MK West

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

Friends of Melville Koppies:              Phone: +27 11 482 4797                      Email:

Melville Koppies: 41 days: Lockdown notes

During the Black Death in Italy in the 14th Century, Boccaccio was inspired to write The Decameron. In the book, ten young Florentines went into seclusion in a villa for ten days. While they were there, each person told a story every day - hence 100 stories, most of them with the themes of love and lust.

This inspired us to write a Melville Koppies related snippet every day for 41 days while we were in lockdown. There were lots of things to love, and maybe even some lusty titbits. In addition, Anthony Paton kept us updated with his passion for birds - the feathered kind.

Day 1: Beam me up, Scotty!

Wendy Carstens

Earth Star Mushrooms

Earth Star Mushrooms

"I am ephemeral like ET. Much as I love it here, I am not spending 21 days lurking in the leaf litter at Melville Koppies. My spores are spent."

Tread very carefully in the damp mulch at the Koppies or in your garden, and you may see this beautiful intriguing Earth Star mushroom. Google it for images and entertaining videos. As leaves begin to fall in autumn, spread them in thick layers in your flower beds. Who knows what myriad treasures nature may bless you with?

Day 2: Brand oblivion

Wendy Carstens

day 2 david boots

David's boots

Twenty-two years ago David (Wendy's husband) bought a pair of leather hiking boots. He hiked Melville Koppies. He took the dogs for a 5km walk in Melville every day. He went to work in them. He didn't sleep in them.

In due course, the boots collapsed. He wanted a new pair exactly the same but couldn't remember the name. Something like Joe, Jim, James or John ??? Green. So tried googling the first 'J'. Joe Green had many results for boots. Joe's gorgeous female companions wore boots - and nothing else! Eish! The correct name is Jim! Jim! Jim! David was able to buy the correct boots every five years after that. He keeps the box so he doesn't forget the name.

Note: This post got the most hits of all the posts - 55. It also sparked a comment from Jim Green Footwear themselves:

"What a story and picture! Thanks for sharing with us. Those boots could tell a few stories!" Jim Green Footwear"

Day 3: Elephant grass

Wendy Carstens

"The corn is as high as an elephant's eye
An it looks like its climbin' clear up to the sky."*

We don't have corn at the Koppies but we do have "Elephant grass" (Hyparrhenia tamba) which is higher than hikers" eyes.

Some years ago, volunteers cut swathes of this grass and took it to the elephants at the Zoo. The ellies loved it. The next day volunteers took some more grass. The ellies were waiting. They snorkled their trunks across the moat and in their eagerness nearly scooped up the volunteers with the grass.

This very tall species of grass is not suitable for thatching. The shorter Hyparrhenia hirta is the preferred thatching grass. Thatchers cut this grass after a frost has killed all the goggas - to prevent them breeding in the thatched roofs.

* Words taken from "Oh, what a beautiful morning" by Gordon MacRae

Day 4: Traveller's Joy aka Bearded beauties

Wendy Carstens

day 4 clematopsis-1

Clematis brachiata aka Travellers' Joy or Old Man's Beard

When we can travel again, look for a beautiful specimen of the yellow-sepal (not petal) creeper, Traveller's Joy (Clematis brachiata) at the Zambesi entrance to Melville Koppies East.

The bushy pink-sepal "Moederkappie" (Clematis villosa) is dotted all over the Koppies. As autumn approaches, the flower heads become feathery, ready for seed dispersal. The Clematis flowers have common names at this stage, e.g., feather duster, pluimbossie, avatars, politicians' hairdos and Old Man's Beard.

As both species flower at the same time, botanist and horticulturalist Rodney Saunders was able to cultivate a hybrid. This was aptly given the common name of "Silver beard" to reflect Rodney's trade-mark very, very bushy beard. Tragically, Rodney and his botanist wife Rachel were abducted and murdered while on an expedition in KwaZulu-Natal to gather seeds of an endangered plant in February 2018.

Day 5: Quick guide to Quartz

Wendy Carstens


Ursula pointing out a quartz vein in a quartzite rock at Melville Koppies.

Quartz is silicon dioxide (Si02). Silicon (Si) is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen. Silicon is the element in microchips that run our computers, silicon watches and other electronic devices - powering us through the lockdown.

Quartz is a very hard crystalline rock that doesn't weather easily. Veins of white quartz have intruded in many places into faults in the quartzite rocks at Melville Koppies making strikingly beautiful features. In places, patches of quartz rocks and pebbles are visible. These would be very tempting souvenirs if this was allowed!

Nomadic Bushmen, who were the first people at the Koppies, used flakes of sharp quartz for cutting and for arrow heads.

Silicon, a natural element, is not to be confused with SILICONE, which is a synthetic polymer made of silicon and other elements. Silicone can be made into a flexible plastic-like material used for items such as flexible tubing, catheters, contact lenses, "boob" implants and personal lubricants.

Keep well. Only 16 days to go.

Day 6: Bridging the gap

Wendy Carstens


The 2002 beautiful repairs to the bridge. The original design was kept. Metal thieves smashed the side supports and lifted base planks to try and get to the metal tramline supports.

In 1964, a rustic bridge was built over the Westdene Spruit which runs through Melville Koppies. The wooden bridge was supported on tramlines which were once part of Johannesburg's electric tram public transport system until 1961. *

Due to age and lack of maintenance, the bridge deteriorated making crossings dangerous. No funds were available for repairs.

Suddenly funds became available when the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Jo'burg in 2002. Tourist venues needed to be tarted up and showcased. A reconstructed bridge was one of the projects for Melville Koppies.


The rustic wooden bridge with the newly built D.F Malan Drive (now Beyers Naude Drive) in mid picture. The 'Cave' is in the outcrop of rocks above the Drive. The grassy area around the bridge is now a planted indigenous forest - the arboretum.

Sadly, this was vandalised by metal thieves trying to steal the tramlines. They couldn't!!! But the bridge was not safe to use once again.

After waiting for repairs for two years by JCPZ, volunteer Tony Nunes provided the planning and labour to substantially rebuild the bridge in 2019. The volunteer Melville Koppies Management Committee, with funds from donations from the public, paid for the materials which cost R22 000.

* Kathy Munro reviewed Tony Spit's fascinating book 'Johannesburg's Trams' on The Heritage Portal.

Day 7: Galls Galore

Wendy Carstens


A young visitor examines wasp galls on the leaf of Wild Medlar (Vangueria infausta) on Melville Koppies.

There are over 1300 species of gall wasps ranging from 1 to 8mm and they are all host plant specific. The female pierces the leaf and lays an egg. The plant responds by forming a gall with a shape peculiar to each gall wasp species. When the egg hatches, the baby wasp has a nutritious, protective 'womb' to start its new life in.

The botanist, Alfred Kinsey, earned his PhD with his meticulous, exhaustive research on these minute insects. Kinsey then applied his empirical research methodology into investigating human sexuality - with a limited sample of subjects. The 1950s Kinsey Reports illustrated that previously held taboos and secretive aspects of sexuality were actually quite normal and common. 'Guilt' assuaged? Perhaps these reports, coupled with the new contraceptive pill, encouraged the sexual revolution of the 1960s - and women's lib?

See the 2004 movie: 'Kinsey' with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

Day 8: What we have won

Wendy Carstens


Robert Schultz walking three of his regular charges

Melville Koppies (MK) East is a favourite haunt of dog walkers and people communing with nature.

In 1992, the Joburg Council added this last remnant of Louw Geldenhuys' farm to MK. It was an overgrown, unfenced patch of neglected veld. A nightmare! Weeds and alien invasive vegetation covered every square centimetre. Over the years, people had dumped mounds of litter, rubble, glass, garden refuse, broken appliances, etc. etc. into this 'open space'.


Russian Samoyeds, Putin and Rouble, about to do their daily promenade of MK East

Volunteer work parties attempted sporadic clean-ups but got demoralised very easily. The area only started to improve when the volunteer Melville Koppies Management Committee started employing supervised casual and then full-time workers.

Sponsored fences with controlled access gates kept dumpers at bay. The Herculean rehabilitation task began. Workers toted heavy bags of stuff off the Koppies to awaiting skips and trucks. (We still do this toting of bags of seeded weeds but the number of bags is much reduced.)

Slowly, this magnificent patch of indigenous Highveld grassland recovered. It continues to be regularly maintained by the MK Conservation Team. The pristine MK East is serenely waiting for us when the Covid-19 lockout ends.

Day 9: Flying treats

Wendy Carstens


Wits Honours student, Megan Field, preparing to do fieldwork research into the temperatures in a termitary in 2008

Why do dogs and cats leap about catching and munching the nutritious treats of 'flying ants'? Because they can.

