One of the most beautiful public parks in the Johannesburg, The Wilds is a unique attraction entirely devoted to indigenous South African flora, including several species of Protea and Yellowwood trees. Sadly, over the past few decades it has also become a no-go area for Joburg's residents looking for a peaceful walk or a lazy afternoon on the grass.
Originally owned, along with Houghton Estate, by Barney Barnato's JCI Company, the land was donated to the City in 1924 and was developed into a park in 1938. 1965 saw the construction of the pedestrian bridge - designed by Wally Schutte and Brian Watt - that spans Houghton Drive connecting the two sections of the park. The park also contains a memorial plaque dedicated to General JC Smuts, who was an acknowledged botanist, and there is a plant display-house, which has been declared a national monument. (Although sadly, the plaque seems to have vanished.)
With the main part of the park on the Parktown ridge behind Killarney and the smaller section across the road hugging the edge of the Houghton ridge, the 1992 Best Parks & Picnic Spots published describes The Wilds as having "Meandering footpaths and walkways [that] lead you through this beautiful area with its abundance of indigenous shrubs, plants and trees. The stream works its way down the hill via a number of water features and falls to the two dams below. With Roedene and Hillbrow in the background you will, surprisingly, find some rustic, secluded picnic spots along the way."
However, in 1992, it was advised not to visit the park at night and by 1995, after numerous reports of muggings and rapes, numbers had dropped even further. In 2005, although joburg.org.za stated that The Wilds was now safe to visit after the installation of guards and police, the park was still deemed unsafe to visit, even in pairs. As recently as 2011 there remained safety warnings for those visiting when in small groups. In 2013 a group of WITS climbing students were mugged by men with a gun and a knife.
How safe is it in 2014?
I visited The Wilds on a Sunday at lunch-time and was the only person there. At no time did I feel nervous but, expecting the worst, I had taken precautions and wasn't carrying a phone, wallet or valuables. There are no signs up to warn visitors of potential dangers but it is advisable to take care when visiting this or any public park.
The entire park on both sides is fenced off with the only access point being the main entrance on Houghton Drive. The parking area is followed by a security hut where all visitors have to sign in. The friendly guard claimed he and a second guard are in constant radio contact. Behind the parking lot is a Gautrain emergency exit, which is supposedly protected by a security company, but it would have little effect on the park security.
Besides the bottom part of the park along Houghton Drive, which was in a state after what looked like a wedding celebration, the rest of the park was amazing. I walked up to the sundial with its fantastic views of the city and then down to the greenhouses. Taking the pedestrian bridge I climbed to the highest point of Houghton ridge and was greeted with a view of Killarney, Rosebank and Sandton. The natural koppie-stone walkways are in good condition and many of the trees and shrubs are labeled. Even in winter, one gets the feeling of being deep in a forest and not on a koppie in the middle of Johannesburg.
The Wilds, declared a national monument in 1981 and a conservation area in 2006 (joining other city conservation parks like Melville Koppies, Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, Kloofendal Nature Reserve, Johannesburg Botanic Gardens and Rietfontein Nature Reserve) is a gem waiting to be re-discovered. A little investment in infrastructure and a few adjustments to security and this park could become a popular spot again.
Where? Houghton Drive, Johannesburg