the coastal shell middens, caves and the rock art they left behind in the mountains. The Khoikhoi appeared after this, herding sheep and cattle. The Khoikhoi featured in Bartolomeu Dias’s written records when he rounded the Cape in 1488.

History of WildernessDutch settlers move into Wilderness

The Dutch settled in the Cape in 1652, however it took more than 100 years before the Dutch settlers started making their way to Wilderness. The deep gorges of the Kaaimans and Touws River prevented ox wagons from passing through. Once a proper road to Knysna was built in the late 1860s, the area around the Western Cape’s lakes became open for settlement. The road, now known as the Seven Passes Route, made the mission of crossing the river gorges much easier.

Wilderness is born - 1877

The beginning of Wilderness came about when George Bennett of Liverpool bought a plot of land at the mouth of the Touws River in 1877. He named the farm “The Wilderness” and over the next seven years he and his wife, Henrietta, spent their time building up the farm and their family. The two had a son and twin daughters before George died in his early thirties. Henrietta then moved back to England to marry her late husband’s cousin. Her family kept an eye on the property, letting out the farmhouse from time to time.

Montagu White puts Wilderness on the map - 1902

At the end of the South African War in 1902, The Wilderness was bought by a syndicate headed by Montagu White. White ran The Wilderness as a guest house, developing the area, including building White’s Road up the hills above the lagoon. White died in 1916 and the property was taken over by Wilderness Ltd, headed by Owen Grant, who proceeded to develop the guest house into a seaside resort of international acclaim. Around this time a romantic legend about the foundation of Wilderness began to circulate.

The legend of Wilderness – 1916

The legend told of a young man who fell in love with a beautiful orphan named Theresa. Wanting to escape the “hauntings of memory”, she sang to him from Haydn’s Creation: “...In the wilderness build me a nest, let me remain there forever at rest…”. After facing many trials and adventuring through the treacherous Outeniqua Mountains, the pair settled in the area known today as Wilderness. There they wed, Theresa wearing “an ancient bridal gown that once had graced her grandmother in the courts of France”. The story is not true, but it is beautiful, nonetheless.

Building Wilderness village – 1928 onwards

Among the developments that took place to the old Wilderness farmhouse included upgrading the old building to become a proper hotel, laying out roads, selling off plots and building new houses. When the railway from George to Knysna was opened in 1928, Wilderness became the only stop on the route between the two towns.

Only after World War II did the necessary machinery and finance get directed towards building the National Road Network. The N2 was finally opened in 1952 and George and Knysna were linked by a tarred coastal road.

Before this road was opened, the Wilderness Village mostly focused itself towards the lagoon. The village shop, petrol pump and post office was located at the bottom of the village green. After the N2 opened, commercial activity was refocused to be accessible to the highway.

A vast new area was also opened to development. During this time, the area known as Wilderness East was built up, followed by Kleinkrans and Die Duine.

Wilderness National Park is proclaimed – 1980

In the mid-1980s Wilderness National Park was proclaimed, preventing the environment from being destroyed and preserving the natural beauty Wilderness is so loved for today. Wilderness is renowned for its vast stretches of beach, its peace and tranquillity and the absence of windswept headlands and wild, stormy seas. The long stretch of beach embraces the mouths of the Touw and Kaaimans Rivers and is backed by northward cliffs over which the fringe of the forest reaches down to sea level.


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