Humans can also share this bounty. Remove the wings, lightly fry the squishy little bodies and then sprinkle with salt. Delicious Halaal, Kosher and Banting oil-and-protein rich treats!

The 'flying ants' are actually the reproductive ALATES of the snouted harvester termites (Trinervitermes trinervoides). The alates are produced by the termite queen, serviced by her faithful monogamous king in a royal relationship that can span up to 50 years.

Sponsored fences with controlled access gates kept dumpers at bay. The Herculean rehabilitation task began. Workers toted heavy bags of stuff off the Koppies to awaiting skips and trucks. (We still do this toting of bags of seeded weeds but the number of bags is much reduced.)

Alates emerge at dusk in nuptial flight swarms from the many termitaries at Melville Koppies. This leads to an avian feeding frenzy. A lucky male may escape and, lured by the pheromones of an equally lucky female, will join her, quickly dig a chamber in the earth, mate, and stay there in lockdown for the rest of their lives - just breeding and breeding and breeding. Some of the queen's eggs will become sterile multi-tasking female workers that cultivate fungal food gardens, feed babies and workers, and repair and extend the termitary as necessary. Sterile male termite soldiers will march en masse to breaches in the fortress. They will deter small invaders by squirting stinging fluid into their eyes.

Keep sanitising!

Day 10: Botanical art and Melville Koppies

Wendy Carstens

bot art

Barbara Jeppe. An illustration of a Protea caffra flower head and a small sketch to show the typical shape of the tree

Botanical art was used long ago, before the advent of photography, to illustrate plants for identification. Botanical artists need patience, keen observation of form and colour, a knowledge of the botanic structure of plants, skill and talent. Outstanding botanical artists have an additional artistic flair, often translating this into saleable art collectables.

Two well-known South African botanical artists have illustrated the flora of Melville Koppies for guide books.

In 1964, the late Barbara Jeppe illustrated 'Trees and shrubs of the Witwatersrand', compiled by The Tree society of Southern Africa in a limited edition of 400 copies. Her meticulous line drawings and water colours make plant ID so easy for those fortunate to have copies of the book! Her daughter, Leigh Voigt, is also an outstanding botanical artist.

bot art

Barbara Pike. A water colour of different parts of a Protea caffa twig with flower heads, seeds and pollinators. This was painted for a Kirstenbosch Botanical art competition

In 1971, Barbara Pike, a multi-award-winning artist, illustrated Annabelle Lucas' seminal 'Wild flowers of the Witwatersrand', also with line drawings and water colour paintings. Barbara's children recall spending many hours with her collecting plant specimens from Melville Koppies. Barbara continues to get great joy from painting.

In May 2018, the Everard Read Gallery hosted an exhibition of botanical art from all over the world. South Africa was allowed to display 50 selected artworks. Those chosen included four by Barbara Pike and two by current Melville Koppies guide, Jackie Hugo. The art works of other countries were shown on video screens at the exhibition. Incidentally, the late Everard Read spent many hours, with workers he employed, caring for Melville Koppies.

Let's hope our magnificent Melville Koppies flora continues to inspire botanical artists and photographers - amateur or professional.

Day 11: Deciphering clues

Tamarin Scheidegger


The iron-smelting furnace which Revil Mason excavated in the 1963, after spotting its rim on the surface of the sand. He then borrowed a metal detector from the mines to try and find more such remains in the bushy slopes of Melville Koppies

Sixty years ago, Revil Mason spotted a circle in the fine sand that, with his knowledge, he identified as an early farmer's iron-smelting furnace. He pieced together a story of these people and their ways, behaviours and habits, based only on a few of their remaining artefacts. It must have been such an interesting task, like working out a riddle. The clues could be found in baked clay and stones that did not decompose. Stones were worked into tools, and moved by many hands into patterns. His imagination worked out reasons and wrote the remainder of their story.

The story of the stones goes way back into Earth's early days. The 2 billion-year-old stones started life as grains of sand laid on a sea bed of yet even older 3 billion-year-old rocks. During this time, there were no living things to observe the world or tell the story. This story seems quite far fetched actually, and can really only live in our imagination.

Today, the same grains of sand hold clues for us to decipher. I can say that Lucky walked this path. A mongoose, millipede, guinea fowl and then I, the observer, followed later. This story is simple, of little critters and large predators that make their lives here on Melville Koppies.

Human hands have a different task now: to leave as few clues of our presence as possible. Nature must win, but we have to help it happen.

This story goes out on Facebook and will be lost in the multitudes of other posts. It is not printed in a scientific journal to be cited by others. Nor is it preserved in eternity in stone. It is not a tangible substance left for others to decipher in the future. The clues of our presence, I hope, will be the lack of clues ...

Day 12: Macabre mating

Wendy Carstens

I love this entertaining description in 'LULU PHEZULU Leigh Voigt's African Album' page 31:

'There is no justice in nature. Consider the praying mantis. A hypocrite or, at best, ill named. The word 'mantis' comes from the Greek word meaning prophet or soothsayer, which is descriptive of its posture, holding its front feet as though in devout prayer. But its behaviour is reactionary. The female has a nasty cannibalistic tendency at those times when she should be most polite. Sex may be enjoyable, but for the smaller unfortunate male it's a hazardous business. Pheromones (which provide for sexual attraction), being what they are, send the male into a frenzy, a collision course with disaster. Mindful of his possible fate, he approaches the female warily from behind. Thoughtful Mother Nature has given him a sporting chance by diminishing the female's eyesight. She is, in a word, myopic. She can only see him when he moves. He, however, has excellent vision. So if she turns around and spots him coming, he freezes and can stay motionless until she loses interest. Then steadily he proceeds with caution, until he is finally close enough to leap upon her back and copulate, skilfully dodging his mate's attempts to chew off his head. So absorbed can he become in the task of perpetuating his species that he loses all thought of self preservation. If perchance she is too quick for him and succeeds in her murderous intentions, his now headless body will continue with the task in hand. Duty done, energy replete, what remains of him slips to the ground and dies. If she's still hungry she may finish him off. Now that's unsociable behaviour for you. But they do make pretty babies.'

This activity can be viewed on You Tube, Mantis, 'How to mate an aggressive mantis ...

Day 13: Monster creeper

Wendy Carstens

Monster creeper

Botanical artist, Jackie Hugo's water colour of a Milky rope. Note the dainty creamy yellow flowers, seed pod, random nodes and twinings. This painting was on display at the 2018 Botanical art world exhibition.

In her gardening page, Kay Montgomery once suggested the vigorous-growing leafless Sarcostemma viminale (Milky rope) for a garden creeper. I invited her to Melville Koppies to see what 'vigorous', if uncontrolled, can mean.

In very secluded patches of the reserve, we discovered monstrous, impenetrable thickets of Milky rope blanketing and smothering supporting trees. Another conservation nightmare to deal with!

Monster creeper

One of the infestations of Milky rope that we found at Melville Koppies.

The creeper can grow from a seed or a piece of creeper simply stuck in the ground. A thin, green, leafless 'snake' then emerges, in an involuntary support bush or tree. The 'snake' anchors itself by many twinings around a branch. From this base, it sends out more snaky stems which continue to divide and twine from random nodes. It has been a Sisyphean task to remove the bulk of these infestations. Frequent follow-up is needed to control this latex-oozing creeper.

The milky white latex of this creeper of the Asclepiadaceae family is a mild irritant that spatters the workers' overalls with white dots. Fortunately it is not like the toxic, fiery latex of the Euphorbiaceae family, especially the Euphorbia tirucalli (Fire sticks, Coral bush) so favoured by gardeners.

Day 14: Keeping in touch

Wendy Carstens

Monster creeper

Trucks couldn't enter Melville Koppies East at the Puma Garage entrance because they would have sunk to their axles in the muddy ground. The grassy triangle covers a wetland here. Therefore the drum was placed in Rustenburg Road and the cable was slowly fed out.

The ease of communication many of us are fortunate to enjoy has slightly alleviated some of the impact of the lockdown. We can chat to family, friends, Zoom, Skype, work online, etc. We have forgotten the mess of the pavements which were dug up again and again to lay fibre optic cables for various companies for this faster communication. My pavement was dug up and repaved three times. But I do appreciate having Wi-Fi.

In 2010, to improve communication when SA hosted the World Soccer Cup, fibre optic cables were strung up on the pylons which march across the Koppies like alien invaders from 'War of the Worlds'. Workmen abseiled up the towering pylons to fix the cables which were slowly fed out from enormous drums. Kinks in the cables had to be avoided at all costs.

