Disclaimer: Any views expressed by individuals and organisations are their own and do not in any way represent the views of The Heritage Portal. If you find any mistakes or historical inaccuracies, please contact the editor.

Friday, November 13, 2015 - 08:45

Recently my family and I had an absolutely magical night time visit to the Zoo – Grandson Cayde’s 8th birthday party (some time after his actual birthday). We were a large group of about 49 people – maybe half kids and then all the parents, 4 grandparents plus cousins, aunts and great aunt. It was an amazing experience. The 20 plus children were all under the age of ten.

On a warm November Saturday evening,  we gathered at the Jan Smuts avenue entrance to the Johannesburg Zoo for a long anticipated sunset tour of the Zoo. It is an imaginative initiative of the Zoo to run unusual expeditions and host these birthday treats.  It is 5pm and you arrive as the Saturday afternoon crowds are streaming out towards busses and cars. There is easy parking within the Jan smuts Avenue car park. It is totally safe and secure. The Zoo is about to close to the general public but you are a special guest  at a slow quiet time of the day.


The adventurous gang of boys (it was the birthday party of our eight year old grandson) were equipped with their torches and sharing the camaraderie of special friends (Kathy Munro)


If you have never done a nighttime tour it is a Johannesburg must do experience. We are here for a safari odyssey. Johannesburg Zoo is home to more than 320 species represented by more than 2000 animals spread across 52 hectares of planned parkland.

Johannesburg zoo has a long proud history and is a grand heritage treasure in the city of Johannesburg.  It has always been open to all races and has served the city well. In our own family visits to the zoo have been part of the upbringing of three generations of a Johannesburg family. I remember that combination of delight and terror of  riding on the back of an elephant around the grand bandstand and its central  stadium. My aunt and uncle adored taking me, the toddler to the zoo. They enjoyed it as much as I did and at the time I never knew the personal connection, as my uncle had been a keeper at the Berlin Zoo in the interwar period but then he escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany (he was Jewish).

I must have been about four years old when the elephant rides were an essential on the zoo trip. Then years later came taking our own very young children to the zoo and all of us being well sprayed with tapir pee as that creature approached the fence and took his revenge on gawping humans. Six month old babies often smell either sicky or sweet but tapir urine was something rather stronger. We made a dash for home, showers and clean clothes.   

A few years later our family went to the zoo in search of a more serious study of cheetahs for a school project for the baby who was now a keen ten year old. Fast forward three more decades and we are again pushing strollers through the zoo and looking for Paddington Bear and swimming seals and playing ball on the open lovely lawns. Now the grandchild is the eight year old who is actually keen on the zoology behind the scenes.


Getting into the safari type vehicles (Kathy Munro)


For our Saturday evening party visit we had two safari type vehicles (two drivers) with an extra trailer and more high benches attached. A great viewing arrangement. There were three guides who shared their absolute love of the animals and their detailed zoological knowledge slipped so easily into the conversations pitched at both adults and children. Thank you Diana, Malcolm and Vanora. They are the docents and staff of the zoo.  Totally professional but informal and welcoming.


Lots of very pink flamingo at the starting point with a good many still new grey feathery chicks. (Kathy Munro)


This was doing the zoo in  luxury - as the sun began to set there was still time to stop to take in the leopards (getting very close up to their cages), white lions and tawny lions, Bactrian camels, giraffe, buck,  baboons,  hippo, (but no tiger), elephant, rhino,  hyena, plenty of birds - it's rather like a condensed intense game reserve trip of the big five and more and you were guaranteed to see absolutely everything. The kids wanted to know the names of each special beast.

The safari coaches drop one at well selected spots, one has a walk to the selected enclosures on pathways that meander around the cages and enclosures. Our guides offered a mini talk on the quirks and foibles of the particular animals as we went. One sees far more than one would on a walking tour. The zoo is laid out in six zones. It’s no bad life to be a zoo animal - not too much hunting exertion required from the lions who can laze about in sunlit contentment and are fed the right amounts of meat on a regular basis. 6 kgs every alternative day for a lion and slightly less for the lioness.

The Joburg zoo is particularly proud of its rhino protection and rehabilitation programme. Rhino which have been dehorned by poachers and left for dead have been restored to life and health right here in the protection of the urban environment. It is conservation science at its best. There is a permanent 24 hour armed guard to exclusively protect the rhino. Counteracting the criminals in the wild is a hot topic of conversation.


