Melville Koppies and Johannesburg skyline

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

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Melville Koppies as a Nature Reserve

Pre 1960

In 1942/3 the City Council bought the remaining portions of Frans Geldenhuys’ farm from his heirs and others and used them for Westpark Cemetery, Marks Park sports fields, Van Riebeeck Park (later the Johannesburg Botanic Garden). The parts north of Westpark were sold to developers who laid out the suburbs of Montgomery and Roosevelt Park and the Koppies were left as Public Open Space. In 1950, the head of Parks, Mr. van Balen, with the assistance of Professor Badenhuizen of Wits, planned to convert van Riebeeck Park into a botanic garden with Melville Koppies as its indigenous component. Unfortunately this fell through when van Balen retired and a great opportunity was lost. (The botanical importance of Melville Koppies had been recognised as early as 1917 when Dr. Moss began the collection of plants that are now the Moss Herbarium at Wits).

In the meantime the Koppies were being despoiled. City Council departments and developers quarried them for stone and their trucks crushed the bush and churned up the grass. Trees were felled for firewood, plants stolen and animals shot or snared. Vagrants camped there and fires were frequent. Disturbed by the destruction of an area that had been enjoyed by people for half a century, Councillor van Rensburg, began canvassing for what was left of Melville Koppies (the eastern half had been sold to developers in 1945) to be made a nature reserve.

The matter came to a head in 1957 when the City Council posted a notice on the Koppies that it proposed building an old age home there. An outcry had no effect until an appeal was made to the Administrator of the Transvaal.

Deeply concerned, Professor Badenhuizen canvassed nature-oriented bodies and Councillor van Rensburg began a press campaign, to pressure the City Council to have Melville Koppies proclaimed a nature reserve. Professor Badenhuizen obtained the support of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, Wildlife Protection Society, Witwatersrand Bird Club, Geological Society, Tree Society, National Botanic Gardens of South Africa, Botanical Society, Transvaal Horticultural Society, Transvaal Department of Nature Conservation, University of the Witwatersrand, Agriculture Department’s Division of Botany and the Johannesburg Publicity Association. Councillor van Rensburg was strongly backed by of all the local media. Part of the campaign was the earliest description of the flora of Melville Koppies by Professor Badenhuizen and Dr. Mogg in January 1958 in the Tree Society’s journal, “Trees in Southern Africa”. That month Professor Badenhuizen and Councillor van Rensburg led a delegation to meet the Public Amenities Committee. Although the Head of Parks was not in favour owing to the additional expenditure it would entail, the City Council resolved in the following month to apply to the Administrator to have the Koppies proclaimed a Native Flora Reserve in terms of the Native Flora Protection Ordinance of 1940 The Council provided in its 1958/59 Estimates 1000 Pounds for the fencing and 900 Pounds for the supervision required by the Ordinance.. After the prescribed requirements had been met, the reserve was proclaimed in February 1959.

As part of the resolution, possibly influenced by Kirstenbosch, the City Council required a committee to be formed to advise it on the maintenance and use of its nature reserves. There were however important differences between the two arrangements. Kirstenbosch was subsidised by the government, had its own management and the Botanical Society’s role was to raise funds, publicise the Garden and to create an appreciation of the indigenous flora. In this the Society has been outstanding for almost a century. In the case of Melville Koppies the committee was only to have an advisory role. Also, while the Council from time to time allocated funds for specific purposes, the reserve was just one of the Parks Department’s many responsibilities and would have to wait its turn for attention. There was considerable potential for misunderstanding and frustration, but, fortunately, failure was averted by the strong leadership of the executive committee’s first chairmen.

The inaugural meeting of the Johannesburg Council for Natural History was held in the City Hall in August 1959 (unfortunately there are no minutes). The first meeting of the JCNH in September resolved that an executive committee of between 7 and 12 be elected for managing the nature reserve. A committee of 7 was elected with Professor Badenhuizen as its chairman. Two members were Councillors, who provided an invaluable link with the City Council, the ultimate authority and source of funds. Councillor van Rensburg was elected honorary vice-president in appreciation of his efforts to save Melville Koppies.

The JCNH’s objectives for managing the reserve were (a) to preserve it as a witness of what the Witwatersrand looked like before it was built over and (b) to use it for education in conservation. These objectives required the removal of alien plants, maintaining the balance between different elements under conditions where natural controls were inoperative, the control of erosion, the assembling of information on the reserve, the opening up of paths and publicising what the reserve offered. The objectives also required the reserve to be accessible. Both the JCNH Executive Committee and the City Parks Department agreed that because of the harm that might be done by ignorant or irresponsible individuals, access had to be controlled, but control is costly as it needs the time of paid or volunteer staff.