Keeping in Touch

Hikers toiling up to a pylon on Melville Koppies East. This is a challenging hurdle towards the end of the 8km organised hikes.

On Melville Koppies West, the line of pylons takes a sharp right turn below the police flats down to the Jewish cemetery. This must have had many kinks because new cables were strung up at least three times. The trucks with workers and cables ploughed endlessly through the Koppies, gouging deep tracks.

We don't know if the cables improved communication. However, the euphoria of hosting the World Cup was shared by people in the streets and in their offices blowing vuvuzelas at lunch time. This created a very positive vibe. Similarly, in the tough times we are facing, singing together from our homes at 7pm can also be therapeutic. Communicate positive thoughts. It helps.

Day 15: The little black hen

Wendy Carstens

The little black hen

The little black hen

Once upon a time there was a little black hen that lived alone on Melville Koppies. She commuted between Melville Koppies Central and West which are separated by the very busy Beyers Naude Drive. She couldn't fly, so she scurried across the intersection when the Judith Road robot was green, to the amazement of countless motorists. On one occasion, on-duty JMPD officers gently shooed her across when the robot was red!

The little black hen didn't trust people because she had escaped a near-fatal ritual ceremony on Melville Koppies West. However, the only person she learnt to trust was the patient newspaper vendor at the intersection, who shared his lunch with her.

She was also extremely camera-shy and led award-winning photographer, Antoine de Ras,* on an assignment from The Star, a merry dance. He did snap her eventually. His photo and article made the front page of The Star.

The article alerted CLAW who promptly sent a team to 'rescue' her.
'What will happen to her?'
'She will be kept safe in a cage.'
'She will be very unhappy cooped up in a cage. Please leave her here. She has survived on the Koppies for the past 18 months!'

Eventually the CLAW team left - sans little black hen.

A few weeks later, a distraught newspaper vendor said that two tsotsis had forced him to entice his little hen friend which they sneakily scooped up for the pot. Then the vendor grinned. 'She is a bewitched hen. Her bones will stick them all over in their tummies!'

*Visit Antoine de Ras' charming Richmond Studio Cafe in Menton Road for really good coffee when the lockdown is over.

Day 16: Dogs, lightning and crocodiles

Jenny Grice

Dogs, lightning and crocodiles

Fever Tea bush (Lippia javanica). In isiZulu it's known as umsuzwane

As you enter Melville Koppies on a guided tour, your first step could be beside a very ordinary looking shrub. A few leaves are broken off the bush and passed around. 'Crush them, smell them. Anyone know this plant?'

'It's like mint,' says one of the tourists. The eyes of another light up as a strong aromatic smell, not unlike mint, fills the air. 'I remember my gogo bringing a steaming pot of these leaves boiled in water when I had flu. I had to breathe in the steam. It helped unblock my nose.'

Another woman crushes the leaves in her hand. 'If you've been to a funeral and you are breastfeeding you take these leaves and rub your nipples with them to cleanse yourself before you can feed your baby again.'

The plant is a fever Tea bush (Lippia javanica) and yes, it is a member of the mint family. In isiZulu it's known as umsuzwane. Elsa Pooley's book, 'Wild flowers of KwaZulu and Natal and the Eastern Region' says it is also used to treat coughs, rashes, sore muscles and for protection against dogs, lightning and crocodiles

Indigenous to the Koppies, it is found across most of South Africa stretching right up to Tropical Africa. On the Koppies, it is threatening to become invasive and the conservation team is having to dig patches out to prevent it from taking over the grassland.

Google it and you'll find that it's also being marketed as a mosquito repellent and lice remover. Dried leaves can be put in cupboards to keep your clothes smelling fresh.

Day 17: BBD

Wendy Carstens


We have no close-ups of BBD, so my blonde LabX posed very unwillingly for me to show the size of the paw prints I found on the paths I had just walked. Easy to decipher this clue which is not made by a dainty Koppie creature!

A big brown dog (BBD), possibly a LabX, was spotted several times on Melville Koppies Central which is fully fenced and has controlled access. It ran away when approached, so we hoped it would get out the same way it got in. It didn't. After several days, concerned Koppie neighbours started feeding BBD. She thrived on the various brands of dog pellets, supplemented with the occasional guinea fowl she caught.

BBD became feral and territorial. When I worked on the Koppies, I was often spooked by the feeling of being watched. It was a relief to see BBD's large paw prints on the path I had just walked. 'Was she keeping a protective eye on me or guarding her territory?' I hoped the former. She also monitored the Koppie fences barking at any dogs 'trespassing' on the streets and houses bordering the fences.

BBD's reign of the Koppies ended after 18 months. Debra McLean, an 11th Avenue Melville resident, noticed that BBD's soft ears were bloodied by biting flies. She asked friends to make a donation to Woodrock Sanctuary in lieu of presents for her birthday. A team from Woodrock then obliged by bringing a big trap to the Koppies to catch elusive BBD.

This tale ends well. BBD was eventually caught and re-homed on a farm where she could roam and romp with some new, also rescued, furry friends.

Day 18: Winning The Wilds - again and again

Wendy Carstens

The Wilds

During matric finals, I sketched Joel House before it was demolished at the end of 1962 supposedly because it was a fire hazard. We were devastated. Solomon Barnato Joel was the nephew of Barney Barnato, both diamond mining magnates.

Boarding school meant permanent lockdown unless we could escape on officially sanctioned outings. A favourite Sunday afternoon escape was a walk at The Wilds. We marched in crocodile from our fabulous Joel House hostel in the grounds of Johannesburg Girls' High School (Barnato Park), past the Roedean boarders playing lacrosse, into The Wilds with the first stop at the ice cream vendor. The Wilds were magnificent back then in the early 1960's - immaculate!

But, in time, The Wilds slowly deteriorated becoming weed-infested and a security hazard.

The Wilds

The hostel had custom-made crockery, with the pink, black and white school colours. 'Vincemus' means 'we shall conquer', and we shall conquer Corona.

Rehab phase 1.
Local resident TJ de Klerk got involved. He paid visits to Melville Koppies to get some advice on volunteer-led rehabilitation and management. He adopted our motto, 'If it is environmentally sound - just do it' (Nike adaptation).

He did! Gradually the former beauty of The Wilds started emerging. Its Joburg City Parks workers became motivated, community clean-ups began, path intersections got mosaic markers, the whole irrigation system was overhauled - and to crown the rehab, the beautiful sundial was installed. TJ, his wife Jenny, daughter Jaylin and dogs led Sunday well-attended walks with dogs.

The Wilds

TJ de Klerk with Guido and Aeryn on Melville Koppies West.

Rehab phase 2.
After TJ withdrew from The Wilds, it very quickly slipped into decay again. Then local resident, James Delaney, stepped into the breach, cleaning, clearing, weeding and getting community input. James' special touch is the lovely metal sculptures dotted amongst the shrubbery.
The Wilds are once again an iconic Joburg landmark.

Never say, 'It can't be done!'

Day 19: Bankrotbos

Wendy Carstens


Bankrotbos is covered with white furry little galls. These are not flowers. The flowers are inconspicuous, teeny and pink-tipped. The profusion of tiny seeds produced are are golden brown and easily wind-dispersed.

Bankrotbos (Seriphium plumosum) is a sign of degraded, overgrazed veld. It is a warning that the farmer will go bankrupt in due course as all animals shun grazing this invasive bush. Even though Melville Koppies is not grazed, except by termites, the occasional bankrotbos sometimes appears, perhaps the result of windblown seeds. The bos is immediately zapped by the conservation team.

I was horrified to see the overgrazed, overstocked state of the veld on a game farm we occasionally visited. Bankrotbos ruled supreme. This farm was in stark contrast to the adjacent cattle farm which only had a few scattered bos bushes. The barbed wire perimeter fence seemed to be a magic barrier!


Bobby sitting on the farm balcony, eagerly awaiting the next walk through the farms. Notice little Frisky cuddling up too.
Photo by Dana Mailer.

On his first visit to the game farm, my little x-pointer dog, Bobby, was unfazed by the bankrotbos because he was hyper-excited by all the new scents on both farms. He ran himself ragged, nose to the ground, in ever-widening circles. He learnt very quickly not to chase animals after an angry zebra and then a huge bull chased him. My daughter and I then had to chase the animals to save the dog.

The little creatures that traverse Melville Koppies East are seldom seen, but they do leave scents which excite the Koppie dogs. However, the Koppie dogs are much more interested in newcomer dogs which get a careful sniff over, and maybe a quick chase, to establish who are 'Boss Dogs of the Koppies'.

