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Down Memory Lane

Down Memory Lane - Vicky Williams Talk

The Leisure Island Story


Vicky Williams



A talk given to the Knysna U3A on 24 April 2012



First of all – some brief statistics – the Island is about 1.6kms long from tip to toe (west to east) and about 4.8kms round its circumference.  At its widest, it is not more than 0.5km.  It was originally a flattish grassy, scrubby sand dune with a few milkwood (melkhout) trees on it,


The earliest print of the Island appeared on the first chart published of ‘the Knysna’ (as it was known then), surveyed by James Callander, a ships’ Captain who had been employed during the 1st British Occupation, to investigate all the bays and inlets along the southern Cape coast and who had eventually settled in a little shack he built for himself on top of the Eastern Head.  The chart was published in 1804 in vol. 2 of John Barrow’s account of his travels titled - An account of travels into the interior of Southern Africa in which is considered the importance of the Cape of Good Hope as a naval and military base….etc. But Callander had drawn this chart from his own soundings earlier than that and had presented a copy of it personally to General Janssens, then Governor of the Cape under the brief rule of the Batavian Republic when the Governor travelled through the Knysna in 1803.  The outline of the Island on the chart is not very accurate and it is not named.  In fact, the first time the Island is named on a survey chart is on the unpublished chart drawn by Capt. Robert Wauchope, who was sent to the area in 1817 by Governor Lord Charles Somerset, when it appeared as Steenbuck Island (or Steenbok Eiland in Dutch.  The chart was superseded by William Walker’s chart, officially engraved and published only in 1839 titled “Knysna Harbour.”  Two islands in the River Knysna estuary (referred later, and still to-day as “The Lagoon”,) are marked as “Round Island” and “Steenbuck Island.”  Steenbuck or Steenbok were the names used generally, right up until 1929 after George Cearn had bought the Island and changed its name to “Leisure Isle.”


To go back a bit, the Island, which then belonged to the Colonial Government, was ceded to George Rex on 9 February 1821 during the 2nd British Occupation of the Cape, in exchange for one morgen of his land for a Government Pilot Establishment, plus a further smaller piece of land 314 square Roods on the Eastern Head for a Signal Tower.  These two pieces of land were part of George Rex’s farm Melkhoutkraal that he bought from the Estate of the late Richard Holiday which had belonged to Pieter Terblans who was the first Dutch settler to have land on the estuary of the Knysna River.  The Island was thus owned by the Rex family and their descendants, the Duthies, from 1821 until 1929.

The Island originally supported a population of steenbok for many years, even after the first houses were built, and it was rich in bird life – a large variety of waterbirds in particular.  There were the black oystercatchers with their red legs – (known as ‘Polly Redstockings”), there were herons, cormorants, little egrets, kingfishers, seagulls – and our favourites - the dikkops or thick-kneed plovers which used to nest under the milkwood trees on the commonage every year (and possibly still do?) just across the road from our house on Egret Lane.  But the multitude of water bird life has been concentrated for the last century or so on the vleiground - a Paradise for bird watchers opposite the top of Armstrong Drive leading to the Island, with a huge number of non-water birds on the open parklands.  There are about 120 different birds listed in that excellent publication of LIRA’s, which I cannot recommend highly enough.


George Rex in his Day Book always referred to the Island as Steenbok Island.  An entry dated 5 July 1833 reads – “…many strange cattle on the Island.  Jacob (one of his sons), drives 52 head of cattle intermixed with our forest oxen to Springfield.”  (Springfield’s name changed over the years to Edenberg a corruption of Edinburgh  - the place where the Duke of Edinburgh, 2nd son of Queen Victoria, shot his elephant.) Another of the many references by Rex to the Island as Steenbok Island was made in 1833 when on 27 August in a storm and day-and –night wind, his own brig, the 140-ton Knysna was driven ashore there.  On the next day he had to send for his people from the forest to come with wagons and oxen to offload the vessel so as to lighten her to make it easier to refloat her.  They had also to cut a channel so that the refloating could take place out on the next high tide.  George Rex wrote thankfully in his Day Book on 29 August 1833  “… the brig floated to her anchorage at three o’clock just before high water.”  No damage was done as the banks of the Island were then still of soft mud.  George Rex died in 1839, those of his family who had not married or left home, like Jacob to work elsewhere, remained at Melkhoutkraal until it was sold in 1844 to Indian Army Colonel Sutherland.


