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Melville Koppies recently won the prestigious Golden Shield Heritage Award for a ‘Preferred Heritage destination’. This competition was organised by the National Heritage Council, an agency of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.
Wendy Carstens, Chair of the Melville Koppies Management Committee, is pictured top left
The heritage preserved at Melville Koppies includes the Geology, flora and fauna and history of people from the Khoisan, early farmers and more recent gold prospectors – a truly embracing heritage of South Africa.
Melville Koppies has had an active, well-informed and committed volunteer involvement ever since its establishment as a Nature Reserve in 1959.
Covid restrictions introduced many people to the great outdoors. Here compulsory masks could be dropped if one was alone in an open natural space. Melville Koppies was one such haven where hikers could stride out, enjoying the exercise while absorbing the calming influence of nature.
The interest in hiking and exploring nature has continued. For instance, on Heritage Day this year, nearly 100 hikers enjoyed a guide-accompanied 8km hike through Melville Koppies Central and East. How could we do an 8km hike in a nature reserve just five minutes from the Johannesburg CBD? Well in the Grand Old Duke of York style, hikers were led up and down scenic paths, along the Westdene Spruit bank, up steep rocky inclines, through forested areas and sweeping grasslands. A few hikers peeled off after the Lecture Hut stop. The rest continued and explored Melville Koppies East, the public open space section, which has beautiful panoramic views of the city.
The joy of reaching the top (Wendy Carstens)
Visitors can hike through Melville Koppies Central every Sunday morning on the well-marked 5km trail. Some people walk, some stroll and take lots of selfies and some sprint it.
Although a hike is good for the figure and the soul, people also need to go on a guided tour to appreciate the natural and historical heritage that is preserved here. Well-informed, volunteer guides are always happy to share this heritage.
Tours start at the Reception Hut in Judith Road. The importance of the Highveld grassland is discussed. These valuable CO2 sinks are periodically burnt as a conservation requirement. The burning results in an abundance of very visible delicate spring flowers. People are introduced to the uses and quirky relationships of some of the plants in the grasslands and forests, such as the Wild Als which ‘cures everything’. There is even an underground tree which protects itself from fire, frost, rain, drought, snow and grazing. This is aptly referred to as the ‘paranoid tree’.
Museums usually have historic displays organised in an orderly and chronological fashion. In contrast, the historical remains at the Koppies are random and often concealed in vegetation. For example, in one warm north-facing area there are many traces of stone walling from the huts and kraals of early Sotho and Tswana farmers. Close by there is a Late Stone Age tool scraper, found by an archaeologist. This little treasure has been hidden under ’the rock’ by guides to let visitors feel and touch such a tool. And there is a blast hole left by the Geldenhuys brothers when they tried prospecting for gold in the 1880s. Fortunately what they found was not worth the immense effort. More such remains are often found by the Conservation Team when they clear alien vegetation.
The prize heritage attraction is the original 500 year-old iron smelting furnace discovered by Revil Mason of the Wits Archaeological Research Department in 1963. This led to Melville Koppies being declared a Heritage Site as well as a Nature Reserve. The furnace is under a protective covering which also houses examples of the artefacts used by the early farmers, plus a range of demonstration Stone Age tools. There are information boards in this area and at the open air lecture hut for people exploring on their own.
This plaque on Judith Road reveals the many layers of history at Melville Koppies (The Heritage Portal)
Melville Koppies is very eco-friendly. The benches are recycled plastic. The two toilets have municipal water but empty into an underground septic tank where anaerobic bacteria digest the goodies. Load shedding is not an issue because there is no electricity. The two Johannesburg City Parks security guards do, however, have a smart, boxy guard hut.
From the Lecture Hut, visitors are then led up a steep rocky path to the highest ‘wow’ site. On a clear day, even the distant Magaliesberg can be seen. Guides introduce visitors to the History of the landmarks on the horizon, sweeping east anticlockwise from the Kelvin Power Station to the Hillbrow Tower.
An easy trek down to the sparkling Westdene Spruit follows. This area has a special History as well. For instance, the wooden bridge is supported on tramlines, a heritage of the trams that once provide such a regular if noisy service. They did trundle along quite loudly. The sides of the bridge are polywood, a recycled plastic product.
And finally, underlying all this, are the almost 3 billion- year-old quartzite ridges and shale valleys of the Witwatersrand Supergroup. These rocky ridges glow reddish when the sun sets in the west. Every year Wits Geology Department brings first year students on an excursion to introduce them to the many facets of Geology.
All the above is available every Sunday from 8am to 11.30am. There is safe parking opposite the entrance at Marks Park Sports Club in Judith Road. The cost is Adults R90, children under 18, R50. All funds are used for maintenance of the Koppies.
Midweek tours, school groups from pre-primary to matric, university groups and special interest groups can all be booked. These are R100pp, R50 for children with a minimum group charge.
The website www.mk.org.za has informative and interesting articles. For more information, contact 079 532 0083.
Wendy Carstens is the Chair of the volunteer Melville Koppies Management Committee