One of the Zoo's Rhinos (Kathy Munro)


Sadly the Zoo’s last polar bear is no longer alive (he died last year) and the tigers stayed in hiding. The favourite polar bear that we enthused about a few years ago has not been replaced and he was indeed the last polar bear in Africa. The decision not to replace him was taken with some regret.

The Bactrian camels were particularly popular with the children as they could show off their knowledge of one hump or two. The camels are pretty friendly and tame and adore being petted and as it is now summer, their stiff camel hair moults and can be pulled off by the handful and they respond to this sort of tender loving care, a pet, a cuddle and being fed a carrot. The tough leathery skin is their summer look. Now one can see why a camel hair coat is a desirable garment. Camels have been a feature of the Joburg Zoo for a very long time with camel rides being offered in the 1930s.


Cayde feeding a carrot to a cuddly Bactrian camel (Kathy Munro) 


Vanora one of our guides, pulling camel-hair; it's moulting season and the camels love the attention (Kathy Munro)


In fact animal rides, as I remember from my childhood, on elephants, camels, ponies, donkeys, even zebras were a persuasive lure for any child on a zoo visit. Other delights appeal today, such as the "almost” a walk in the wilds, around the vast Anglo Gold lion enclosure with it conference centre and enclosed glass viewing galleries. We saw white Timbavati lions and none took any notice of our group at all.  

The leopard with sensitive whiskers and powerful claws was interested enough to parade past on the above ground wooden ramps so we could admire this animal. Certainly one of the pleasures of a Zoo visit is that it is possible to come within meters of these magnificent creatures and yet feel entirely safe.

The photo below of the giraffe in their moated enclosure gives an idea of the natural look of the enclosures of today. The Zoo has successfully bred giraffe.  It participates in a number of animal exchange programmes and is affiliated to all the top international zoological bodies.


The Giraffe Enclosure (Kathy Munro)


The views from the upper reaches of the zoo towards Westcliff ridge are stunning and to see Johannesburg in this hazy hot sunset moment and sadly feeling the drought reminds one of the beauty of the city. The grass is bone dry and there are no signs to order “ keep off the grass”. I had a fleeting glimpse of the victory Nike figure on top of the Lutyens memorial in the twilight, the old Rand Regiments Anglo-Boer War Memorial, now rededicated to  all.


South African War Memorial (Kathy Munro)


As the sun disappeared, the atmosphere changed. The emphasis switched from the diurnal to the nocturnal and our last stop was to see the small nighttime cats such as servels, civets, caraculs, the striped hyena, the porcupines and the very tame honey badger. The children were wonderfully obedient in using their torches correctly to light the background, but not shine their beams into the eyes of the prowling animal. We were rewarded with an instant empathy with all the creatures in these cages and they are truly nocturnal. Despite all we had seen of the  big animals, I thought the informed introduction by the guides with a viewing of these night animals a highlight of the tour.

The tour ended at the old restaurant of the zoo, now a museum and education centre, just behind the artillery war memorial, where a camp fire had kids thrilled to be toasting  marshmallows, while the grown-ups downed a beer, a glass of wine or a cool drink. You bring your own picnic party and we had planned a meal of hot dogs and popcorn. The zoo supplies the packets of marshmallows and prongs for toasting. A mug of hot cocoa was laid on as part of the tour as the final warm parting gift from the Zoo Staff. The tour lasted from 5 pm to 8 pm. And overall I thought it was an adventure to be recommended for young and all who are curious regardless of age.

Last year, I visited the impressive San Diego Zoo – with hour long queues to participate in almost any activity that drew the crowds. It was a super experience but I could not help feel that back home in Johannesburg we have as important and impressive a zoo, our very own Johannesburg Zoo.  The plus factors for the San Diego zoo were the overhead cable rides and their polar bears.

My friends who live in the suburbs of Parkview and Saxonwold have told me that they often hear the lions roar at night and on this occasion I too was able to experience the Johannesburg wilds with those night time romantic wild  sounds. And for the children, it must surely have been an evening to make a memory that will last a lifetime.