In 1865 a red arrow-headed beacon  - a triangle with slats across it - was set up on the Island as a marker for shipping, erected by the men of HMS Rapid. The plate or tablet was later found lying in the sand nearby by Pilot John Benn II in 1879 and read – “This Beacon was erected by Captain Jago and the crew of the HMS Rapid   30 November 1865”.  It was later replaced by the mast of the wrecked whaler St. Ebba, (wrecked 4 May 1916.)  Much later, on 11 June 1971, the Beacon, officially referred to as the ‘Inner Transit Marker’ was replaced by a telescopic pole.  Whatever its correct designation, the Islanders thought of it as ‘the Beacon’ and many a mariner coming into the harbour in a thick mist was gladdened by the sight of it rising gracefully above the dense greyness with its light winking every third of a second.


In the early days, access from the Mainland to the Island was only by paddling or on horseback across the northern and eastern marshes, - at high tide and only by boat .


Meanwhile the birth and growth of the villages of Melville and Newhaven on the Mainland, began to take place and in 1858 the Knysna, from being officially a part of the Field Cornetcy of Plettenberg Bay in the Division of George, was proclaimed a new Division in its own right.  Pilot John Benn, who lived at the Heads and who was to make his mark in the history of Knysna for his devotion to duty and bravery, had a large family, and his children used to cross the creek at low yide to get to school.  The school was in Newhaven, on the Mainland next to the pretty home Primrose Cottage, that belonged to the two Misses Hare.  After school the Benn children had to wait for low tide again to get home.


In 1925 Mr. George Cearn, much travelled but who always considered himself as an American having been born there but to English parents and educated in England,   arrived in Knysna with his wife Ethel on their second visit, staying at the Royal Hotel before moving temporarily into No.77 Main Road.   He built his first home (now called “Tory House”), so-called because of the Japanese Shinto Torii gate he had placed at the entrance) in Albatros St., and settled in the village.  He was a wealthy man who had made his money in Kenya.  His wife was a Blackwell of Crosse & Blackwells and well to do in her own right.  They were seeking a place for their retirement and had almost decided on Japan but changed their minds and opted for Knysna instead.  Cearn and Ernest ‘Toby’ Mason became friendly and bought a property in the village in the Main Street that stretched from the much later garage and Central Pharmacy on the left side up to the intersection at Long Street, and also acquired a certain amount of property in Hunters Home.  In 1926 Cearn was elected Mayor of the Town serving for just one year.  But his most significant claim to fame was the purchase of course in 1929 of Steenbok Island from John Duthie of Woodbourne farm.  The locals were amazed and thought the transaction on Cearn’s part eccentric in the extreme and thought also that John Duthie was lucky to be rid of such an unproductive piece of property.  And at the excellent price of  £7,000!  (or £11000?)  Well, there was lots more from where that came and people were wont to say that it was because all his life Cearn was a ‘picker-up of unconsidered trifles’  - a bent nail, a nut or a rusty bolt, a pencil stub, a piece of wire…It was even said that when left alone in somebody’s office, he would quickly look in the wastepaper basket for a gem clip or two or a piece of carbon paper which he would later smooth out!  He had a storeroom built on the Island, which later became the garage of his Island home Beacon House on ‘The Front’.


The other side of George Cearn was his dogged determination to create a new residential area at Knysna and to people it with reasonably priced dwellings – family homes,  - and he planned it accordingly.  He included space for a school, a church and space for recreation and shops.  But there was much work to be done, and his major and first task was to make the Island easily reached from the mainland.  To that end he had to build a causeway across the tidal vlei.  The local newspaper, The Knysna Advertiser, reported on 20 December 1929 that the first sods had been turned six months previously for constructing the causeway and that no picnickers for the time being were allowed on the Island.  Stone was quarried from the hill on the left hand side of the causeway and for a seawall right round the edges of the sandy and muddy shores, brought to the site on rails in cocopans.  Stone was also used for the foundations of the roads,  in all at a cost of about £9000. Wood and bush groynes were made, placed at intervals all around the south wall to encourage the silting up of sand in order to create a beach.  Which worked very well.  Before the causeway was completed, George Cearn used to cycle over to the Island from his Heads house “Rookery Nook” down to opposite the Green Hole when he would then carry his bicycle over his head until he was on dry land..