JCNH Period: 1960/1993

1960: A Disappointing Start

1960 was not an easy year for the Executive Committee. Nothing was done to provide the facilities most urgently needed such as, a nature trail, a shelter, water, sanitation and notice boards. The City Council refused a request for a grant of 100 Pounds for committee expenses. The fence around the reserve was inadequate and the only security was a single daytime guard. Several fires had devastated large areas, paths were badly eroded and alien plants had invaded the reserve. Requests that the security guard’s duties be extended to deal with these problems were ignored. The committee was also concerned at the state of the Frans Geldenhuys bequest and the dumping in it from a neighbouring sports ground, but all requests for including the bequest in the reserve were rejected.

In desperation the committee decided to resign en bloc at the forthcoming JCNH AGM and to propose the JCNH go into recess. When it appeared that there might not be a quorum, the AGM was cancelled and instead a meeting was called in October of those who had inaugurated the JCNH

In a heated meeting at which the General and the Assistant General Managers of Parks and Community Services were present, Professor Badenhuizen strongly criticised the City Council for its lack of support. However the meeting asked the executive committee to continue in office while the situation was presented to the City Council. As Professor Badenhuizen was going overseas, Dr. Jackson was elected chairman in his place.

1961/70: Progress

The protest appears to have been effective. In the following months the chairman of the Public Amenities Committee visited the reserve to discuss the facilities required. A member of Parks and Community Services came about the nature trail and controlling the invasion of alien flora. The Council made the committee a grant of 200 Pounds and the Parks Department was given a budget of 4000 Pounds for improvements.

In the meantime the committee was assembling information about the reserve. Wits and the JCE (Johannesburg College for Education) began using the reserve for education and research. A start was made with the eradication plants such as Kikuyu, Arajua and Lantana.

Melville Koppies Guide Books

The period 1962/70 saw the basic facilities put into place. The first Melville Koppies Guidebook containing a description of the flora, a list of birds and a note on the reserve’s geology, was quickly sold out. The following year a second part appeared with descriptions of the pre-rain flora, a tree list, a note on the pre-historic people of Melville Koppies and a geological note in Afrikaans. A third part followed which covered the summer and autumn flora and grasses (later revised as Flora of Melville Koppies Nature Reserve: Part 1, Grasses and Spring Flowers, Part 2, Flowers of the Summer and Autumn Veld). A last part covering the fauna appeared in 1967. All proved very popular. The work done for these guides was the genesis of two works aimed at a wider public, namely, “Wild Flowers of the Witwatersrand” by Annabelle Lucas and Barbara Pike in 1971 and “Origins of the African People of the Johannesburg Area” by Revil Mason in1987.

The Nature Trail

Work started on the first Nature Trail in 1961. It ran south west from the gate in Judith Road to where the present trail enters the bush. Its path through the bush and the ascent of the ridge are still used by the present trail, but then it descended through the gap in the ridge to pass the present water point. It then carried straight on to the now vandalised furnace (the present path to the Bloom Fountain uses a part) before turning down to the gate. It was opened in 1963 after the Parks Department had completed the steps to the top of the ridge. After the Lecture Hut had been built the trail was taken up the other side of the gap back to the top of the ridge and thence to the Lecture Hut. (Much later this deviation was taken out as the up and down paths became very eroded). To get back to the gate visitors had to retrace their steps a short way to a path leading down the ridge (now replaced by steps directly down from the Lecture Hut).

After the chairman had seen several American trails during a visit in 1965 the trail was redesigned, numbered points were added and the first Nature Trail Guide Book was published. This proved so popular that it was revised and enlarged in 1970 and again in 1977 and 1985. The trail itself was improved in 1967 by being sown with Cooch grass to limit erosion and the Parks Department took over mowing it.

Other Developments 1963 was an exciting year. When Professor Mason found an Iron Age furnace and close to and below it a Late Stone and below that a Middle Stone Age campsite, a new dimension was added to the educational value of Melville Koppies. The mayoral opening the Nature Trail and the Lecture Hut signified the special status of the reserve. The Lecture Hut, built by the Parks Department, consisted of a covered area, a small storeroom and 2 toilets. It was very skilfully designed for a consciousness of the surrounding nature reserve pervades every activity there. At the same time a dense grove of poplars along the Westdene Spruit was removed. In preparation for planting indigenous trees in an Arboretum as an example for local gardeners

The next year the Parks Department built a room for the security guards on top of the ridge. (Now replaced by a bench after destruction by vandals), repaired and reinforced the fences and inserted a gate at 11th Avenue, Melville with a path to it.

