The Wilds

Safety and serenity in the heart of Joburg.

Johannesburg's municipal parks are its best-kept secret. And of all the secret parks across the city, the Wilds is the best kept of them all.

It's not that Joburgers don't know about the Wilds; most of them do. The park opened in 1938, comprised of land donated by the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company on the condition that the space remain "wild". In the mid-20th century, the Wilds was an emerald-green playground for Joburg's well-heeled townsfolk - the closest thing the city had to Central Park.

But today most locals have never set foot in the Wilds, or haven't been there for decades. They're afraid.

Forty acres brushing the edge of the city centre, bordering Killarney, Parktown, and Houghton and a quick hop from Hillbrow and Yeoville, the Wilds has a reputation for danger. True to its name, the Wilds is a hilly maze of rocky pathways blanketed with dense, indigenous trees and shrubs - perfect for getting lost and perfect for hiding out.

The Wilds became a perceived no-go zone in the 1990s when crime ramped up in town and spilled over into this urban forest. Terrifying stories abounded of robberies, murders, and rapes in the Wilds. Many of the stories were true.

Visitors to the Wilds all but disappeared completely. But a skeleton crew of city employees continued to work there, cutting the grass and keeping the pathways clear as best they could.

The Wilds fell into obscurity, becoming even wilder than before, but the park's beautiful bones remained.

In the mid-2000s, there were signs of improvement. Yeoville resident T.J. de Klerk began leading organized dog walks through the Wilds in 2005, sending a message that the park can be visited safely in numbers. The city closed off all of the park's entrances save the main one on Houghton Drive, where a full-time security detail stood guard. Crime in the Wilds decreased, but the public still stayed away.

I was also afraid of the Wilds. No one I knew had ever been there. I finally went once with a savvy friend in 2014, marveling at the views, nervously wielding my camera, and waiting for the boogeyman to leap out around every turn. I intended to go back sometime soon. But I never found the right time.

Luckily for me, sometime around 2015, James and Pablo discovered the Wilds.

An Artist and His Dog in the Wilds

Artist James Delaney lives on 10th Street in Killarney, in a flat overlooking the western side of the Wilds. Like most other Killarney residents, James had heard the stories and didn't dare enter the park he gazed at every morning from his kitchen.

When James acquired a yellow lab puppy named Pablo, he started taking him for walks in the postage-stamp-sized park in the middle of Killarney. But the bigger Pablo grew, the more space he needed. James grew tired of driving to other parks around the city, and there was a locked entrance to the Wilds just a few steps from his flat.

Eventually James procured a key to that locked entrance. He ventured into the Wilds with Pablo, only a few metres inside at first. The longer he and Pablo spent inside the Wilds, the further they roamed. James and Pablo had Joburg's prettiest park - a riot of scenery and birdcalls for the artist, a riot of scents for the dog - all to themselves.

I took a long walk through the Wilds with James in March 2016. It was Good Friday, a public holiday, yet we didn't see more than a handful of other people in the park.
As much as he enjoyed the solitude in the Wilds, James wanted to let more people in on the secret. He thought about ways to make the park more welcoming to visitors.
"I started trimming around the cycads first," James said, referring to the squat, palm-like trees that dot the Wilds and are slashed with spray paint to discourage theft. Cycads are exceedingly rare and James couldn't suppress the urge to clear away the underbrush that was closing in on the plants. (The small Wilds staff struggled to keep up with maintenance in the big park.)

James grew bolder, spending entire afternoons cutting dead branches, pulling weeds, and clearing away invasive species. He hired Thulani, a gardening friend with a passion for trees, to help him in the Wilds every Sunday.

James posted photos on social media of Pablo romping through the park, and his followers started to comment and ask questions. Sometime around 2017, James started making the owls.

67 Owls in the Wilds

It's a Sunday in October 2017, and I pull into the Wilds' entrance on Houghton Drive. The lot is full but I manage to squeeze in next to the security trailer.

