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Knysna South Africa - Town History

The history of Knysna

From records of over 500 years ....

Knysna History

The first people to have inhabited the area are believed to have been the Khoi khoi, or men of men. When Portuguese explorers crossed the Southern shores of Africa in the 1500s they often reported seeing great columns of smoke rising from the land.

This Khoi khoi used a method of smoking out bees to enable them to obtain their honey.

This gave them their name as the Outeniquas, or the ‘men laden with honey. Knysna lies in the heart of Outeniqualand

Knysna History - Main Street 1933
Knysna's Main street in 1933

After settling at Cape Town in 1652, Europeans rapidly explored the hinterland and reached the Knysna lagoon in the late 1760s. Melkhoutkraal ('milkwood kraal') was one of the first loan farms to be granted in the area in 17770. it encompassed large parts of the Lagoon basin.

The natural forests near CapeTown were all but denuded by timber demands for ships and wagons by the 1770s and a keen interest in Knysna's forest timber supplies developed following an exploration by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg in 1778. The timber trade also attracted many farmers as it provided a more reliable form of income.

Knysna History - Gold Miners
Gold miners of the Bendigo Claim in the 1880s

By the end of the eighteenth century, there were about 12 dwellings between George and Knysna. At this time, George Callender was sent to investigate the possibility of shipping timber from Outeniqualand. He was the first European to settle at the Knysna Heads. Callendar described Melkhoutkraal as 'the most attractive estate in the entire Colony'.

The town of Knysna was established in 1825 after Lord Charles Somerset decided the surrounding forest needed to be exploited to supply the soaring demand for timber. More and more settlers trickled in to live on Admiralty land in a settlement named Melville, but were only able to obtain title deeds and ownership in 1862. There were five dwellings on Melville in 1846. By 1855, the total residences of Melville and Newhaven (an adjacent hamlet) had grown to 30. The area became a magistracy on 29 April 1858 and a municipality in 1881 when Melville, Newhaven and Eastford were combined and named Knysna. Hundreds of ships used the port of Knysna between 1817 and 1954, after which it was deproclaimed.

Knysna History
The SS Agnar tows an unknow an unknown sailing ship into Knysna Harbour in 1910. The first ship to enter the Heads, the Emu, struck a submerged rock on 11 February 1817. Hundreds of vessels used the Knysna harbour until it was deproclaimed in 1954.

For 200 years woodcutters eked out an existence in the forests. Many built wood and corrugated iron shelters up in trees near their working places at the time, as a precaution against elephants. Their diet consisted of brown bread, sweet potatoes and black, bitter coffee known as 'bittertjies'. By 1900 there were about 1400 woodcutters. The forests were closed in 1939 to protect them from being completely denuded and the Woodcutter Annuity Act was passed, entitling the woodcutters to be pensioned off.

History Timeline

1652: The Dutch settlement was founded at Cape Town under Commander Jan van Riebeeck and a fort was built for the Dutch East India Company>

Once the Cape Town area had been settled it was not long before exploration of the hinterland started.  The first reports show settlement taking place in the late 1760s.

1770: The first loan farms were granted in the area. Stephanus Terblanche, aged 20 settled in Knysna and named his farm Melkhoutkraal (Milk Wood pen or corral)

1771: Stephanus Terblanche marries Hester Marx aged 17, from Mosselbay. They were to have 12 children.

The natural forests near Cape Town were all but denuded by timber demands for ships and wagons by the 1770s and this created a keen interest in Knysna’s forest timber supplies development.

1778: Governor Joachim van Plettenberg headed an exploration with this in mind.

Knysna - Joachim Van Plettenberg

1794: Stehanus Tereblanche 44, died leaving his widow and 12 children.

1798: Hester Terblanche 45, sold Melkhoutkraal to Johann von Lindenbaum

Knysna - Xhosa

An Xhosa Warrior

1799: A Xhosa incursion of the Langkloof and coastal area in July was turned back. This began the Third Frontier War.

1800: Numerous Xhosa raids took place as the warriors invaded the colony as far as Mosselbay. Many farms were burnt to the ground.

By the end of the eighteenth century there were about 12 dwellings between George & Knysna. At this time George Callander was sent to determine the feasibility of shipping timber from Outeniqualand. He was the first European to settle at the Knysna Heads.