The foreman of the works was Mr. Daniel (Dantjie) Keyter, an enormous man who worked his men hard and treated them well.  Some of them were convicts who had the chance of earning 2/6d per day with a good hot meal thrown in cooked by Mrs. Keyter. Her husband used to go to work in a donkey cart every day until Cearn told him he had ‘to live on the job.’ So he and his wife and family settled in a shack in what later became School Road.  Mrs. Keyter acquired some pheasant eggs which she put under a broody hen under the aloes there and soon there were baby pheasants running around.  It was Toby Mason, Cearn’s friend, who bred the pheasants originally from eggs brought from England by Mr. Howard Parkes.


It took three years to build the seawall round the Island. With the building of the causeway fears had already been expressed that it was blocking the boat channel and would result in the whole boating area being silted up in the future.  But Cearn had allowed for three bridges as part of the narrow causeway to ensure that the tides would not be affected, as well as a bridge across the boat channel.  This worked very well right up until the causeway was later widened and concreted by the new Divisional Council..


In due course George Cearn advertised in the local Publicity Association’s brochure that the Island was now connected to the Mainland and that visitors could walk over. He erected a decorative Japanese Torii gate – supposedly a symbol of Peace and Happiness - on the causeway about a third of the way from the Island.. Four hundred and ninety-nine plots were to be for disposal and a system was being considered to assist purchasers of the first fifty plots to build their own dwellings – or to pay for them by extended instalments.  In 1932 before the plots were built on, the well-known airman from the Wilderness, Victor Smith, landed his plane on the Island on the site for the golf course– the best piece of flat land in Knysna available at that time.


In 1933 George Cearn was occupied in having the 9-hole Golf Course laid out and building a house for himself and his wife Ethel and Ethel’s sister Mabel Clift who frequently spent holidays with them.  The Island had been surveyed and the intricate pattern of roads laid out by surveyor Mr. P.A-Melville and submitted to the Deeds Office.  Avenues of gums and groves of pines were planted – these would not have been selected today! - but they soon provided shade and character to the area, contrary to all the negative criticism and scepticism, transforming it into a desirable place to make a home.  George Cearn spent a vast amount of money and even provided electric light in a modest way by erecting a small power plant behind what later became the pretty garden restaurant  “The Pink Umbrella.”  The lights worked until midnight – or as long as the labourer in charge remained awake.  Water was never a problem as the entire Island has fresh water about three feet down below the sand.  It is not sweet water but is perfectly adequate for gardening, and residents get access to it very easily by sinking a spike and installing a pump – and voila! – there it is.  But for many years every house that was built on the Island had a tank for collecting rainwater for drinking purposes.


We left George Cearn laying out his golf course.  There was already a Golf Course in Knysna, and it seems that golf was played from 1909 on sand greens situated on the recreation ground near the railway station.  When the railway line from George was nearing completion in 1927, part of the course was expropriated and the golf Club moved to Target Kloof west of Thesen Hill, and Mr. Arthur Scott, the President, and the Captain, Mr. George Strydom, set about laying out the new course.  It was not very satisfactory however, because of the steep terrain, and became known as “ the goat course,” and when the new course on Leisure Isle was complete the Knysna Golf Club moved to the Island in 1939.  Mrs. Cearn and Mrs. Clift regularly entertained the golfers to tea.  After presenting the prizes at a competition to the winning couples Mrs. Tidswell and Mr. Donald Fraser, and Miss A. Thesen and Mr. Mervyn Jones, Cearn informed the gathering that he had leased the property to Mr. G. Herring who would cater for the public from then on.  The Cearn’s home was then converted into a complex that included a Clubhouse and a newly-built annexe.  They then moved back to their other home, ‘Rookery Nook;’ at The Heads.


The golf course was not  claimed to be a championship course but the nine holes were designed to be a fair challenge.  In April 1939 Mr. Herring organised a house-warming event to mark the opening of the Private Hotel he had set up, having added on to the Golf Course a Clubhouse and annexe.  There was dancing, a buffet supper and a Bridge Drive organised with Mrs. Harry Thesen graciously acting as Hostess.  It happened to be a lovely warm evening and the spacious verandah was ablaze with coloured lights.  Music was provided by Eric Kennett and Aschie De Smidt from a radio pick-up and distributed by loud speakers and everybody enjoyed them selves.  This was a wonderful innovation for the Islanders.