The dogs are missing the Koppies ...

Day 20: Paintbrushes

Wendy Carstens


Red paintbrushes emerging from an underground bulb. These leaves are long and smooth with wavy margins. After the flowers die off the leaves continue to grow until they too die off. Then nothing can be seen of the plant till the next year.

Lockdown seems to equate with cleaning cupboards, etc. and perhaps painting. We probably have paintbrushes but no paint and no shops open to buy paint. Perhaps try some bartering with a neighbour who has some suitable paint?

The only painting we need to do at Melville Koppies is the annual preservative treatment of the wooden bridge. But we do have plenty of 'paintbrushes' at Melville Koppies - red and white ones.

The Wilds

A White paintbrush which has the paired 'bunny ears' leaves

The Red paintbrush (Scadoxus puniceus) is one of the 'wow' treasures seen in shady spots at Melville Koppies. In spring it emerges as a glowing bud which quickly develops into a round umbel of red stamens tipped with yellow anthers. Don't touch! It is also known as seeroogblom with good reason.

One morning while working on the Koppies, I was outraged to see a pile of litter in the distance and went storming up the cliff to the 'dump'. I was gobsmacked to find instead a 'litter' of 73 White paintbrushes nestling in rocky crevices under a tree. White paintbrushes (Haemanthus humilis) are also called 'Bunny ears' because of the paired soft furry leaves on each flower. Another treasure at Melville Koppies.

Day 21: Protector and healer: Artemis

Tamarin Scheidegger


Artemisia afra (Wilde Als, Wormwood, Lengana (Sotho, Tswana) umhlonyane (Xhosa, Zulu)

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo, daughter of Zeus and Leto. That is quite a lineage! As our Artemis came from the SPCA in Booysens, her genetic lineage is more of a riddle. Each day her legs continue to grow longer like a Great Dane. Her dark muzzle is lightening leaving her nose and eyes with only emphasis markings, less German Shepherd. Her tail continues to be kept in the appropriate curl of the true Africanis. Her looks are changing, but her outside character stays true. She really is missing her daily jaunts to Melville Koppies East, almost as much as her owner!


Artemis as a puppy, before she grew and grew.

Artemis is the Greek Goddess of the hunt, wilderness, the Moon, archery and protector of children. When I google what she represented I stand in awe! I felt comfortable to leave my children in her care as they ran over the ridges of the Koppies whilst I became rooted to the spot pulling out weeds. Now under lockdown, she is being trained to do all sorts of poses and pirouettes, biding her time until she can chase the moths and butterflies through the grass or join the conservation team on a weeding blitz across the ridges.

African traditional medicine has used the Artemisia afra (African wormwood or Wilde-Als) to cure all sorts of ailments. It can be found in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This incredible plant has been flagged by the academic community for further research into identifying its active ingredients. Whenever my children complain about feeling sick, and they smell the tea being brewed, miraculously they heal in minutes! The tea has quite a bitter-sweet flavour that hangs around; some are not convinced they like it.

My Artemis heals me as she comes to wake me every morning with a lick on the nose and a snuggle in the neck, there is still something to get up for! Breakfast.

Day 22: Nature's cure-all: Wilde Als

Wendy Carstens


The feathery leaves of Artemisia afra (Wild Als). The bush grows well in sunny areas and is an attractive garden plant.

'My granny gives me Wilde Als every time I am sick. It's horrible. I rather pretend that I am not sick.' *

This is a frequent reaction from young visitors when shown the Wilde Als aka wormwood (Artemisia afra) on tours at Melville Koppies. Wilde Als, 'maak alles reg', is an amazing cure-all for a wide range of ailments - from coughs and colds, intestinal worms, earache and headache to Malaria.

Wilde als big plant

The pale yellow flowers produce a profusion of seeds.

The dosage is a teaspoon of the feathery grey/green leaves steeped in a cup of boiling water and perhaps sweetened with a bit of honey. For blocked noses, roll up some leaves and gently insert into the nostrils.

Wilde als flowers

The feathery leaves on the left and the flowers are Artemisia afra - Wild Als. The larger leaves are Artemisia absinthe.

The drinking ritual was special. Water was slowly dribbled over a sugar cube placed in a custom-made silver slotted spoon, balanced on top of a glass of clear green absinthe. As the water entered the absinthe, the reaction was a milky, iridescent spiral called the 'Green Fairy'.

After being banned for many years in Europe, absinthe is back on the market as the toxic volatile oil, thujone, has been much reduced. However, moderation is still advised.

* Tam's daughters recover miraculously when they even smell the plant. See Google 'The art of drinking absinthe: The legacy of aesthetes' for a fascinating history of the drink.

Day 23: The legendary Canine Flaneurs and Flaneuse of Melville Koppies (East)

Susanne Johnston

The dowager Sandy

The dowager Sandy

Most fine days, just before sunset, up to the Melville Koppies East*, a grand assortment of dogs swans, all in eager anticipation of a good time walking about there with their doggie friends and in the company of adoring humans.

Alison and Heike

Alison Wilson and Heike Hofmeyr, Melville Koppies' volunteers

Some dogs are listed here:
1. Tiyela: Handsome, adventurous and fast as the wind. He charms everyone.
2. Floyd: "Dogged", determined to go where no dog has ever gone before - and with such verve!
3. Ben: Grand, monolithic, slow-moving, undulating, undeniably a great force of nature.
4. Kaya: Other-worldly, meanders, thinking, and searching for her great love: the Koppies' wild berries.
5. Nuba: Laughs as he pursues all of life's pleasures at breakneck speed and in quick order!
6. Toti: Little racehorse, so shy, so appealing and oh so smart. Such elegant paws and manners!
7. Sasha: To borrow from Shakespeare: "Though she be but little - she is fierce!"
8. And then there's the dowager, Sandy: Around 99 now in human years, and most of the time, Sandy simply ignores old age. She still demands her two walks every day and at least one up in her beloved, familiar Koppies, keeping up with her younger mates. So Sandy is our inspiration: universally adored for her unfailing and uncomplaining fortitude, good nature, happy bark - and patience in the treats-line.


George, a Melville Koppies' volunteer

On every single walk in the Koppies, these outstanding charming creatures all inspire us by their joie de vivre. They urge us on, to be better, to be smarter, to be faster and fitter. To love nature and - most of all - to be happy and to enjoy all that this life so generously provides!

Peace and long life to all. Susanne.

* Melville Koppies East is the open section of Melville Koppies from 6am to 6pm where dogs are allowed and entrance is free. During Lockdown level 5, this open space was locked.

Day 24: 'Pre-rain' spring flowers

Jenny Grice


A lovely Pentanisia angustifolia bush. Some bushes have deeper blue flowers than others. We may get a real bonanza of spring flowers next spring because of the recent rains.

Growing up near Durban on the edge of a deep gorge which had pockets of natural grassland, I always associated the wild flowers that popped up every spring in the grassland with rain. (And in fact, there are no months in Durban when it doesn't rain - it just rains a little bit less in June and July.)


Indigofera meladenia - I bear blue dye. This member of the legume family is competing well with the alien Kikuyu grass opposite the PUMA garage on MK East.

I could never remember the flowers' names, despite our mother's best attempts to teach us. But every year in about August, they would be back, the deep blue of what I now know is called Pentanisia angustifolia, the sun-yellows of the Hypoxis and the post-box red of the Indigofera.

Indigofera flower

A close-up of the beautiful little 'post-box' red Indigofera flower. Photo by Maria Cabaco who spent many hours taking beautiful photos of Melville Koppies' treasures.

When I moved to Jo'burg and much later started walking the Koppies and learning about its treasures, I recognised the very same flowers. But - and this raised a huge conundrum for me - how did these plants manage to be so showy in early spring when they hadn't received a drop of rain since the April rains?

That began many searches to try and find out why. Common terms kept popping up: perennial, woody rootstock, rhizome, bulb, corm, tuber ... And there was my answer!


Close up Indigofera (Photo Tam Scheidegger)

These were not like Namaqualand daisies that start again from scratch each year relying on thousands of seeds to keep their brand going. These hardy perennials had found a way to deal with unpredictable rain. They'd manufactured Plan B to store food and water below the ground for the lean times. Some had extensive woody root structures, others had potato-like tubers and yet others relied on little onion-like bulbs to keep them growing. What was even better about Plan B was that plants could also survive fire. But that's another story ...

Day 25: Guarding the hut

Wendy Carstens


A photo taken after a fire on Melville Koppies Central in 1996. Notice the ugly little guard hut on the top right of picture. The area above the path in the foreground is now a forest of Proteas. The fire department used to send a land cruiser to monitor the fires. It did more damage than the fires (see the tracks).

