‘‘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.
Friends wouldn’t believe it was safe
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.
A community endeavour
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 Consolidated 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.
A garden for sharing
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.”