HistoryThesen Islands is steeped in the history of the Southern Cape. It is situated in the midst of the tranquil waters of one of the richest ecological estuaries in South Africa – home to the rare and endangered Knysna sea horse, Hippocampus capensis.
Legend has it that the San – or Bushmen – were the earliest inhabitants of the island. Later, settlers made the area their home, drawn by the rich indigenous forests where herds of the famous Knysna elephant roamed. The island became known as Paarden Island – ‘Horse Island’.
The name Thesen has its origins in faraway Norway. In July 1869, Arndt Leonard Thesen, a prominent timber merchant from Stavanger in Norway left his hometown with his wife and nine children, planning to start a new life in New Zealand. After their ship, the Albatross, ran into difficulties near Cape Town, Arndt Thesen decided to stay on in South Africa. The Thesens settled in the picturesque town of Knysna, surrounded by indigenous forests, where they started a timber trading company. In 1904 his son Charles Wilhelm Thesen bought Paarden Island, located in the Knysna River estuary. In 1922 he established a timber processing plant on the island, which soon became known as Thesen Island.
In the early 1980s Barlows, one of South Africa’s industrial conglomerates, purchased the island and its timber treatment plant from Thesen and Company. Barlows soon realized that the timber processing activities could not be continued on this island located in the midst of such a scenic and eco-sensitive lagoon. At the same time there was growing community concern about the environmental and industrial pollution caused by the factory's activities. As a result the plant’s doors were finally closed. In the ensuing years the abandoned derelict buildings, machinery and waste dumps increasingly turned into an eyesore and a health hazard.
In 1991 Dr. Chris Mulder, a South African environmental engineer who received his doctorate in environmental design in Houston, USA, proposed a complete redevelopment of the island into a unique residential marina.
As the Knysna River estuary is one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the country and a major tourism attraction, the development of Thesen Islands called for extremely careful and sensitive planning covering ecological, architectural, engineering, aesthetic, social and cultural criteria. After eight years of research and planning by Dr. Mulder and his team, approval was finally granted in December 1998 – but with over one hundred strict and complex conditions. In all, ten years passed from initial concept to final approval, involving twenty-five alterations to the master plan!