Tweet! tweet! Tweet! The alarm whistle! Vandals had severely damaged the guard hut.

David Mpilo, the lone JCP* worker assigned to Melville Koppies, was frantically calling for Richard Hall, the volunteer conservation manager. Whistles were the only means of communication back in 1998.


Richard Hall with the vandalised guard hut in the background. This photo was in the Northcliff and Melville Times, 21st August 1998. Note the square-cut rocks and the concrete base.

I think that Richard may have been secretly pleased at this particular act of vandalism. The lone guard hut, with no facilities, was perched on a ridge in the middle of the Koppies. It was an eyesore. It was empty because no guards were assigned to the Koppies. Richard was convinced that strange sects used the hut at night because of the pentagons painted on the walls.


The late Richard Hall, (sans his customary blue overalls) and David Mpilo. These two rather crusty mavericks worked well together. David ended his stint at Melville Koppies in 2005 due to a long spell of ill health. He then went back to light duties at the Joburg Botanical Gardens. Richard (1920-2010) was also known as 'Mr Melville Koppies' because of his passionate dedication to the Koppies.

David demolished the unstable remains of the hut. Then he salvaged and trundled the squared rocks in many wheelbarrow loads to make a stone path up to the Lecture Hut.


The concrete base of the vandalised guard hut is a favourite stop on hikes for photos or as a snack stop. Grandsons (of Wendy Carstens) (in bibs) Declan and Gio assisting with one of the scheduled hikes.

Outsourced guards were appointed to Melville Koppies from 2002. The security companies and their guards were changed frequently which was very unsettling. After many requests, they did get a new wooden guard hut conveniently placed next to the lecture Hut and smelting furnace. The new hut didn't look so good after it was struck by lightning during a massive thunderstorm. The guard who was in it at the time shot out in fright. 'So where did he shoot out to?' inquired my curious practical granddaughter.

2020 Update: The guards (two day and two night) are now insourced and have smart navy blue uniforms with the JCPZ logo. However, the once 'new' guard hut is not so smart anymore. As one guard said, 'Please tell City Parks that the guard hut is #@!&*%!' A new guard hut will hopefully be a JCPZ priority as winter is approaching.

*JCP became JCPZ after the Zoo was added in about 2010.

Day 26: Beyers Naude Drive

Wendy Carstens

Beyers Naude

This is the memorial to Beyers Naude close to the entrance of West Park Cemetery in Heroes Acre. If you visit here, read the inscriptions behind as well.

Beyers Naude Drive, which separates Melville Koppies Central and West, is a major Joburg arterial road, named after a man of peace, Beyers Naude. 'Oom Bey' as he was affectionately known, was a senior cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and was also dominee of the Aasvoelkop congregation in Northcliff. He came to believe that apartheid could not be justified by the scriptures. As an anti-apartheid activist, he then came into conflict with the DRC which upheld the National Party Government's policy.

In 1963, at a historic service in his Aasvoelkop church, in slow measured tones, he condemned apartheid as a crime against humanity. For this, he was defrocked, excommunicated and his family ostracised by his Aasvoelkop congregation.

Beyers Naude then started the Christian Institute (CI), a multicultural, ecumenical organisation focused on improving interracial communication by, inter alia, Bible study groups. I belonged to such a group. We always had members of the security police sitting in cars on the street outside, keeping watch on our 'subversive' meetings.

Beyers Naude

This photo was probably in Die Beeld, perhaps taken in 1986 during the state of emergency. Beyers Naude, armed with a bible and his clerical robes, is seen anxiously striding in front of a casspir. It may have been in Alexandra, where Beyers Naude was joint pastor of a church with Rev. Sam Buti. The photo is on the memorial.

The CI was banned in 1973 because it was 'upsetting the social order in SA'. Beyers Naude, because of his activism, was placed under house arrest for seven years. This meant he could only have one visitor at a time with only two people present, so his family would have to wait in another room during such visits.

In due course, the DRC apologised to Beyers Naude. In recognition for his service to SA, D.F. Malan* Drive was renamed Beyers Naude Drive in 2001.

Beyers Naude

1964. The newly built D.F. Malan Drive is in the foreground. The Old Muldersdrift Road is to the right and now is part of Melville Koppies Central. Judith Road merges with the new road. Note the diamond mesh fence topped with three strands of barbed wire around Melville Koppies Central. The Westdene Spruit is just a little trickle.

In 2004, when he died, Beyers Naude was given a state funeral. His black-draped coffin was borne on a horse-drawn carriage down Beyers Naude Drive. An ornate memorial was erected to him at the entrance to West Park Cemetery by the Department of Arts and Culture.

When next you use this stretch of Beyers Naude Drive, and pass the heritage site of Melville Koppies - spare a moment to think of this brave South African who is part of the historical heritage of iconic people SA.

* D.F. Malan was the first National Party prime minister of the Union of South Africa.

Day 27: 'Don't poke me!'

Wendy Carstens


The red toad secure in its pottery hut. It was facing the other way when Michelle curiously poked it gently with her finger.

'EEEK! It moved!' This was Michelle de Villiers' reaction when she poked something soft and squishy in a little pottery hut, part of an assortment of pottery patio projects donated to Michelle's JUNKIE Charity shop.* The squishy thing was a delightful Red Toad (Schismaderma carens) which had squashed itself into the little hut.

Beyers Naude

Michelle de Villiers' JUNKIE Charity store in 7th Street, Melville.

We first tried re-homing it at Lynne and Cavan's eco-friendly pool, but were concerned that it might get zapped by the electric fencing if it decided to cross over into the adjacent Melville Koppies Central. Therefore, as toads live in grasslands, we took it directly to Melville Koppies Central where it immediately emerged from the pottery hut and disappeared into the undergrowth.


The gutteral toad in Cavan's pool. Vincent Carruthers said that the pale cross shape on the head is diagnostic. The red spots on the hind legs indicate that it is a male. It has just moulted, thus showing its best markings. It blows the vocal sac in its throat in and out, so producing the gragragragra call to attract the female for some fun in the pool.

We didn't handle it, as toads will pee on ones hands in self-defence and the milky toxin exuded from its paratoid glands can cause eye and mouth irritation. Toads don't cause warts, but don't lick them as their skin has toxins!

Cavan monitors creatures that visit or live in his pool. Male warty -looking gutteral toads (Schlerophrys gutteralis) keep up a raucous mating cacaphony to attract the larger, silent females as toads only mate in water, producing a triple string of pearly-like eggs. The rest of a toad's life is spent on dry land. Cavan has also observed the moist, slimy-skinned common river frogs (Amieta angolensis) as they characteristically 'plop' into their watery home when disturbed. Frogs live in permanent water. Frogs and toads may be noisy guests, but they do keep the mosquito, spider and worm population in check.

Cavan used 'Frogs and frogging in South Africa' by Louis du Preez and Vincent Carruthers to identify his visitors. Vincent kindly elaborated further on Cavan's gutteral toad photo.

* JUNKIE Charity Shop is in 7th Street, Melville (082 923 4189 and If you take unwanted pre-loved goods to JUNKIE and designate Melville Koppies as the beneficiary, this will help to fund our conservation workers' salaries.

Day 28: Adrenalin Junkie

Tamarin Scheidegger

Adrenalin Junkie

The 2015 burn of the thatch patch. The EPWP workers were assigned to us for a few months so they helped with the burn, including toting the 5L containers of water. Here they are busy burning the firebreak.

I have always seen myself as slightly adventurous, but not a complete daredevil. Motherhood has ironed-out most of these confront-your-fear cravings that one has in one's twenties. Nowadays, I get my heart beating and the blood pumping pretty quickly when we block-burn areas on Melville Koppies.

Every two or three years, or as necessary, the conservation team burns a patch of two-metre high Blue thatching grass (Hyparrhenia tamba) on a shallow saddle along the top ridge. It is encircled by the stones of an early farmer's kraal, and has a very special little tree in its midst, the Vlieebos (Otholobium polystictum) that manages to emerge and flower in the following season.


A Wits student monitoring a controlled burn as part of a fieldwork study.

First task, as the sun starts to burn off the frost, we burn a five-metre firebreak around the thatch patch. Our brave, very experienced guys dressed in cotton protective gear, have 16L spray backpacks which need refilling every 15 minutes or so. Wendy and I do a boring but essential job of trotting back and forth carrying 5L containers from the tap a hundred or so metres away. All in all, a good two hours of early morning exercise!


Fire dragon! The perimeter firebreak can take up to five hours to burn. The centre takes 15 minutes.