After some years, Herring sold the golf course and existing buildings to Mr. William (Bill) Anderson on condition that he turned the hotel into a fully-fledged establishment with a liquor licence.  The Leisure Isle Hotel was then built on to the existing nucleus and Bill Anderson ran it for seven years.  In March 1950, after a farewell party in the new lounge of the Hotel and a mixed greensome on the golf course, Bill Anderson and his wife retired and left the Island.  He returned to Knysna later and managed the Knysna Hotel in the Town for many years


The Leisure Isle Hotel was very popular and was proud to advertise that it had its own golf course ‘on its doorstep.’  Bobby Locke apparently re-laid parts of the course, as its first hole was said to be the longest in South Africa at that time.  The hotel had a good table and offered its guests billiards, table tennis and a dance floor.  The Island had long been known as a fisherman’s Paradise and angler guests could find out in the friendly bar what tackle to use and where to go to fish from the shore or from a boat, and what was biting at the time.


By this time George Cearn had sold many plots (the first one, of 6475 square feet, to John Perry), and houses were being built and families moving in. Some of the earliest houses to be completed were ‘Cypress Cottage’, built by Mr. H.A. Tidswell, and a cottage near Bollard Bay by Doreen Morgan, born Parkes, but a number of the houses were built as holiday homes.  Another of the houses that was built early on and was lived in was to become quite a landmark.  This was known locally as the ‘Ship House’.  It was built by William Joliffe, a building contractor from Port Elizabeth who bought two plots in 1940 and built his home to resemble a ship, which he called ‘The William Joliffe’.  The massive concrete ‘prow’ had three portholes on each side, and there were further portholes, that were the windows down the side towards the stern, that were the windows of the house.  The upstairs windows were in the style of upper deck cabin windows.  The ‘ship’s’ funnels were the rainwater tanks and the whole edifice could be mistaken from the sea for a ship leaving the harbour. Mr. and Mrs. Joliffe dressed the part, but his cap was reputed to be that of a tram driver.  When the house was sold, the new owners the Dolleys, cut off the prow and replaced the portholes with conventional windows, and the ‘ship house’ “foundered!”  Later the well-known artist Dale Elliott from Grahamstown built a double storey home and studio on the site and used to give popular Art Classes there.


A certain number of the residents of the Island in the early days were ex-Colonial pensioners – ex- Military men and government officials – a high percentage from England originally.  Many a kindred spirit met over the garden fence on their way to their respective dustbins performing tasks, which now in their ‘golden years’ were a novelty to them.  Author Winifred Tapson wrote ‘Leisure Island became known as “The Isle of the Ancient Britons”.   During WW2, in 1941, George Cearn donated a plot on the Island to be raffled for the fund to help pay for a Spitfire for the War effort.  £5000 had to be raised and there were at that time many raffles held and donations from the people of Knysna.

The Spitfire was bought and christened The Knysna.


Mrs. Armstrong, wife of General Armstrong, and a few other ladies formed the Leisure Isle and Hunters Home Work Party and invited Mrs. Cearn to be President.  The ladies held meetings in turn in their homes to discuss and try to solve, some of the current social problems.  Mrs. Cearn promised to leave the Work Party some money to build a small structure in which to hold their meetings.  She also discussed with Mrs. Armstrong her wish to leave sufficient money with which to build a Community Hall on the Island.


George and Ethel Cearn celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1953 using the occasion to contribute to various charities the princely sum of £14,000.  In the meantime they had moved to their new home Beacon House on the Island, which they built a little way in front of the Beacon on the ‘Front’ with a glorious view of The Heads.  Ten months after their golden anniversary George Cearn passed away at the age of 83, Ethel followed him three years later.


Meanwhile the Island became steadily more populated with more permanent residents.  The Causeway was widened, the bridges removed and the surface made into a concrete road. The motor garage was demolished in 1952 to make way for the W.G. Wiles Gallery and Lucy and Brian Wiles added a new dimension to the Island with Lucy’s lovely watercolour and oil flower and landscape paintings and pottery. Brian initially did the framing and then began to do paintings himself.  They bought three erven from George Cearn’s Estate in 1962 on the northwest tip of the Island with an enormous ficus tree in the grounds.