1802: Melkhoutkraal homestead burnt in Xhosa raid. A commando under Commandant Philip Rudolph Botha followed the raiders and completely destroyed them at Kafferskop (North of the Garden of Eden and know known as Fisanthoek).

1804: George Rex (a timber merchant and the founder of Knysna) purchased the farm Melkhoutkraal, effectively taking ownership of all the land surrounding the lagoon.
In those early days the topography of South Africa made the transport of timber and other products by ox-wagon an impossible nightmare. The answer, Rex believed, was a harbour on the shores of the lagoon, inside The Heads, the two promontories guarding the entrance. The lagoon was duly surveyed by James Callander, a retired shipwright and friend of George Rex.

1817: On 11 February the 188-ton Royal Navy brig Emu made the first attempt to enter the lagoon. She got no further than The Heads, where she struck a submerged rock. Badly damaged, she was beached just inside the entrance.

In May of the same year the Podargus was sent to retrieve the cargo and crew of the Emu. The Podargus managed to find a safe passage into the lagoon, thus paving the way for a maritime industry that flourished until the arrival of the railway from George in 1928.

1825: The town of Knysna was established in  after Lord Charles Somerset decided the surrounding forest needed to be exploited to supply the soaring demand for timber.

Knysna History - Lord Charles Somerset

Lord Charles Somerset

1830: George Rex even ran a vessel of his own, the 127-ton brig Knysna, the first ship built in the area. Made of stinkwood, it was launched in 1830 and made many trips along the west, south and east coasts.

Knysna-Holidays The knysna-George Rex's Brig

The Knysna

More and more settlers tricked into the area and in 1862 it became possible to obtain title deeds and ownership of lands in the area.


Knysna History - Old St. George

The Anglican church of St George

1849: The Anglican church of St George is now a national monument. The foundation stone was laid in 1849 and the church consecrated by Bishop Robert Gray in 1855.

Knysna-Holidays The Agnar, 27 tons

The Agnar, 427 tons, bought in Norway in 1894. This small steamship provided the fleet of coasters that remained a successful family concern until sold in 1921. The family took the Agnar back to Norway , a 48-day voyag, for a refit in 1901. Sold to French interests in 1934, the ship saw four years' service in Madagascar before vanishing without trace.

Knysna-Holidays The Albatros, Thesen-Owned Ship Since 1850

The Albatros, Thesen owned since 1850, acquired originally for trading in the China seas

1869: Another name associated with the development of Knysna is that of the Thesen family (of 16 members) who settled at Knysna in this year. They were on their way from Norway to New Zealand in their 117 -ton schooner Albatros bud fate intervened in Table Bay. After a few charter, trips to Knysna the senior members of the family decided that Knysna would be their final destination. Here they built a prosperous timber-processing and shipbuilding enterprise.

1870: The Thesen family first sailed through the Heads on the 6th April of this year.

Over the years the Thesen’s built many small vessels of all descriptions. During the second World War the British Admiralty constructed a naval dockyard on the lagoon, and one of the furniture factories was converted into a shipbuilding plant, which turned out ten 34-m motorboats and more than 600 smaller craft Later, Thesen’s built the ocean-going yacht Albatros II, which represented South Africa in transatlantic and other international races.
The shipbuilding tradition is still alive and well in Knysna. Small to medium sized craft, from canoes to trawlers for the fishermen of the west coast, are still being built.

1876: A gold nugget weighing 17 penny-weight was found by James Hooper in a river bed on his farm Ruigtevlei. The find was significant enough for the authorities to make a grant of 100 pounds for further prospecting (a sizeable sum in those days).

1880's: George Parkes, an industrialist from Birmingham, England purchased over 3,400 ha of Knysna forest to provide a source of wood for his factory which was producing edge tools. He established the first primitive sawmill in the forest and a mill conveniently situated in the centre of Knysna.

1881: The settlements of Melville and Newhaven united to form the town of Knysna.

