The Wilds: forget the scare stories & visit this Joburg gem
Some people have back yards, James Delaney has 18 hectares of urban forest: the place Joburgers call "The Wilds".
Delaney is an artist and resident in a Killarney flat that flanks The Wilds. His dog, Pablo, needed daily walking, but his neighbours' crime scare stories kept him from venturing beyond the wall of foliage his kitchen window looked on to.
But, tired of driving to other parks for walks, he ventured one day into The Wilds. The "part-Capetonian" stumbled on his personal piece of Joburg heaven. When nothing terrible happened to him, he kept going back and got permission to access the park from his back yard.
"Sometimes there's the odd couple, school group or other dog walkers, but essentially I have the park to myself," he says.
The park was established in 1925 on land donated by JCI - Randlord Barney Barnato's company. His condition was that the land be "kept an open space for the recreation of the public". The park was named The Wilds because of its location along the untamed koppies.
But, says Sandra Viljoen of Joburg City Parks, by the next decade, a Houghton Ratepayers' Association chairman pushed for more grooming of the unruly wilderness. This gave rise to a programme of planting indigenous flora that in 80-odd years has transformed The Wilds into a Joburg treasure.
By the late 1990s though, the park became a perceived no-go zone and was abandoned to grow quiet but true. It was tended by Wilson Molekwa, City Parks' site manager, and his permanent on-site team.
"I love every part of the park. It's special. There was not much crime, but lots of fear," Molekwa says, reflecting on the 16 years he's worked there. He chats while climbing a steep, old pathway that holds the promise of reaching the top to claim a spectacular view of Joburg's skyline.
Over the past two years Delaney has spent weekends clearing invasive plants, restoring pathways and pruning trees with Molekwa and his team.
"We can all pitch in. If it's not completely overgrown then it's a little less spooky and people will be less scared," he says.
This year he installed 67 of his stainless steel owl artworks in The Wilds. Delaney's owl garden joins features others have left behind over the years - like the plant house and herbarium, the sundial at the peak and plaques for Jan Smuts and Percy Fitzpatrick.
Delaney organised a Mandela Day clean-up in July and more than 300 people arrived.
"People had so many memories of how they loved coming here - then they just stopped because they got scared. A well-utilised park is a safer park and a city asset. The western side is fully fenced with security at the main entrance."
City Parks plans to restore water features, possibly feeding them from pooled water from the Gautrain emergency exit that's built on park property. They're hoping schools will use the green lung as a living classroom and take part in clean-up initiatives.
Delaney and Pablo, meanwhile, will keep walking The Wilds and keep taming scare stories with every step.
• This article was originally published in The Times.