When the pandemic first hit and South Africa locked down, the closure of Emmarentia Dam and the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens (two parks that are essentially one — I will refer to the whole thing as “Emmarentia” going forward) was one of my greatest sources of sadness. Emmarentia is my favorite park to run and walk in, and while several other Joburg parks (Delta Park, the Melville Koppies, James and Ethel Gray) remained unofficially open during Level 4 and Level 3, Emmarentia was firmly closed.

Winter at Emmarentia Dam
Winter at Emmarentia Dam.

After an interminable wait, President Ramaphosa finally announced about three weeks ago that all South African parks would re-open. Most parks opened their gates that week, but for some reason Joburg City Parks delayed the opening of the city’s “nature reserves” — including Emmarentia, the Wilds, and Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden — until 1 August. (I have no idea why nature reserves are different from parks.)

I got so excited when I drove past Emmarentia last Saturday and saw people walking inside. I decided to go first thing this morning and bring my camera.

Dog park section of Emmarentia Dam
The dog park section of Emmarentia Dam.

My First Visit to Emmarentia Dam in Four Months

I panicked when I drove to my usual Emmarentia parking area on Orange Road and found it completely empty, with the gate locked. It was about 7:30, a time when the park is usually full of joggers and dog-walkers, and I saw no sign of life inside.

I started cussing and almost gave up and drove home. But luckily I decided to drive around to the main Johannesburg Botanical Gardens entrance on Oliphants Road — next to the bridge that goes over the dam wall. The main entrance is the only one open, as it turns out. A guard is posted there to take everyone’s temperature and ensure they sign in.

Once inside, I found the park almost completely empty and had a glorious hourlong walk. It was so peaceful and quiet. Although it’s winter, and the grass is brown and all the trees are bare, I still got a few nice pictures.

Emmarentia Dam
Bridge in Emmarentia
Frosted flowers in Emmarentia
I decided to do some frost photography.
Heather crossing a bridge in Emmarentia Dam
Hugenot Memorial in Johannesburg Botanical Gardens
The Hugenot Memorial, built in 1988 to commemorate the 300th anniversary the French Hugenots’ arrival in South Africa.
The honey bees were having a ball in the aloes, which are just past their peak but still quite beautiful.

Although most of the park looked good — the old restaurant/library building is under construction and I’m curious to see what develops there — I was dismayed by the condition of the rose garden. This area seemed to be deteriorating even before the lockdown started, but now it looks much worse. The water features have long ceased to function and most of the rose bushes appear close to death (at least to my untrained eye — please correct me if I’m wrong).

When I look back at my rose garden photos from ten years ago (there are a few in this post, although it’s not a totally fair comparison as the old pictures were taken in summer) and compare them to what’s there now, I feel very sad. I really hope the city will do something to preserve this piece of Joburg heritage.

The rose garden in Johannesburg Botanical Gardens
The rose garden as it appeared this morning.

Note that although the Botanical Gardens side of the park is usually closed to dogs, the guards are making an exception since that side has the only open entrance.Visitors are welcome to take their dogs through that gate and walk over to the dog park side.

It was a really special experience to walk around Emmarentia with so few people in it. I highly recommend making an early morning visit now, before the weather warms up and everyone figures out the park is open again.

Walking in Emmarentia Dam
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