Knysna-Holidays Thomas Bain's Old Bridge

An oxwagon crossing the Kaaimans Drift with Thomas Bain's old bridge in the background

Knysna-Holidays Pontoon Over The Keurbooms River

The pontoon over the Keurbooms River at Plettenberg Bay was brought into service in 1881. Thirty years later it was used on the Knysna River when the bridge there was washed away

The Old Toll House at the start of the Montagu Pass. The runis of this toll house can still be seen today

knysna-Holidays Karatara River near Sedgefield

Crossing the Karatara River near Sedgefield on the way to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay

1885: The search for gold recommenced in the Karatara River after years of postponement and proved to be a successful venture. Many fortune seekers descended on the Millwood area over the next 10 years, until it ceased to be a lucrative operation.

Knysna History - Abandoned Machinery
Abandoned Machinery

Knysna History - Machinery At Bendigo Mine
Machinery At Bendigo Mine

Hundreds of ships used the Port of Knysna between 1817 to 1954, after which it was deproclaimed as a Port.

1886: At the beginning of the Millwood gold rush 69 vessels entered the Knysna Harbour, these were 67 steamers and 2 sailing ships.

April 14th the Masonic Unity Lodge EC was founded in Knysna. It is still in operation to this current day.

1895: Various artificial structures, such as the bridge over the Knysna River allowed silt and other material to accumulate in the lagoon.

Knysna History - Knysna Bridge

Knysna Bridge

Knysna-Holidays Knysna at the end of the 19th century

Knysna as it was in the latter part of the 19th century


1899 – 1902: Boar War

Knysna History - Knysna Fort
Knysna Fort

1901: January 17th - Willamore is attacked by Boars and the local magistrate Maximilian Jackson, declared martial Law in Knysna

A town guard was formed with over 200 volunteers. Meanwhile the Boars occupied Avontuur, at the northern entrance to Price Albert’s Pass, which was follows by a bloody skirmish.

A fort was built at Verdompskop/Magazine Hill (behind the hospital) in Knysna. It was built by a coloured troop under Henry Morgan and became known as “Thompson’s folly” as it saw no action.

July 21st a train was attacked by Scheepers at Ganna Siding near Three Sisters. The Fireman of the train, Frederick Rabbolini turned on the injector of the train flooding the engine and thereby ensuring the Boars from using it. Lord Kitchener later commended his action.

1904: Charles Wilhelm Thesen bought Paarden Island (part of the Melkhoutkraal Estate) and began processing timber on the island (now Thesen Island) in 1922.

Knysna-Holidays Charles Thesen

Charles Wilhelm Thesen


By 1900 there were about 1400 woodcutters in the surrounding forests. The forests were closed in 1939 to protect them from being completely denuded and the Woodcutter Annuity Act was passed, entitling the woodcutters to be pensioned off.

Before things fell silent in Knysna harbour a special narrow-gauge railway was laid from the steamer jetty to a terminus at Diepwalle ('steep slopes') station, in the main forest, to facilitate the transport of felled trees.

1907: The first load of timer was delivered in 1907 to the Knysna Jetty, and until operations were ceased in 1949 some 28 000 tons of timber a year were hauled to the jetty.

Knysna History - Log Transportation

Yellow wood logs on a SWR Co. timber truck type NG 8-E-3 Trucks supplied by the Hungarian Railway and Wagon works Note the chain connection between the trucks Photo Millwood House Museum, Knysna


1910: The Knysna Yacht Club was formed with 16 members. Ascheton de Smidt became the first Commodore.

1914 – 1918: First World War
During World War one men from Knysna fought on all fronts Twenty Nine men from the district died in the war.

1917: The iron barque Gladys was the last of the sailing ships to visit Knysna.

1932: George Bernard Shaw and his wife visited Knysna. They stayed at the Knysna Royal Hotel for 6 weeks.

Knysna - George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

1933: Lewis Noble built an aeroplane and invited Victor Smith, 19, to fly it. He managed to do so from in front of the Nobles boarding house at the Heads to the Leisure Isle golf course.

Later he flew a monoplane onto the Noetzie beach, where it nosed over and bent the propeller. Hebert Henderson VC straightened the metal propeller and he was able to fly home to Wilderness the next day.

Lewis Noble's plane was subsequently flown by his brother Hyla (who was in the Air Force during WW2). The wings provided so much life that it was airborne at the speed of a running man. The Outspan featured an article mentioning the aircraft. A yacht built by Cyril Noble that did extremely well in Durban races (the Joan Edel is still up on a Royal Natal Yacht Club board), and a powerful shortwave radio receiver built by Hyla.

