In my last Melville Koppies post, I mentioned a Saturday morning guided hike in Koppies West that I planned to attend.

I didn’t make it and I won’t bore you with my lame excuses. But to make up for our morning laziness, Joe and I took our own walk on Koppies West yesterday afternoon.

Of all three Koppies sections, Koppies West is the largest and has the highest elevation. The view of downtown Joburg from Koppies West is jaw-dropping.

We first drove to the southern entrance of Koppies West, which is a mile or two from our house. We hiked up the highest ridge and discovered a 360-degree view of the city — downtown Joburg to the southeast, Sandton to the northeast, Pretoria and the Magaliesburg Mountains to the north-northwest.

Despite the deceptive-looking rain clouds in the previous photo, it was a clear afternoon and we could see all the way to the Magaliesburg Mountains. You can just see them along the horizon on the left side of this frame.

We walked eastward along the ridge for a while and then decided to turn back before we got too far from the car. We saw several other hikers as well as a young man, who looked too well dressed for hiking, hurrying past us alone. We wondered where he was going.

Three women hike along a ridge in Koppies West.

We got back in the car and drove toward home. But Joe drove past our street and continued down Beyers Naude Drive. “Where are we going?” I asked. Joe smiled mischievously.

The Melville Koppies Nature Reserve is biologically, geologically, and historically significant. It’s also mystical and holy — a place of worship for indigenous South Africans.

Views like this make it easy to understand why people feel close to God on the Koppies.

A network of African Independent Churches hold services on Koppies West and have been doing so for more than 30 years. Church members begin making their way up the Koppies on Saturday afternoons and the services continue until late on Sunday. Sometimes we can hear the drumming from our back yard. (If you want to learn more, the Koppies website includes a fascinating page about the history of these churches.)

We often see the parishioners’ cars parked along the shoulder of Beyers Naude Drive, and parishioners going in and out of the eastern gate in their distinctive white smocks. I’ve expressed my fascination several times and Joe knows that I’ve been dying to learn more about these services.

We parked on the shoulder of the road and walked in. We soon passed a family — two men, three women, and two small children — singing and chanting. They were all dressed in white. Obviously we couldn’t stand and watch because that would be disrespectful. We waved and continued up the hill. When we came down later the family was gone — they’d probably gone to join the rest of their congregation.

We climbed further up the narrow path — the vegetation was thick. We saw a small grove of trees ahead and heard singing, clapping, and someone playing a tambourine. It was a beautiful sound. My skin prickled.

When we rounded the bend we saw into the grove. Twenty or thrity young people sat in a circle, bathed in late afternoon light, with a preacher in the middle. (The services are held on cement “visitor circles” created specifically for the churches.) We saw the man who’d hurried past us on the other side of the Koppie. Apparently he was late for church.

The song ended and the preacher began his sermon, half in Zulu and half in English. There were no white smocks, just everyday clothes. I think this was a modernized service designed for young adults.

Joe and I were stunned by the beauty of the scene. We looked at each other and conveyed our mutual yearning to take a photograph. The parishioners smiled and waved and maybe they wouldn’t have minded, but we wouldn’t have felt right.

Just beyond this group at the top of the ridge, a lone priest meditated with a candle. We were a fair distance away and I don’t think he noticed us. (Or maybe he was too busy to care.) I quickly snapped an image.

I’m not a religious person. But this would be my church if I were.

I’ve just learned from the Koppies website that there are formal tours of the worship circles, where you listen to part of the service and an explanation of the customs by a church member. Perhaps I’ll do this someday and write a longer post.

For now, I just feel privileged to have experienced another magical afternoon on the Koppies.

UPDATE: After publishing this post I received an email from Wendy Carstens at Friends of Melville Koppies, who explained that spending the night on the Koppies is strictly forbidden. The Koppies worshippers who go up on Saturday and stay overnight are causing significant problems in the reserve — lighting fires, damaging plants, disturbing neighbors, and littering. It’s unfair to the conservation team that works hard to keep the Koppies pristine. It’s also unfair to the parishioners who follow the rules, and whose religious traditions are being jeopardized by those who don’t.

Learning this doesn’t make yesterday’s visit any less magical for Joe and me. But since I love and appreciate the Koppies I felt that it was important to clarify.

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