In 1965, 80 trees were planted in the Arboretum. Although a drought killed many, enough survived to form a beautiful riverine forest. A rustic bridge was built over the stream and a wall costing 900 Pounds was constructed on the east bank to stop the erosion of the bank under the Muldersdrift Road.

Two years later the appearance of the reserve was improved by replacing the farm gate in Judith Road by a wooden gate with a stone wall each side and the quarries on the southern slopes were partially filled in.

The significance of the Iron Age furnaces was recognised publicly by the proclamation in 1968 of the Eastern Section, but not the Western, as a National Monument. As appeals to the mining and steel industries to sponsor proper protection for the Iron Age furnaces had failed, the Parks Department constructed them the following year. The furnaces were also coated with a plastic to prevent deterioration.

The Judith Road gate was made more attractive by the planting of a selection of indigenous trees and a temporary shelter was put up for the comfort of guides and visitors. A National Monument plaque was placed on the stone wall.


Although most of the committee were professional or amateur natural scientists, none had experience of conservation management, which at the time was in its infancy in South Africa. With the basic facilities in place by 1965, the committee turned its attention to actively managing the reserve. From the committee had asked the Parks Department to deal with the invading alien plants, fires and vandalism, but with limited success. Volunteers now took over the removal of alien plants and others patrolled the reserve at weekends. A questionnaire was sent to several ecologists for information on burning grassland. Their responses and the reports on the long series of veld burning trials at Frankenwald were used to formulate a policy “to ensure proper ecological balance, eradication of aliens and mowing and burning to preserve pre-rain flora”.

At the request of the committee, the Parks Department in 1970 laid on a water main with hydrants and put gates in the fences and tracks from them suitable for fire engines. An annual veld burning programme was begun by the Parks Department under the direction of the committee. The Fire Department took over in 1976 after a run-away fire burnt the whole reserve. The programme was discontinued in 1982 when the committee questioned its value.

The Addition of the Western Section In a complete about face in1964, the Parks Department asked the committee for its proposals for adding Frans Geldenhuys’s bequest to the nature reserve. The committee suggested that a Council grant of 2500 Pounds should be spent on a fence, which would be a necessary requirement. The fence was completed early the following yearend the area proclaimed a nature reserve in 1967.

This part of the reserve remained an anxiety for the committee. Although a path was made to the cave under the cliff in which the bones of wild animals were found, the Parks Department did nothing further for it despite frequent appeals by the committee. No security guards were appointed. Alien plants established themselves in increasing numbers. Vagrants camped in the bush, chopped down trees, made fires and brought in large amounts of litter.

A Narrow Escape 1965 ended on an anxious note as it had been learnt that Melville Koppies was being considered as a site for the proposed Rand Afrikaans University. The committee decided not to publicise this at the time, but prepared memoranda arguing against and laid plans to raise an outcry against such a step. In the end a different site was chosen


The effort and funding put into developing Melville Koppies can only be justified if its potential for formal and informal education is realised. The committee well understood that this would only happen if the public, and particularly educators, were kept informed of what the Koppies offered and when and how it could be visited. The first major opportunity was the mayor’s opening of the Lecture Hut and the Nature trail in 1963 attended by 200 guests. Schools were an important target and shortly afterwards a full day at Melville Koppies for local teachers was organised jointly with the Johannesburg College of Education, followed a little later by a morning for teachers attending a conference for Transvaal High School Teachers. A Natural History Fortnight with talks on aspects of nature at the Wits library and 5 Open Days at Melville Koppies in1965. The committee also sent schools pamphlets and Nature trail Guide Books with offers of illustrated talks on nature subjects, but the results were disappointing, probably because of schools’ heavy programmes.

Publicity directed at the general public consisted of frequent articles and letters to the press, talks on radio and articles in various journals such as “Veld and Flora”, “Trees in South Africa” and “Veld Trust”. Notices about open days were put up in libraries. A wide range of societies and other groups were invited for guided tours on other than Open Days.

The accessibility of the reserve remained a problem. There was no difficulty with responsible persons, keys were given to regular visitors and a key was left at Marks Park for occasional visitors, but the difficulty was with the general public. Eventually a compromise was found. An Open Day on 26 September 1964 at which committee members led guided tours, proved a great success with 150 visitors taking part. The following year 5 Open Days were held during the Natural History Fortnight, 20th September to 9th October 1965, attended by 1000 visitors. Rotary 117 supervised the Open Days and the committee and volunteers guided tours. The next year 3 Open Days attracted 1000 visitors and the following year 5 drew 1300. (September 300, March 400).

In 1968, the committee now confident in their ability to handle Open Days and needing to spread visitors over a longer period, decided to hold an Open Day on the 3rd Sunday, 2 - 5pm,every month from September to March. The results were: 1968 1300, 1969 1000, 1970 1200.