the wilds Johannesburg

The Wilds: Joburg’s Controversial Garden of Eden

There is a big park in Johannesburg, very near to the city center, called the Wilds. For many years I didn’t go there because everyone said it was dangerous. Even the name — the Wilds, bwahahahaaaaa — has a menacing tone to it. I assumed the warnings were legit.

I’ve now been to the Wilds twice over the last several months, and damn, is it beautiful. The Wilds is so stunning and peaceful and well landscaped and immaculately maintained that it puts most other Jozi parks to shame. (I don’t say this lightly, as I’m a serious fan of Joburg parks.) The park was opened in 1938, after the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company donated it to the city on the condition that the land remain in its natural state. The park is hilly and planted with thousands of indigenous trees and other native flora, crisscrossed by several kilometers of winding stone paths.

Walking through the WildsWalking on the wild side, through the Jozi Wilds.

Walking on the Wild Side

I don’t want to totally discount the perception that the Wilds is dangerous. I’ve visited lots of quote-unquote dangerous places in this city — Hillbrow, Alexandra, Yeoville, and many others — but none of them seem to elicit quite the same level of terror that the Wilds elicits in the minds of longtime Joburgers. From what I can gather there were quite a few very violent crimes — rapes, murders, and armed robberies — committed in the Wilds in the 1980s and 90s, and a group of university students were mugged there in 2012.

I can see why criminals would choose the Wilds as a place to commit crime. The park is vast and the vegetation dense, providing ample opportunity to hide and take people unaware. Hillbrow, Joburg’s most crime-ridden area in the late 20th century, is right next door, and the park straddles Houghton Drive — an easy escape route. And although the Wilds is now completely enclosed with fencing, it didn’t use to be. So yeah, I understand why people have historically been afraid to go visit the Wilds and remain afraid today.

But…I was in the Wilds last last Friday and saw no sign of anything nefarious. I saw families having braais (barbecues) and girls strolling with their boyfriends and groups of teenagers sitting on benches listening to music. I walked up and down the pathways with a group of friends, one of whom lives right next to the Wilds and goes there every day with his dog. I admired the skyline views, the aloe trees, the perfectly manicured lawns, and the ancient cycads inside the park’s greenhouse.

Last Friday, the Wilds was glorious in every way.

An expansive green lawn in the WildsThe vast expanse of lawn near the Wilds’ Houghton Drive entrance.

A stone pathway in the WildsMichelle and Conrad stroll down one of the wide paths. Footing can be uneven so wear comfortable shoes.

Joburg skyline from the top of the Wilds The highest point in the park near the famous stone sundial (which I forgot to photograph).

Joburg skyline from the top of the WildsOne of the best skyline views in the city.

Green grass and fever trees in the WildsAn explosion of green grass and fever trees.

Ancient cycads in the Wilds greenhouse.Priceless cycad plants, which are kept in greenhouse at the Wilds. Unfortunately the greenhouse has been closed both times that I visited (hence the chainlink-fence framing in this photo), but I hope to get inside eventually.

Pedestrian bridge in the WildsSpiral staircase to the pedestrian bridge that connects the two sides of the Wilds across Houghton Drive.

Pedestrian bridge in the WildsThe pedestrian bridge over Houghton Drive. 

Sitting on a bench overlooking the north side of the WildsFiver and Michelle check out the north-facing view from the eastern half of the Wilds.

Joburg skyline from the WildsConrad, Michelle, Stuart, and Fiver regard another skyline view.
 Wild dagga and the Hillbrow Tower, as seen from the WildsA glimpse of the Hillbrow Tower through sprouts of Leonotis leonurus (aka wild dagga).

The Secret is Out on the Wilds

My friends who live near the Wilds joked that they don’t want me to write about it, because then the secret will be out about how great it is. But the more people who visit the Wilds, the safer it will become. After years and years of terrible stories, I understand why so many Joburg residents are hesitant to go. Really though, this park is too beautiful to be virtually empty. The Wilds’ staff obviously work hard to maintain this park and they’re doing an amazing job. Their hard work deserves to be recognized and enjoyed.

If you love Joburg and you love the outdoors, then you are guaranteed to love the Wilds. Get some friends together, leave your valuables at home if you must, and go check it out on the next sunny day.