After the war Hyla would come for visits in his Hornet Moth bi-plane and land on the lagoon beach if the tide was out. He would then take the 'plane to the golf course - where he was one of the known special hazards!

1939 – 1945 Second World War
During the Second World War most young Knysna residents served in the Union Forces, in all theatres and in many roles. The Woodbourne Radar Unit was built on the Eastern Head and manned by SSS (Special Signal Services) Radar.

The Knysna boat yard built 640 craft for the Allies, from the Fairmiles (wooden submarine chasers) to longboats used as liferafts.
Thirty Six men of the area died during the war.

1948: Leisure Isle became a Local Area under the jurisdiction of the Knysna Divisional Council.

1949: The Knysna Oyster Company was formed. It still produces succulent Oysters to this present day. Production now stands at over 20 million oysters per year.

Click here to view website

1953: The ‘White’ Bridge across the Knysna river was opened. On 26th June HMS Nereide, a sloop of 1,350 tonnes, left Knysna through the Heads, marking the end of visits by the Royal Navy.

Knysna - White Bridge

The White Bridge

1954: Knysna was de-proclaimed as a Port. Reuben Benn, the last of then pilots, was transferred fro duties to Durban.

1957: In July George Rex Drive, leading to the Heads was concreted. Prior to this it was a gravel road.

1970: The Thesen company entry in the first Cape to Rio Race was Albatros II, with John Goodwin as skipper. It was built to celebrate their centenary in Knysna.

Albatros II went on to take the overall honours when it reached Rio Da Janerio.

1971: Derek Kershaw overcame a physical handicap to qualify for participation in the Hobie World Championship in Hawaii. He followed this up in 1974 and 1978

1973: 9th March the Holy Trinity Church, Belvidere, was declared a National Monument.

Knysna History - Holy Trinity Church

The Holy Trinity Church

1976: 17th December Millwood House on Queen Street was declared a National Monument and the Elephant Walk trail in the forest near Deep Wall was opened.

1984: This was the first year of the Knysna Oyster Festival

Click here to view website

1985: The town, its lagoon and its shores, Leisure Isle and Thesen's Island fall within the 5 000 ha of the Knysna National Lake Area, proclaimed in 1985. Development is monitored by South African National Parks to ensure a sensible balance between the commercial enterprise, recreation and conservation. The rich aquatic life includes prawns, crabs and other crustaceans in the lagoon, in the sand and mud banks, salt marshes and reed beds. These are the feeding grounds of large shoals of fish and many bird species indigenous to the region.

Featherbeds was proclaimed a Nature Reserve

1991: 24th May, The Old Goal in Queen Street was declared a National Monument

1992: Leisure Isle Boat Club and Harbour built and opened this year.

Knysna - LEisure Isle Boating CLub

Leisure Isle

Click Here To View More Information On Leisure Isle

1994: 27th April South Africa’s first ever democratic election was held and Nelson Mandela was installed as President.

Knysna - Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

1995: In November Knysna’s first democratic council election was held with the first mayor being councillor Thembe Mfene.

1997: The Knysna Quays was built close to the Yacht Club.

Knysna History - Knysna Quays

Knysna History - Knysna Quays

Knysna Quays

Click Here To View More Information On The Knysna Quays

1998: Monkeyland opens near the Crags and the Log Inn Hotel was opened in Grey Street.

2001: Knysna was voted South Africa’s favourite town and The Old Fort, behind the hospital was proclaimed a National Monument.

2002: Knysna was voted South Africa’s town for the second time. Polo fields were built at Keurbooms River and at Kurland. Thesen Island development starts and the Knysna Elephant Park was founded.

Knysna - Kurland Polo

Kurland Polo Estate

2003: The Featherbed ferry terminal opens along side the Knysna Angling Club and the first baby is born in the Knysna Elephant Park

Knysna - Featherbed Ferry Terminal

Featherbed Ferry Terminal

2004: Leisure Isle Boat club extends it’s facilities

2006: Knysna Mall opens in November. Knysna now has it’s first escalators and earlier in the year Birds of Eden open at the Crags.
The Knysna Municipality implements a development limit for the area to help control development and to ensure that all future developments are sustainable.