The Cearn Memorial Hall and Library was opened by Brigadier Armstrong in July 1961, designed by architect Stan French who lived on the Island, and built by Russell Stuart. Mr. Theo Friis, Director of Library Services, George, then spoke, accepting the Library as a branch of the Knysna Town Library and mentioned that members of the National Theatre Organisation would visit Cearn Hall with its stage and suitable facilities for play readings and exhibitions.  Before the days of TV many a play was performed at the Cearn Hall by the Knysna Dramatic Society to be enjoyed by the residents of the Island, Knysna town and surroundings.


At this stage of its development the people of the Island were determined to maintain the status quo, with its own local unofficial Advisory Board to conduct its own affairs on the spot under the aegis of the Divisional Council.  The Islanders were almost all wholly against being absorbed into the Municipality as it could mean higher taxes for property owners, and unwelcome restrictions - but the transfer of control did, in fact, take place in 1968 against strong opposition led by their Management Committee under the Chairmanship of Judge Heine de Villiers.  However, they were fighting a losing battle as the Divisional Council were no longer able to supply the essential services that had become dire.  Under the aegis of the Municipality, electricity and water supplies improved dramatically.


Recreation was found on the tennis courts and bowling greens, fishing from the shore or from ski boats that went through The Heads to the fishing grounds at Gericke’s Point and elsewhere.  It was such a pleasure to go down to Bollard Bay and watch the boats come in at least twice a week. – more, if the weather allowed it! My brother John Hopkins, had a sea-going ski boat called “Samaki” - as ‘crew’ were my other brother Michael, my husband Kil, and Charles Hill. My husband used also to love fishing on the lagoon at sunrise or sunset from his rowing boat.  But there was no more golf on the Island, the 9-hole course was replaced by a full course on the Heads Road, but in its place, a wonderful Nature Reserve, Steenbok Park, that nurtures indigenous plants, was created.


The population of the Island increased steadily.  The hotel was taken over by Mr. O.G. Grant, and when the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay was demolished to make way for a more modern building, Mrs. Dorothy Grant had its doors and reception desk re-erected at Leisure Isle and ran the Hotel herself for a while.  It was a very popular gathering place for the local residents as well as for families and friends from all over the Republic.  Many of us have very happy memories of holidays spent in the hotel, and residents of the Island thoroughly enjoyed the popular Sunday night film and buffet supper evenings and the Friday night dances for the youngsters.


A great convenience and delight to the Island dwellers was the Island Shop,  especially when Mrs. Jean Mackenzie – “Mrs. Mac” – was there to attend to our needs and keep us up-to-date with the latest Island gossip!  There were home-baked pies, bread and cakes to be had, and lovely fresh fish, apart from groceries.


On 24 November 1983 headlines in the local newspaper blazoned forth:  “A ten year battle comes to an end.” And “Home for Aged planned for Leisure Isle.” - which meant that at last a retirement home was to be built for the elderly to be completed hopefully by early 1985.  The Provincial Council announced that the ground originally zoned for a school had been re-zoned for an old-aged complex.  The plan had been strongly objected to by many residents of the Island, but once the Garden Gates complex just west of Knysna town, was up and running so well, the objections slowly ceased and Leisure Gardens came to life and flourished with its lovely gardens inspired and created by Mary Hopkins who went to extraordinary lengths, assisted eagerly by her friends, to acquire grass, plants, bulbs, shrubs, roses etc., some from the garden of the Hotel which had closed down, for the beloved garden.  When she had to give up, Dora Green took over and carried on until sadly, she could no longer see.  Leisure Gardens became a very desirable place in which to spend one’s later years and has had a long waiting list for very many years.


Also in the ‘80’s, another large empty space, known as “The Recreation Road Area” was on the market for dwelling houses.  Nineteen plots were sold by Public Auction at average prices of R45 000.  Almost R1,000,000 was realised in an hour.


We left the Island sadly, on 25 July 1992, to settle in at Belvidere Park – quite the other side of Knysna, and left sadly, but with many many happy memories of Leisure Island.