Walking in the WildsJames, Fiver, and Stuart on a path through the Wilds.

The Wilds (see location here) has secure parking just off Houghton Drive and full-time security at the entrance.

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20 Comments

  • Reply roxannereid1 April 1, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    My goodness, this reminds me of many happy times when I was a student, oh so long ago now.

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      🙂

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun April 1, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Thanks Heather, my to do list just keeps getting longer and longer ! Looks beautiful, I didn’t even know this existed.

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      It’s definitely one of Joburg’s best kept secrets. You’d love it!

  • Reply autumnashbough April 2, 2016 at 2:47 am

    My gosh, I would be there EVERY DAY. That is gorgeous. Love the trees and paths. Is there a National Park service that maintains the trails? Are South Africans better trained than Americans, because I saw no litter. Impressed.

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      Unfortunately South Africans are not better trained than Americans when it comes to litter — somewhat less so, in fact. But it’s true, the Wilds is ridiculously clean and I think it’s a testament to the incredible gardening and maintenance staff there. And I guess it helps that there still aren’t very many visitors. It really is a stunning park.

  • Reply Lani April 2, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I love parks and green spaces. I miss them terribly. Glad to hear that the Wilds has cleaned up its act, of course, if everyone was on a liveable wage, crime would drop, but what do I know? I’m not a politician 😛 Love the Hillbrow tower in the background photo the best!

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Thanks Lani. Yep, you’re right about the crime — if only the solution were more simple. South Africa has one of the biggest wealth gaps in the world and that’s going to take a while to change. But I do think it’s getting there — things are already way better than they were a couple of decades ago.

      • Reply Lani April 4, 2016 at 11:56 am

        That’s promising 🙂

  • Reply Paul (ExJoburger hibernating in Canada) April 2, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Sure brought back memories of happy carefree days – still have pictures in an old album of my mother and other family photos with the koppies and wild flowers in the background.

    PS I usually visit your site when feeling a bit “homesick” or yearn for some SA sunshine. Am never disappointed! If its not too risky…can you check out Zoo Lake – another childhood favourite – when you have a spare moment?

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:18 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks so much for your comment and I’m happy to hear that you enjoy my blog when you’re homesick. I haven’t written about Zoo Lake in many years but here is my post from a few years ago: http://2summers.net/2011/01/03/zoo-lake-where-the-locals-go/. The park is still extremely popular and great for visiting, although it gets insanely crowded on weekends. The other big change is that the Zoo Lake Bowls Club has closed down, which is really sad. But otherwise it’s great!

  • Reply Niamh Klinkenberg April 2, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Hi I’m living here 2 years and have heard about the beauty of the wilds. Have tried numerous times to find entrance with no luck. Any tips where exactly it is.

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      Hi Niamh, the main entrance is right off Houghton Drive. If you’re heading north from downtown, the entrance will be on your left, just after the Sunnyside Hotel and the Rodean School. I hope that helps!

  • Reply graeme2k April 4, 2016 at 1:12 am

    Thanks for the positive info! There seems to be so little of that nowadays (besides your blog). I’ll make a point of visiting the Wilds next time I’m in Joburg. What a great view of the skyline!

    • Reply 2summers April 4, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks so much Graeme 🙂

  • Reply alexandra April 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

    Thank you for helping me to find more hidden gems in this city! It was so beautiful and the best views! Will be back!

    • Reply 2summers April 4, 2016 at 8:45 am

      Wow, I’m so glad you went! Thanks for the comment.

  • Reply Tumtum April 6, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Oh my! I used to stay in Killarney (walking distance to the Wilds) for almost two years and I’m ashamed to say not once did I visit the park. I too had heard the bad rep and I never saw many cars in the parking lot on Houghton Drive, so I figured it’s pretty deserted. Will make a point to visit. Thanks H.

    • Reply 2summers April 6, 2016 at 2:19 pm

      Please do! It’s never too late 🙂

  • Reply notjeffery April 8, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Thank you so much for this post.
    I’m living in South Korea at the moment and really miss the nature that surrounds Jo’burg.
    I drove past The Wilds for many years but never bothered to visit for the same reason as many others. It’s now on the to do list for our visit back next year!

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