Knysna Hstory - Shopping Mall

Knysna Mall

2007: Another new shopping centre is planned for the centre of Knysna this year (Market Square) with anchors such as Checkers coming to the area for the first time.

Thesen Islands development due to complete this year.

Click here to read more about the ongoing development in the Thesesn Islands

When researching this part of our site we found an excellent publication entitled Knysna & Plett A Journey through Time by Ian Uys which was published by Fortress Financial Group (Pty) Ltd. We would strongly recommend that if you want to get a better insight into the history of the area that you get a copy of this book.

If you would like to contribute to this section of the site please do not hesitate to contact us at

Natural Rock Arches
At the Heads and near Keurboomstrand (east of Plettenberg Bay), spectacular arches and caverns have been carved into the sandstone formations by wave and wind erosion over countless millennia.

Knysna History

Many of these arches and caves provided shelter to Strandlopers (beachcombers) who lived on what they could collect from the shores in ancient times.

Knysna History - Bridge

The bridge over the Knysna River was completed in 1895 but was later washed away during a flood.

Knysna History - The Paquita

The Paquita went down on 18 October 1903 near Beacon Rock at the Heads. The rib of her hull is still visible to divers near the restaurant that shares her name.

Go Back In Time!

The Old Goal Complex
Built to house convicts and today is home to the Knysna Art Gallery.

Knysna - Old Goal Complex

Holy Trinity Church
A beautiful example of 12th century Norman-style architecture. (1851 – 1855)

Knysna History - Holy Trinity Church

Millwood House Museum
Unique old photographs of Millwood in bygone days and scenes of old Knysna bring history to life.

Knysna History - Millwood House Museum

Knysna History - Millwood House Museum

Knysna History - Millwood House Museum

Millwood Goldmines
Deep in the heart of the forest, where you can see the mineshafts and old mining equipment

Knysna History - Millwood Gold Mining

Since 1882 a municipality, grew out of the two hamlets "Newhaven-on-Knysna' and 'Melville-on-Knysna'. They combined as a result of the steady population growth due mainly to the flourishing timber and shipping industry, and the discovery of gold.

Long before the town came into existence, people had drifted into the forests following elephant trails. Once roads were constructed, timber became the main activity in the Knysna area Water wheels powered the many sawmills that sprung up. One of these mills belonged to the Thesen family and became known as the 'Mill in the Wood' - today's Millwood. It operated from 1870 and was managed by a Mr Franzsen.

Knysna - Gold Minners

In 1875, James Hooper found a particularly heavy pebble in the Karatara River and believed it to be a gold nugget He took it to the local pharmacist, Mr Groom. He, in turn. consulted Charles Osborne, a civil and mining engi-neer with experience of the Californian goldfields. Osborne shared Hooper's belief, approached the Cape government and was given a grant for further investigation of the area. The two men sank a shaft and searched the Karatara River, nearby creeks and gullies, but without any further finds. Their search area was about 15 kilometres from Millwood.

Knysna History - Millwood House Museum

Despite the failure, rumours of alluvial gold persisted. In 1886 the government proclaimed the land 'above and below the Main Road drift on the Karatara River' a public diggings. John Barrington was   appointed   Gold Commissioner.

John Osborne, after a brief stay in Port Nolloth returned to Knysna in 1886 and continued prospecting on a full time basis. Still, the Karatara River yielded nothing. Osborne then turned his attention to the Homtini River up towards Thesen Hill and to a gully, which became known as the Millwood Gully Here, his probing proved more successful. Together with Thomas Bain, the district Inspector of Roads, he submitted a report to the government in which recommended that the area should be opened to the general public and allow them sluicing.

Many inexperienced prospectors were lured to the "gold fields' in the forests, their health badly affected by the extremely wet and cold winter conditions of 1886. That same year, they formed a Diggers Committee and put rules into place. For the administration of the fields, 1 shilling per month was exacted per claim. Gold prospecting now began in earnest. The Government Surveyor, Mr Newdigate, laid out a village of 135 stands and soon 75 wood and iron cottages, 6 hotels, 4 boarding houses, a hospital, Methodist Church, a number of general dealers, bakers, butchers, banks a music hall and 3 newspapers could be found at Millwood Village. In time the alluvial gold find attracted over 1000 men.