Then, once the whole area has a burnt ring around it, the centre is set alight. It takes a while to really get going, but at a critical temperature the surrounding grass instantaneously ignites. This is when the roar in ones ears starts to make breathing difficult. The fire-devils leap high into the air and occasionally some jump over the break - requiring fast and scary calculating work from us to quench the escaped flames. Escaped flames should not be allowed to go wherever they want on the Koppies! Residents would get a little nervous, and so would we. Many of us have personal experiences with fire, and we know that we do not have mastery of this force - we are, in fact, at Mother Nature's mercy.

Day 29: Fighting fire by going underground

Jenny Grice

Fighting fire

The leaves and fruit of the sand apple underground tree (Parinari capensis)

If you come on a guided tour to the Koppies, you will reach the top after about two hours of walking and stopping to hear about interesting things along the way. By this time, some visitors are trying to catch their breath after a steep rock climb and the younger ones are out with their phones posing with the glorious view of the north of Jo'burg behind them. Near where people stand to take hundreds of selfie shots, in the warmer seasons, there is a carpet of shiny green leaves that sprawls across the ground. This particular plant is an underground tree, the sand apple (Parinari capensis). Yet another underground tree that grows on the Koppies is the Erythrina zeyheri or ploegbreker, as it is known, because of its huge root that can break a plough. It appears in spring and dies back at the end of summer only to appear again next spring.

Fighting fire

The rather inconspicuous flowers of the sand apple.

Plants like these are odd because they have sisters that are significant trees (above ground) - the underground sand apple's sister is the mobola plum, and the ploegbreker's sister is the magnificent coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon).

Scientists think that these underground plants were initially tall trees like their sisters. In fact, they've done phylogenetic studies of their DNA and protein structures that show their similarities and that their divergences occurred in the last two million years. So what made these particular plants become dwarfs?

Fighting fire

The fruit

Grasslands are relatively new in evolutionary time - only about 30 million years old. The particular type of grassland that we see on the Koppies emerged much later. It is one that receives a relatively high rainfall (at least 750mm a year) which enables the grass to grow thick and tall in the rainy season, and that has a dry season long enough to dry out the grass so that it can burn like tinder, and regrow again the next spring.

Fighting fire

The fruit of the underground parinari tree and above ground parinari mobola is simply delicious.

So what do you do if you're a tree and every year you produce flowers and fruit/seeds only to have the grassland fires destroy your baby offspring? Well, like many faced with life-threatening situations, you become radical and go underground. And these plant radicals have a special name - geoxyles, i.e., an underground tree that never grows taller than one metre and that has its woody branches buried. Only its shoots, tips, leaves, flowers and fruit appear periodically.

So, when you come on a guided tour, make sure you ask us to show you the 'paranoid' tree (scared of fire, frost, drought and grazing), one of the wow factors on the Koppies.

Day 30: Where does it start?

Wendy Carstens

Wendy map

A map of the catchment area of the Westdene Spruit. starting at the bottom with the Westdene Dam, Paddadam, top dam, middle dam, Emmarentia dam and the merging with the Montgomery Spruit just before Tana Road.

This is a frequent question on hikes and tours at Melville Koppies when we stop at the sparkling Westdene Spruit (WS) in the arboretum just a few metres below Beyers Naude Drive.

The Witwatersrand Ridge, which runs from Springs to Krugersdorp, is the source of all rivulets which drain north to the warm Indian Ocean and south to the cold Atlantic Ocean. Rain drops seep slowly over many years into the quartzite and shale layers of the ridge, oozing out and gradually merging into little rivulets that run together, on and on, until their final oceanic destination.

Westdene Dam

The Westdene Dam, recently beautifully upgraded by JCPZ. Gio Rech surveying the scene.

Our Westdene Spruit feeder rivulets are first dammed by the scenic Westdene Dam. The overflow from the dam feeds into the fenced-off Paddadam, once a favourite fishing spot for carp. From Paddadam, the WS gets canalised under Korea Road and thence into Melville Koppies West where it is allowed to meander for a bit.

Westdene Dam

The tragic Westdene bus disaster, when a bus filled with schoolchildren plunged into the dam. There is a memorial to these children in Heroes Acre at West Park.

The run-off of rain water from Melville Koppies West is reduced because the veld acts like a sponge, soaking up much of it. But then, alarmingly, the run-off into the WS is hugely augmented by humans' developments upstream and this severely reduces the attenuation of storm water. In 1975, RAU's (Rand Afrikaans University - now UJ) sports fields were built on the wetland adjacent to Beyers Naude Drive. This wetland had been an important soak for floodwaters.


Another photo from The Star 9th October 1975 with Paddadam in the foreground. There was a huge outcry at the loss of this dam, but more importantly, the loss of the wetland below. Tons of rubble were dumped on the wetland. Sadly the value of wetlands was not understood back then.

After 2000, the Campus Square shopping centre replaced UJ's 50m swimming pool and its grassy surrounds. The Boulevard shopping centre replaced Melville's municipal 50m pool with its grassy surrounds. Paved drive ways and choc-a-bloc housing developments in Melville and Westdene exacerbate the run-off. The result is that after freak thunderstorms, the water collects in a maelstrom and then punches its way through the twin bridge tunnels under Beyers Naude Drive - into Melville Koppies Central - scouring its WS banks.

From Central, the WS feeds into the top, middle and Emmarentia Dams, flows over the weir at the canoe club, meets up with the Montgomery Spruit just before Tana Road and then both meet the Braamfontein Spruit at Delta Park - on their way ultimately to Xai Xai in Mozambique. A long journey for a little drop of water!

Day 31: The Dam wall

Wendy Carstens

The Dam Wall

The two Geldenhuys brothers.

In the 1880s, the Geldenhuys brothers bought the farm 'Braamfontein', which included Melville Koppies, to prospect for gold. They found no payable gold.

They then turned to farming in the richer soils north of the Koppies - present day Marks Park, the Botanical Gardens, Emmarentia,* Linden, etc. They irrigated their fields with water from the Emmarentia Dam which they had constructed at a cost of 12 000 pounds in 1905.

The Info Board

The information board about the rehabilitation of the dam wall

The dam wall was built with rocks rolled down from Melville Koppies - that is why there is a dearth of big rocks on the northern slopes. They must have removed much of the stone walling of the early farmers.

By 2015, the dam wall needed major repairs. At a cost of R23m the dam wall and Olifants Road underwent major repairs and improvements. Additional construction below Olifants Road was for flood control. The dam wall should last another century!

* Louw Geldenhuys' wife was Emmarentia; Frans Geldenhuys' wife was Judith.

Day 32: 'Stinky Stuff'

Tamarin Scheidegger


The fruit and leaves of a Canthium mundianum. The Boers reputedly made coffee by crushing the fruit - desperation?

When we take people on a tour of the Koppies I try to find the stinkier things possible to crush and pass around! The fever-tea bush (Lippia javanica) is minty, the yellow everlasting (Helichrysum setosum) is strongly pungent like Zambuk. Impepho (helichrysum odoratissimum) is sweetly, muskily scented and takes visitors back to memories often with their grandmothers. My best is Velvet rock alder (Canthium gilfillianii) because it relieves cravings for morning coffee!


The jerky appearance of a copse of Canthiums, all the suckering progeny of one mother plant. These indigenous trees can be become very invasive.

A few months ago, I was weeding near the Lecture Hut and sat in something stinky. At first, I was taken instantaneously back on a childhood holiday. The bedroom was 2 metres away from a Civet latrine! Since I doubt that there are Civets here anymore, I am inclined to guess it was just wet Genet droppings.


A slender mongoose. These are solitary creatures. Photo - Wikipedia

tam mongoose

A slender mongoose dropping with the characteristic point at the end.

Giant Eagle Owl's pellets are always a great find on a tour.

The fact that they regurgitate indigestible fur and bones really says something about their table manners. Actually, it reveals more about the number of other creatures that inhabit these grasslands, becoming prey for these magnificent birds.

Different shapes and sizes, like the foot-long hairy poo. This, I guess is snake faeces. Next time, I find one, I will collect a sample to bring to Wits for correct identification. Hopefully, I will never meet the owner of this one!

Day 33: 'Get them young!'

Wendy Carstens


It won't be long before she is clambering over the rocks.

Don't try and drag a reluctant teenager out of bed for an 8h30 hike on Melville Koppies. Most teenagers' circadian rhythms for weekends seem to be set for late nights and late mornings.