The origins of some of the street names are as follows:


Links Drive

Named after the 9-hole golf links built by George Cearn.


Hart Road.

Named after Robert Cecil Howard Hart. 1886-1968.  Born in Lancaster, England, obtained B.A. degree at Manchester University and served in W.W.1 as Captain and from then on was always known as Captain or ‘Cappy’ Hart. He was Headmaster of SACS in Cape Town in 1924 and soon afterwards, Headmaster at Knysna High School where he was very popular.  Ten years later he was appointed Headmaster of Cambridge High School, East London.  On his retirement he returned to Knysna and settled in Belvidere.  Together with his wife, Annie, he edited the book A memoir of the Rev. A.G. Duthie and W.H. Duthie  - Valuable Africana to-day.


Tidswell Avenue.

Named after Herbert Alton Tidswell, born Melbourne, Australia 15.12.1893, he came to South Africa as a child, lived in Cape Town and went to SACS and was then articled to lawyers Bisset, Boehmke and McBlain in Cape Town..  After WW1, he came to Knysna and took over Mr. V.V. Van Coller’s legal practice in Knysna.  He was a keen sportsman, a member of the Divisional Council for 11 years and contributed articles regularly to the local newspaper The Knysna Advertiser signed H.A.T.  His home on The Island, ‘Cypress Cottage’ on the Front was the first to be completed and is still there.  His practice was later Raubenheimer and Tidswell  and he was legal adviser to Mr. Cearn.  (His daughter Joan still remembers when they delivered milk over to the Island from Woodbourne on horseback.)


Powel Road.

Named after Lewis Powel who arrived in Knysna from Wales in 1903. He was appointed Secretary of the Divisional Council in 1909, a post he held until his death in 1929.  Together with Rex Metelerkamp he was Municipal Auditor in 1917.  He was Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce from its inception and died on 28 October 194l leaving a son and a daughter.


Horne Drive and De Smidt Drive

Each of these two streets have a romantic origin to their names.  Horne Drive was named for Dr. Wlliam Remington Horne – (related to artist Dale Elliott) who was engaged to be married to Eileen De Smidt, the niece of Ascheton Geddes De Smidt, known affectionately in Knysna as ‘Aschie’, who was Magistrate of Knysna, and after being transferred elsewhere  finally  retired to Knysna and died here in 1954.  His niece Eileen and her fiancè had to endure a long engagement while he studied medicine.   The only two long parallel roads on the Island  - Horne Drive and De Smidt Drive are joined together forming an arch at the Links Road end – (easiest to see on the plan of the Island)   – symbolic of the long wait these two young people had to endure before being joined in matrimony.


Cearn Drive and George Avenue. 

These two roads are so named in honour of George Cearn.


Thornely Road.

Named after the Ven. Robert Thomas Thornely-Jones, born in Rutland, England 7.11.1868 and died at Knysna in 1956.  He obtained his M.A. at Cambridge University and was ordained Deacon in 1896 and came to South Africa to St. Paul’s, Port Elizabeth in 1900.  He came to the small St. George’s Church, Knysna as Rector in 1923.  Archdeacon Thornley-Jones married Ella Thesen in 1924.  He later became Rector at Oudtshoorn, and then at Walmer in Port Elizabeth.  Knysna owes him a debt of gratitude for his guidance during the building of the big St. George’s Church.


Parkes Lane. 

Named after the Parkes family of Knysna.  The Founder of the timber firm Geo. Parkes and Sons – George Parkes, known in the family fondly as ‘Grandfather Parkes’ was Chairman of A. & F. Parkes, Edge Tool Manufacturers of Birmingham in England.  He came to Knysna to meet some customers and when he fortuitously found The Knysna Steam Mills plus a large tract of land in the village and 6000 acres of forest with a mill, machinery and buildings, were for sale, he promptly bought the lot!  Thus were the foundations for the firm of George Parkes and Sons laid.

His late grandson, Bernard, was married to our Margaret, and their son, Jim Parkes, is the current Managing Director of the Firm.


As usual, I am greatly indebted to Margaret for nearly all the pictures and for a great deal of the information, which she has always given to me most generously.  All of us who value the social history of Knysna owe Margaret a huge debt of gratitude for the manner in which she has preserved and shared her knowledge with us.



© Vicky Williams, April 2012