Wild at Heart

Once no­to­ri­ous as a crime hotspot in Joburg, The Wilds has been trans­formed by the en­ergy of one man

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS SUE ADAMS PIC­TURES SUE ADAMS AND SUP­PLIED

Look who’s trans­formed Joburg’s crime hotspot of the The Wilds

‘‘Pablo, my dog, and I would look out of the win­dow onto this 40-acre park called The Wilds and long to visit, but we were told it was too dan­ger­ous,” says artist James De­laney. “And then I thought this is ridicu­lous, so in we went and found a won­der­land of for­est and plants, just a lit­tle over­grown.”

James is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how one per­son can make a dif­fer­ence. Set in the mid­dle of Houghton, Jo­han­nes­burg on the Wit­wa­ter­srand Ridge, The Wilds be­gan as an in­dige­nous park in the 1930s. But va­grancy and dis­in­ter­est had led to it be­com­ing over­grown with an un­savoury rep­u­ta­tion.

James went in un­daunted. While Pablo sniffed in the un­der­growth, James be­gan to clean and tidy. The paths had been reg­u­larly swept by Jo­han­nes­burg City Parks, and there was se­cu­rity, but the gar­dens were ne­glected. “I didn’t ask per­mis­sion,” says James. “I got stuck in and, 30 truck­loads of branches later, I got a re­ac­tion. City Parks could see I was se­ri­ous and they be­gan to clear the rub­bish. You couldn’t see two me­tres into the bush, but look at it now. A bit of sun­light and space and ev­ery­thing is flour­ish­ing.”

We wan­der the stone paths that have been there since the park be­gan, ad­mir­ing the clivia, the aga­pan­thus and the yel­low­wood for­est that James could not be­lieve he found. “This is my favourite place in The Wilds,” he says as we stand un­der the trees.

I spot a metal owl sculpture swing­ing in

the branches. “Even though I started work­ing here four years ago, my friends still wouldn’t be­lieve it was safe so I had to find a way of get­ting them to come,” ex­plains James.

As an artist, and be­cause it was close to Man­dela Day, he chose to de­sign 67 owl sculp­tures that would hang high in the for­est. “The owls draw at­ten­tion to the for­est and

300 peo­ple came to the open­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Now it’s a big at­trac­tion, es­pe­cially for chil­dren who want to see if they can find all 67 owls,” says James. “Look out for the next in­stal­la­tion of bush ba­bies.”

The area around The Wilds is built up, yet when you stand high on the ridge and look at the mag­nif­i­cent views, you can hardly hear a sound. From this view point, the paths and lay­out of the gar­dens are ev­i­dence of the enor­mous ef­fort put into this steep piece of land. In fact, when JCI (Jo­han­nes­burg Con­solo­dated In­vest­ment) was busy de­vel­op­ing the sub­urb of Houghton in the 1920s, the land re­mained un­de­vel­oped for this very rea­son.

James ex­plains that, at the time, the

Em­pire Ex­hi­bi­tion mark­ing the city’s ju­bilee in 1936 was held at the nearby show­grounds. Thou­sands of in­dige­nous plants from across South Africa were brought in, and af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion they were do­nated to de­velop The

Wilds as a park. “We haven’t planted any new plants. We just split and re­planted and spread seeds and the place is lov­ing the at­ten­tion,” says James.

It’s no longer just James but sev­eral en­thu­si­asts who have taken up The Wilds as a project. James feels strongly that peo­ple need to get in­volved. “Don’t tell me what to do – just do it,” he says. “South Africans be­have as if oth­ers like gov­ern­ment or mu­nic­i­pal­ity must do ev­ery­thing. Two thirds of the bud­get for Cen­tral Park in New York comes from lo­cal cit­i­zens. Parks re­quire ded­i­ca­tion and en­thu­si­asm – only cit­i­zens can do that,” he tells me.

James hopes to re­ha­bil­i­tate two streams in the park, pupils from Roedean School next door to The Wilds are weed­ing and re­mov­ing black­jacks. Another group of vol­un­teers is paint­ing the brightly coloured benches that make a splash of colour in the green­ery. There’s a mini free li­brary in the carpark, and James has started a vol­un­teers day on the third Sun­day of the month, where any­one is wel­come and there is a Craft Cof­fee mo­bile unit. Dog own­ers also are en­cour­aged to bring their pets.

The Wilds is split in two by Houghton

Drive, but there is a pedes­trian bridge in be­tween. Un­til now James has fo­cused on the west­ern Wilds but is be­gin­ning to ex­plore the over­grown eastern sec­tion. “We have an in­cred­i­ble 40 acres of wild in the mid­dle of Joburg,” says James.

When I come back to the safety is­sue that haunted my child­hood, James says, “I have never had any in­ci­dent in the four years

I have been here. But this is a chicken and egg sit­u­a­tion. We need to take it back and love it and in that way it will be safe.”

I no­tice all kinds of peo­ple use it – run­ners, dreamers, mu­si­cians, fam­i­lies and busi­ness peo­ple tak­ing a quick break from the of­fice. Gideon Coet­zee and Alex Hill are new to The Wilds and are com­pletely over­whelmed by how won­der­ful it is. “We never knew this was so spe­cial. This will be­come a reg­u­lar place for us now we have dis­cov­ered it,” says Alex.

From my quiet, shady bench next to a pond, I look out past the old sun­dial and over the lawns to the city sky­line, and think of James’ words, “This is my gar­den and I would love to share it.”

LEFT: James De­laney and Pablo (named af­ter Pi­casso of course) treat The Wilds as their own gar­den. (Photo Alon Co­hen) TOP LEFT: There is a small free li­brary in the carpark. TOP RIGHT: A foot­bridge links The Wilds east and west. (Photo James De­laney) RIGHT: The Wilds is set on Houghton Ridge, with views of Joburg sky­line.

ABOVE: Pablo ap­pre­ci­ates the eastern Joburg sky­line. (Photo James De­laney) TOP RIGHT: Lo­cal plants like the stre­litzia just needed space and sun­light to flour­ish. RIGHT: James can­not re­sist do­ing a lit­tle clear­ing while tak­ing a stroll. BE­LOW: Vol­un­teers had fun re-paint­ing the benches.

LEFT: James De­laney’s sculp­tures pop up in se­cret cor­ners of The Wilds. ABOVE: Peo­ple are en­cour­aged to do their thing at The Wilds.

LEFT: Ponds, streams and grassy open spa­ces make for lovely pic­nic spots. ABOVE: Cob­bled stone paths tra­verse The Wilds.

ABOVE: James De­laney’s se­ries of 67 owl sculp­tures en­cour­ages peo­ple to visit The Wilds. ABOVE RIGHT: Gideon Coet­zee and Alex Hill will cer­tainly re­turn to their newly dis­cov­ered park. BE­LOW RIGHT: Pablo al­ways stops on his me­an­der­ings, to take in the Joburg sky­line. (Photo James De­laney) BOT­TOM RIGHT: James’ owls are now The Wilds’ logo.

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