Such fantastic places to explore! The entrance to 'Narnia; framed by a Rock-breaking fig tree (Ficus ingens) and a quartzite rock. (You'll find it on Melville Koppies East)

Recently, on a Sunday morning guided tour, a trim, gym-bunny mom forced her teenage daughter on a Koppies' hike. Mom was very disappointed to find out that it was a stop/start guided tour and not a stepping out hike. "Lets' go home!" she said to her daughter. "You go. I'm enjoying this!" retorted the daughter. We weren't sure if it was just cussedness or real interest, but the daughter smiled and was interested during the whole tour. Mom was dragged along.


A special moment on tour with Dad at Melville Koppies.

Introduce kids at a young age to the Koppies. The uneven rocky paths promote physical ability. Clambering up rocky slopes gives a sense of achievement. 'I climbed the mountain!' A world away from TV (and cell phones) is opened up.

During the latent stage of development before the onset of puberty's anxieties and hormones, children can be like sponges in their openness to learning. I once ran a holiday programme for under-twelves. One youngster 'hung' on my every word on the walk, Next day he was back. 'I like this place!' He then proceeded to take over the whole walk and had the rest of the kids totally engrossed with his amazing recollection of information and anecdotes of the previous day's walk. I often wonder what career he went into - hopefully it is connected with the natural environment.

tam mongoose

Parkview Pre-primary has been bringing their young charges to the Koppies on annual visits for the past 18 years. Many Moms and Dads accompany this very special outing.

Some comments from children on visits to the Koppies:

'I can see the whole world from here!' (Up on the top ridge) 'No man. It's just South Africa,' retorted a fellow pre-primary school friend.

'This place brings back the fondest memories!' A classic comment from a grade 1 on a visit after the previous year's visit with Parkview Pre-primary.

The Koppies are a wonderful place for parents to connect with their children and nature and for fun exercise. Set the pattern early in life. Explore Melville Koppies EAST any time during the day with your kids and socialised dogs. Visit Melville Koppies Central with kids over six on schedule hikes or tours. We usually keep families with young kids in a separate tour group so that it is a shared experience involving the kids. The 8km hike may be a bit much if kids aren't used to walking, so get them walking after the lockdown. We all need to stretch our legs. The Koppies are beckoning.

Day 34: 'Don't eat! Toxic!'

Jenny Grice


A monarch butterfly on a Zinnia (Jacob regop in afrikaans.)

Like underground trees, butterflies also fear being eaten - by birds rather than animals. Some butterflies that you find on the Koppies have also adapted, not by going underground but by making themselves particular colours and by ingesting poison.


The poisonous Milkweed plant (Asclepius fruticosus - now gomphocarpus) favoured by the Monarch butterfly. The pods are lovely to crash sharply between ones palms causing a loud 'pop'.Note the dainty crown of the flowers, a feature of the asclepiads

There's the African monarch which is so common you've probably seen one in your garden. It's a medium-sized, slow-flying orange and black butterfly. If you're a bird, the colours orange and black are warning signs - 'don't eat, toxic'. That's why the African monarch can flutter about so peacefully and probably why it's so common. But is it really toxic?


Plant this beautiful indigenous, evergreen Wild peach tree (Kiggelaria africana) in your garden and you will soon find it covered in Acrea butterflies. Their larvae will chomp the leaves - but new leaves will grow. This is a female tree. Does it look like a peach? This is why botanists use botanical names which are accepted world-wide.

Most butterflies have one food plant of choice. They lay their eggs on this plant, and when the caterpillars hatch out, they gorge on it until they transform themselves into a larva, pupa and then a butterfly. The African monarch's food plant is the poisonous milkweed.

tam mongoose

A visitor to the Wild peach tree is the Diedrick's cuckoo - preying on the Acraea larvae. (Photo: Craig Nattrass)

Poisons inside the leaves can give grazing animals palpitations and could cause them to die. The African monarch caterpillar has adapted to the poison and passes it on to the butterfly and in that way has secured its place on the planet. Likewise, the Acraea horta is also slow-flying, orange and black. Its caterpillar feasts on the wild peach (Kiggelaria africana), a tree with leaves full of cyanide. The Acraea caterpillar has spines on it which when squeezed exude cyanide. If an adventurous bird wants to test what its mother has told it, it will be in for a nasty surprise. Except for the Diederick's Cuckoo and the wasp larvae which can eat these caterpillars with impunity. But that's another story.

Day 35: Toolkits - April 30 2020

Wendy Carstens


Bladelets used for arrow heads or cutting. Photo taken at Wits' Origins museum - an excellent museum of the origins of man up to the Late Stone Age, i.e. Khoisan/Bushmen.

If you lived a nomadic life, how many tools would you have, bearing in mind that everything you owned you'd have to carry? Your toolkit would probably comprise just the bare essentials sourced from the environment, and which melded back into the environment when discarded. The raw materials for the survival kits were sticks, stones, bones, skins and plants. Easy to make. Easy to replace - for the skilled nomads.


The arrows were carried in a quiver, made from the quiver tree. The knobkierie was twirled above the hunter's head and then hurled with precision at a ground-living creature, eg. a guinea fowl or francolin.

The Khoisan who used Melville Koppies seasonally would have been such minimalists. A hunter's tools were as follows: arrow heads knapped from a quartzite core or fashioned from bone, a shaft, bow and quiver from trees, arrow poison from plants or insects and the drawstring from the long spinal sinew of a large animal. Fire was made by twirling of two sticks together. Leather, sewn with bone needles and sinews, was used to make medicine bags and 'backpacks' for gathering food. Ostrich shells and gourds provided utensils. Paintbrushes were fashioned from the bristly tail hairs of animals. A grooved rock was used to round the ostrich shell necklace beads. Temporary huts were simply bundles of thatching grass over sapling supports. There was ample time for painting and decoration and story-telling as there were no daily household or farming chores.


A medicine bag filled with healing herbs. Wild als (Artemisia afra) was probably one of the known herbs.

The early Bantu-speaking farmers who moved into Melville Koppies from about 1300CE, were not minimalists. They arrived with cattle and baggage for their large family groups and a settled agricultural and pastoral way of life. They brought their iron-making skills with them, using and reducing the bounty of the environment to make iron tools, e.g. hoe heads, chisels, spears and adzes. The charcoal from two trees was needed to feed the hungry smelting furnace for just one firing. (Melville Koppies is a Joburg Heritage site because of the original smelting furnace found here.) Land was cleared for crops and dug over with iron-tipped hoes - by the women who started the pattern of multi-tasking.

tam mongoose

An ostrich egg could provide the equivalent of twelve hen's eggs. The contents would be blown out of a hole so the intact shell could still be used for carrying water with the hole plugged with grass. If the shell broke, pieces would be roughly shaped, a hole drilled through the middle and the shapes then threaded on a string. The threaded shapes would then be rubbed in a grooved stone to be nicely rounded for a necklace.

The women made pottery, grass woven baskets and mats, sorghum beer, in addition to looking after children, planting and harvesting crops, grinding the sorghum, etc. etc. Men occasionally hunted and boys looked after the valuable cattle.

The iron-making skills were gradually lost as products of the European Industrial Revolution made their way to South Africa. A woman would prefer a husband who could provide a plough to be pulled by an ox than one who presented her with a simple hoe.

Modern man's toolkit? Just try naming tools from A-Z in your home, never mind the heavy-duty tools of industrialised countries.

Early stone-age man made his own tools. Early farmers made tools for themselves and bartered tools for crops in a limited economy. Modern man buys all his tools using an acceptable currency, from bartering with cowrie shells, cigarettes, to using hard cash, cheques to electronic monetary transfers.

Day 36: Those that roam

Tamarin Scheidegger


Bushman's poison (Akocanthera oppositifolia). Every part of this evergreen bush is poisonous.

I do enjoy the wild, the wilder the better. As a child, I spent hours imagining a hermitic life on the Sand River near St Francis Bay. It was desolate, sand dunes that rolled one after the other as far as the eye could see. Little oases between the dunes seeped out of the dry sand and brought refreshment. The San middens along its stretch hold shells from a time when the San ate foot-long mussels and dinner-plate sized Alikreukels. They used ostrich shells to decorate themselves and hunted on the coastal plains side-by-side with the Hippos that grazed.


The striking flowers of the cork bush (Mundulea sericia), a member of the legume family.

On my first guided tour of the Melville Koppies a few years ago, I learnt that clans of these same people had roamed the ridges of the Witwatersrand. Their worked rock shards could be found in the silt deposits between the quartzite ridges. Imagine a group of hunters, sitting around on their haunches, lacing their arrowheads with poison gum. Perhaps they used the sap from the Bushman's poison tree (Acokanthera oppositifolia), or perhaps instead they felt like fish for supper and collected the bark from the Cork Bush (Mundulea sericea). This has an ingredient called Rotonone that is said to poison the fish and even crocodiles, which then float to the surface where they can easily be collected! I wonder if they knew of the effects of accumulated cyanide. Would the Wild peach (Kiggelaria africana) also be on their lethal potions list? And what would the treatment for an upset stomach be? There was no trustworthy May's chemist up the road during their time here on Melville Koppies.