Unlike my previous visits, the Wilds is buzzing: It's a volunteer cleanup day. I find James near the entrance in a paint-smattered T-shirt, Pablo scampering about him in wide circles. James walks me past teams of volunteers painting park benches in shades of yellow, orange, pink, and green.

I snap a few photos of the benches, but I'm eager to get to the owls.
Four months ago, on Nelson Mandela Day, James hung 67 owl sculptures in a grove of yellowwood trees on a hillside in the Wilds. (The number 67 represents the 67 years of service Nelson Mandela had provided to South Africa when Nelson Mandela Day was officially declared on 18 July 2009. 18 July is Mandela's birthday.)

After painstakingly studying owl books and photos and films, James drew 67 owls with charcoal, giving each drawing a different character and feeling of movement. He worked with a graphic designer to create electronic images of the drawings, and then the Aluminium Trading Company produced the sculptures pro bono.

I didn't make it to the unveiling of the owls in July, so this is my first day seeing them.

"Can I leave you here?" asks James when we reach the yellowwood forest. I nod happily. There's nothing to fear in the Wilds anymore.

I gaze up at the yellowwoods, listening to birds and the distant chatter of cleanup volunteers. The owls peak out among the high branches, some resting on limbs, others undulating on strings. Some are painted white and some are painted orange, some are big and some are small. Some are in pairs or trios, some are single.
I try to count all 67 owls but quickly give up. The owls are too
magnificent for counting.
After my owl fix, I wander through the park on my own. The Wilds has several points that look out over Hillbrow, with great views of Ponte City and the Hillbrow Tower. The jacarandas are blooming, dotting the hills in the foreground with splashes of purple.

I walk around the cluster of greenhouses, built in the 1960s, with sweeping glass-paned walls and avant-garde, four-pointed roofs that remind me of wild irises. I climb a winding path to the very top of the Wilds, where a sundial sits.
"I only count the sunny hours," says the face of the dial. And below that, around the circular edge: "Blessed too is he who learns to know the gods of the Wilds." T.J. de Klerk installed this sundial in 2005.
I sit down on the stone steps beside the sundial and look at the city spreading beneath me. For some reason I start to cry.

Taming the Wilds

The day after the October cleanup, I return to the Wilds with James and Pablo for their daily late-afternoon walk. It's Monday and the park is nearly empty again.

The three of us wander the paths, admiring the freshly painted benches. James spray-paints each bench with a stencil that says "The Wilds" with a jaunty owl picture. Below that he adds another stencil reading "Keep it clean."

"We never had a problem with litter before," James explains. "But now more people are coming and we need to remind them to pick up their rubbish." He yanks down a few dead branches as we walk.

When we reach the grassy lawn near the main entrance, we spot a man walking toward us in a bright orange T-shirt and striped knitted skullcap. The man is carrying a paperback book.

"Where did you get the book?" James asks. He's hoping the man, whose name is Chris, took the book from the brand-new lending library box erected in the parking lot the day before.

"Oh, the book is mine," says Chris. I see a white dove on the cover - it's a religious text.

Chris is originally from Zimbabwe but lives in Berea, near Hillbrow. He walks past the Wilds every day on the way home from his construction job. "I used to be afraid to come in here," Chris tells me. "I thought it was a bad place. But then I saw the security guards and spoke to them. They said it was okay."

Chris enjoys the tranquility in the Wilds and now he comes here almost daily. "I'm a Christian," Chris explains, pointing to his book. "I need quiet."

"Can I take your photo?" James asks Chris. Chris sits down on a lime-green bench and reads his book. James and I take pictures while Pablo chews a stick nearby. We bid Chris goodbye. He heads for the main exit. James, Pablo, and I climb up to the secret gate in Killarney.
Story and images by: Heather Mason of 2Summers Blog
Brought to you by: Different Life