Millwood's growth ensured years of fair material comfort for the Knysna area. Even the social calendar filled with dates, as people flocked to the town.

The diggers meanwhile had contact with Knysna through a post cart service. Despite the torturous journey, it operated three times a week. A red flag with a white cross-signalled its arrival at the post office.

By 1888 over 1400 claims were staked out and about 40 companies and syndicates involved in gold extraction, both alluvial and reef. The government scored best. Its revenue coffers bulged with taxes collected.

But the good fortune was about to end. Gold had been discovered in the north of the country. The slump started in 1890 and caused the collapse of the Millwood gold mines. Almost all companies went bankrupt, and most diggers moved on to Barberton for greater fortunes. Some stayed behind, hoping, but recovery never came. By 1890 only 3 shops remained and 5 government officials. Mr Charles Osborne was the only one still digging!

The population at Millwood dwindled to 162 in 1892, to 7 in 1893. Equipment, some of which was retrieved and brought back to Knysna, lay scattered and abandoned in the woods. In 1924 the area was officially deproclaimed and prospecting became illegal.

Knysna History - Abandoned Machinery

Most of the machinery on display at the Bendigo Mine was found deep in the forest, in gullies and ravines. The Department of Forestry was responsible for much of the recovery of machinery, whilst the Millwood Goldfield Society, keeps the memory of gold alive. The Society, established in 1988, organises regular excursions to the former gold fields.

Knysna History - Machinery At Bendigo Mine

George Rex’s Grave
Completed in 1855, features exposed hammer trusses, a timbered ceiling and lovely wide yellowwood floorboards.

Knysna - George Rex's Grave

San Ambroso Church at Gouna
Is open daily and offers visitors the chance to reflect in church or read up on the history of the Italian Silk Spinners for whom the church was built

Other Sights From The Past

'Old' St. George's

Soon after Bishop Robert Gray's arrival in the Cape (1847), a deputation from Knysna requested the services of a clergyman. The petition fell on receptive ears and the Bishop visited Knysna a year later. A service was held in the school, which, until the building of a church, would serve as the licensed place of worship.

Funds were raised, and John Rex laid the foundation stone in April 1849. In November 1850, Robert Gray once again visited Knysna but was deeply disappointed at the lack of building progress due to lack of money. With a little talking, six townsmen were persuaded to find the necessary funds to complete the building.  At last, in October 1855, the church was consecrated by Bishop Gray, just two days before he was to consecrate the 'Duthie' church at Belvidere.

Wide yellow/wood floorboards, whitewashed walls and timber ceiling, stone window traceries with slightly different design at the top combine to create a feeling of warmth and welcome.

The first clergyman was Dr William Andrews, a physician from London who had been ordained Deacon in 1849.

Knysna History - Old St. George

Melville Centre

With its large gables, heavy plaster mouldings and rusticated comers – one of the finest buildings in Knysna.

The original building, erected by the carpenter and undertaker William
Patterson Milne was let out to the Standard Bank and served both as bank and manager's residence.

The Thesen Company purchased it in 1912 and gave it its name. The popular General Dealer's store 'Melvilles Limited' closed in 1976, when Thesens were taken over by Barlows Ltd.

Knysna History - Melville House

Knysna History - Log TransportationMap of the South Western Railway Line in Knysna South Africa as drawn by Sydney Moir.

Knysna History - Log TransportationYellow-wood sleepers awaiting despatch from Knysna station Photo from "The Knysna Story" by Arthur Nimmo

Knysna History - Log TransportationThe 2 foot rails of the SWR Co. are still visible and should be preserved

Knysna History - Log TransportationThe South Western Railways ex Natal Government 2 foot Railway narrow gauge 4-6-2T - SAR class NG.3 No.4 - is seen here with a load of timber from the Knysna Forest.

Knysna History - Log TransportationThe Orenstein & Koppel S/N. 4880 150HP Wood Burner 0-8-0 of 1907 photographed in front of the Knynsa Station Image courtesy Hannes Paling

Knysna History - Log TransportationThe Outeniqua Choe-tjoe at Knysna Station

Leisure Isle 1965 Knysna Holidays

Leisure Isle 1965

Leisure Isle Knysna Holidays

Leisure Isle 1975

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