Mundulea sericia

Traditional knowledge was kept alive as it was passed down from generation to generation. Much of it has been lost, because these people no longer live in this ecosystem - pushed out by the Bantu-speaking early farmers, who in turn, were ousted by the settlers. Their knowledge was integral to their existence.

tam mongoose

The Cork bush is an incredibly tough, flexible tree. Its corky bark is a protection against veld fires. The bark also contains rotonone, which de-oxygenates water so fish pop to the surface.

The women made pottery, grass woven baskets and mats, sorghum beer, in addition to looking after children, planting and harvesting crops, grinding the sorghum, etc. etc. Men occasionally hunted and boys looked after the valuable cattle.

My reference collection of bedside reading is now towering and teetering, as I try to gather as much knowledge as I can about the Highveld ecosystem. I do wonder aloud, "How did they do it without books?" This time of Covid lockdown has taught me that information can be owned by an individual; but knowledge belongs to a community. If something is really important then it will find a way to be distributed in our community.

Day 37: The regenerative power of fire

Jenny Grice


The stunning grass lily making a startling splash of colour a few months after a fire.

Anyone who's seen a grass fire will be amazed that any plant can survive it. But grass thrives as the old grass is scorched to ash and new shoots delight in the light and air. So too do some plants. In fact many of them relish a fire and absorb the nutrients from the ash to spark new life into them.


There are over 50 different species of aloes. Sun birds and bees love them. They do like well drained soil and thrive on the Koppies.

There are the underground trees which have very extensive and old root systems. And there are others that have less elaborate woody rootstocks, tubers like potatoes or the Crinum graminicola, which has a giant bulb that can grow to the size of a very large grapefruit. These different below-ground root structures all protect them from fire and from lean times.


This summer rainfall Protea caffra is not the species of our national flower. The winter rainfall King Protea is the species on one of our coins.

The roots of the aloe that grow on the Koppies (Aloe greatheadii) are miniscule by comparison. But rarely does it die in a fire. Dead leaves at its base insulate its roots from the heat while its fat, moisture-filled inner leaves are its fire extinguishers.

tam mongoose

A flower head hat has opened revealing all its furry seeds.

The Protea caffra, which is found on the Koppies, is a smallish tree just tall enough for the crown of leaves that makes its food escape most grass fires. Its chunky, corky bark is like a fireproof jacket that protects the vital vessels that transport food and water up and down between its roots and leaves. But its real secret weapon against fire is in its seeds. It flowers in November/December. Dropping fertilised seeds at the end of autumn would be silly when it still has to endure cold winter frosts and possibly winter fires.

Instead, once its great flower head has been fertilised, the outer bracts come together and close up into a hard spherical shape. There they stay, sometimes for more than a year. If there is a fire, the heat and the smoke from the fire will crack open the sphere and fertilised seeds will burst open leaving a golden fluffy carpet on the ground below. Cleared of all grass and other bulky plants by the fire, the fluffy-jacketed Protea seed can now sit it out until rain falls when it can root itself and start another Protea tree.

Day 38: Hedgehogs

Jenny Grice


Alex van der Hoven found this hedgehog in his garden, adjacent to Melville Koppies, and brought it back to the Koppies where it had probably strayed from.

Prickly but oh so cute! This aptly describes these fascinating little creatures whose only defence is to curl up in a little prickly ball when confronted by dogs and cats.

Their prickles are actually stiffened hairs which cover the whole back. The undersides are covered with brown fur and a distinctive, fetching 'Alice Band' of white fur frames the face. The females do lower their spines during the very noisy mating sessions. The babies, up to nine in a litter, are born naked, blind and helpless. Rudimentary spines break out of their skin in a few days, to be replaced later with adult spines (like we lose our baby teeth when the adult ones emerge).

The mother hedgehog has six and sometimes more pairs of teats on her belly to suckle her babies (NB hedgehogs are lactose intolerant after weaning at five weeks and captive hedgehogs should NEVER be fed milk). At seven weeks, the little hedgehogs are independent.


Luna Rech is not too sure of this prickly creature. Note the white 'Alice Band of fur.

Hedgehogs roam far and fast in their solitary, nocturnal, foraging jaunts in the warmer months for insects, slugs, chicks, eggs, fungi and carrion - guided by a sense of smell. They need to pack on extra weight to carry them through the winter months when their food has diminished. They seem to semi-hibernate.

Hedgehogs are listed as RARE on the Red Data list. This is probably due to habitat loss, insecticides, and maybe climate change. Thus maintaining natural environments like Melville Koppies is vital for the survival of our wild faunal species, to live in and to breed. Covid has made us aware of the dangers of zoonotic diseases (passed from animals to man). Hedgehogs do carry Salmonella bacteria, so perhaps these endangered creatures shouldn't be kept as pets. Leave them in their natural environment.

Information from 'Smithers' Mammals of Southern Africa a field guide' edited by Peter Apps

Day 39: Vivienne and a Hedgehog

Vivienne Scheidegger (9 years old)


Vivienne's drawing of the hedgehog they saw.

Mom came home and told us that there is a hedgehog in the Koppies. Soo we drove home and walked to the Koppie and in a bush, under a tree there was a hedgehog hibernating. We went one by one to see it curld up in a deep sleep.

The hedgehog had brown spiks allover and some tine black ones. It was very big it was the size of an adult's hand it was amazingly big. I would hav to use both hands hold it but then the sun was seting and we had to go home and I had a dreame of oning a hole zoo of diferind types of hedgehogs and then I woke up and I day-dreamd a lot.

The End.

Day 40: The Tower of Light

Wendy Carstens


The Tower of Light

The panoramic views from the top ridges of Melville Koppies are stunning. From here, standing atop Joburg's natural and cultural heritage, one is surrounded by the heritage buildings of Joburg's built environment. Looking south-east, the heritage Tower of Light appears to be a small 15cm little white pillar stuck incongruously amongst the CBD buildings.

Lost kids

The Tower of Light used to be the focal point of the Rand Easter Show, held on the Milner Park Showgrounds. There were no cell phones back then, so lost kids were told to go to the high Tower, visible from all parts of the grounds. DJs from Springbok Radio and radio LM would frequently interrupt the music with 'Will the parents of little Johnny, wearing a red cap and yellow shirt, please fetch him. He is lost and crying!' The Tower was also a point of attachment for the cableway which was strung over the main Victory Avenue running down towards Empire Road.

Industrial and agricultural show exhibits

A show venue my mother loved to visit was the Home Industries, housed in the beautiful Cape Dutch building (which is now the HQ of Wits Alumni). People baked, bottled, sewed, etc. for competitions at this centre. I could never understand why someone would arrange shelled peas in straight rows in a canning bottle - and win a prize for it! I much preferred to visit the agricultural section with my dad where prize cattle, rabbits, pigeons, cats were in cages sporting the red, blue and yellow rosettes. The fragrances and colours of the flower hall was another favourite.

I wasn't allowed to go to the rudimentary fun fair because one also HAD to visit the exhibits from other countries. Today the fun fair activities seem to have eclipsed the other exhibits at the Nasrec Rand Easter Show.


The huge Champion tree, Eucalyptus grandis, on the West Campus.

Fire and its aftermath

Wits has retained some of the old Rand Show buildings which survived the 1984 fire, after which the Rand Show moved to Nasrec and Wits took over the site. Wits has also retained the champion Eucalyptus grandis, a 100 year-old 34m high tree which provided shade for the oxwagon traffic between Joburg and Rustenburg.

The Heritage Portal

Kathy Munro has written extensively on many of Joburg's landmarks and history on The Heritage Portal According to Kathy, The Tower of Light was designed by Wits' Prof Geoffrey Pearce for the 1936 Empire exhibition. Escom (now Eskom) funded the tower. Her well-researched and written articles are a pleasure to read.

This will be our last regular post during the lockdown. Thank you for joining us and for the very positive and encouraging comments. We have had fun writing the posts.

Wendy, Tam and Jenny (plus Susanne and Vivienne)

Day 41: MK through young eyes and legs

Two delightful young volunteer hiking helpers wrote these lovely posts for our Facebook page.


Mom and Dad with their girls on a tour at Melville Koppies


Dad, Leo Chen with Huei-Gin and Huei-Ing