A Marketing Poster for the Experience


Some History of the Johannesburg Zoo

It was an evening too of remembering to say a thank you to the public spirited citizens of the Wernher Beit mining company who made the donation of the 180 acres of prime land to the north and they named in honour of their founder Hermann Eckstein. In 1903, Messrs Hermann Eckstein and Company wrote to Sir William St John Carr, then deputy chair of the Johannesburg Town council offering “200 acres of freehold in the Braamfontein Forest, Parktown, generally known as Sachsenwald, for the purposes of a public park for this town.” This is the area that came to be laid out as the Zoological Garden, the Zoo Lake and the Museum of Military History. The original core zoological collection was given to the Zoo by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame whose bronze Jock was relocated to the zoo from the Johannesburg hospital. The value of the property at the time of transfer was 50 000 pounds sterling.


Hermann Eckstein and his wife Minnie


Blue Plaque (Kathy Munro)


Here is the list of the first animals of the Zoological Gardens:

1 male Lion, 1 male Baboon, 1 female Leopard, 1 pair Indian apes (identified as Rhesus monkeys), 2 male Sable antelope, 1 Golden eagle, 1 Insimba cat (identified as a genet), 1 pair Porcupines, 1 female Giraffe.  

The pride of that collection was an old lion “Mac” who had lost a foreleg in a hunting or trapping accident. This lion was rescued by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.  

Fitzpatrick was an interesting man; he worked for Hermann Eckstein or Corner House as the group became. He was a strong imperialist and defender of British interests apart from his literary talent. He was a prime plotter in the events leading to the abortive Jameson Raid, was imprisoned and fined. He was a politician but his interests in animal life moved him from hunting to conservation, as he kept his own menagerie. His one son was killed in France on the Somme and it was Fitzpatrick who proposed the custom of the two minutes silence on Armistice day.

Early post cards show the zoo to be a place of long wide avenues, leisurely walks, a few people strolling and new saplings. The garden design, the lay out of paths, the tree planting and development was as important an aspect of the planning as the animals. The concept of a zoological garden was a colonial import in the spirit of the times and in emulation of the great zoological gardens and the mania for collecting the strange and exotic that was the passion of many wealthy patrons in Europe and England. Gardens cum zoos were considered to be a civilizing influence, a place of leisure and a cultural space for bands and concerts. Thus the  keeping of wild animals in designated parks spread from London to Berlin, from Moscow to Melbourne.


An Early Postcard


Originally the animals were a curiosity and an exotic novelty. Zoos became the glue of empire. Later came a far more scientific approach to the study of animals, and an educational purpose and then the place where endangered animals could be protected, saved and propagated. Conservation has become a key concern of zoos around the world as is evidenced by the Johannesburg Zoo’s rhino protection programme. The debate about whether wild animals should be held in captivity or left to fend for themselves in the wild has been an energetic one. In the early 20th century (at the time the Johannesburg zoo was established) cages or houses for animals were fairly confined and limited (take note of the old polar bear cage or the old elephant house (built of local quartz stone), a rhino house or the original lion enclosure, some are still there as heritage structures). The Johannesburg Zoo pioneered from a very early date, the far more progressive approach to create enclosures which resemble the natural habitat and to use the moat as a less forbidding type of barrier between animal and visitor. Nonetheless the bear pits against a rocky outcrop remained.


The original stone sided Polar bear cage, there was a pool surrounded by inner rocks and one looked down at the two polar bears through the metal grille curved framework.  I remember this enclosure for the polar bears and even as a child being aware that the polar bear came from the frozen arctic and not bushveld hot Africa!  


Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.  She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters and is well known for her magnificent book reviews. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials.


  1. Lucille Davie: A Journey through Johannesburg’s Parks, Cemeteries and Zoo, published by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, 2014. p 188–195.
  2. Macmillan A. The Golden City (no date, circa 1935) - see chapter, “the Romance of the Johannesburg Zoo” pages  273-78 by ‘Wayfarer’
  3. Geddes, Mary: A Brief History of the Johannesburg Zoo, pamphlet found online 1994 and updated to 2002
  4. Johannesburg Zoo- online annual reports and more recently since 2013 amalgamation with the Johannesburg Parks and Cemeteries Division- two reports annual on line of this Joburg Department.

Comments will load below. If for any reason none appear click here for some troubleshooting tips. If you would like to post a comment and need instructions click here.