Melville Koppies and Johannesburg skyline

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

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

Melville Koppies West

This is public open space. It is open daily but it is advisable to walk only on organised group walks. Socialised dogs are allowed.

Melville Koppies West is the largest part of the nature reserve - 100 hectares.

It was taken under the wing of the newly formed Melville Koppies Management Committee in 1993 when the then Johannesburg City Council created a joint venture arrangement with local residents to look after nature reserves and public open space. It was a time of great uncertainty - the only certainty was change, for the first free elections were to be held in 1994.

West side ridges

Melville Koppies West. The pattern of ridges and valleys is a microcosm of the geology of the Witwatersrand Supergroup. Trees only grow on the north side of the ridges where they are sheltered from frost. The disfiguring building in the background is a police married quarters block - an apartheid era legacy.
Photo: Maria Cabaco

MK West is public open space. It is criss-crossed with paths because it is a convenient shortcut betwen the adjacent suburbs.

It also burns every winter, which means that grassland predominates, and its ecology is very different from that of MK Central.

For many years before 1993 it was used as a dumping ground, and the Management Committee has spent hundreds - perhaps thousands - of hours rehabilitating these areas. In 1993 there were 70 active or abandoned squatter camps. All these have been cleared, and today occasional squatting is controlled with the help of Johannesburg City Parks, SAPS and the Metro Police.

The ecology of Melville Koppies West is determined by the climate, the geology, and the interaction between intensive public use and the efforts of conservationists.

Dense Thatching Grass

When you walk through the dense stands of Blue Thatching Grass it towers over you. After rain or on a dewy morning you have to fight your way through it, and emerge drenched.
Photo: Norman Baines

Most of it is grassland, and at least 25 of the 56 recorded grass species can be readily identified in summer; some are more elusive. The southern extremes are dominated by Blue Thatching Grass (Hyparrhenia tamba). In late summer this grass grows to stands of 3 metres in height, and when it burns is truly terrifying.

The southern slopes were dominated by stands of Australian Black Wattle - a category two invader in South African law. These were felled in 1994, but the follow-up is arduous, and the wattles leave a devastated landscape behind. Not only do they leave a huge seed bank, but the supposedly dead stumps manage to send out runners which sprout new saplings. It has taken years to subdue the regrowth and to control the opportunistic weeds which moved in.

Old Shooting Range

A summer view of the old shooting range conceals the struggle at ground-level. A topsoil is slowly being built - the grass is, after 14 years, beginning to win.
Photo: Norman Baines

Another conservation challenge was the shooting range. This was bulldozed in the mid 1970s to provide a facility for police wives to learn to fire handguns.

The topsoil was stripped, and huge mounds - "berms" - were created. By 1993 it was infested with Black Wattle and Bankrotbos (Stoebe vulgaris) - an indication of degraded veld - in this instance no topsoil at all. Slowly this area is being reclaimed. The indigenous plants are creating topsoil.

A beautiful part of Melville Koppies West is the Kloof. This is where the Westdene Spruit enters the Koppies through pipes routed below the University of Johannesburg sports fields and flows freely through a steep rocky gorge. The gorge is filled with White Stinkwood (Celtis africana) and Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana). It is a place of great quiet and soft colour.

Walking through the Kloof

The Kloof is deeply shaded and quiet. For conservationists it is a problem because the stream receives inflow from storm drains with the attendant flooding and suburban litter. We can't do anything about the attenuation of the stream banks, but we have to clear the debris in the stream bed.
Photo: Maria Cabaco

This part of the Koppies has some history. It was part of the farm owned by Frans Geldenhuys, and in 1933 he bequeathed this part of it to the City of Johannesburg "for recreational purposes". In 1975 the Rand Afrikaans University leased a huge part of the Frans Geldenhuys bequest for playing fields, and, sanctioned by the Supreme Court, overrode the bequest. Now great slopes of bulldozed earth intrude into the nature reserve to the south of the spruit. The slopes are irreclaimable, covered with exotic grasses, bamboo, and shrubs. The lease lasts for 99 years, and is now held by the heirs in title, the University of Johannesburg.

Another landmark on Melville Koppies West is the high quartzite cliff at the north-eastern boundary. The cliff has been used as a practice climb by the Mountain Club.

Rock Breaker Fig

In spring the new leaves of the Ficus Ingens come out in a bold display of red. Here walkers pass below the cliff where the cave is. The tree with the cream flowers is the Wild Pear (Dombeya rotundifolia). Photo: Wendy Carstens

At its foot is a small cave in which Late Stone Age artefacts were found, together with bones of game hunted and killed by the people who used it. Above the cave and along the cliff grows a very old Ficus ingens known sometimes as the Red-leaved fig, the rock-breaker, or in Afrikaans the Rotsbreker

AIC Elders

African Independent Church elders. They can remember back to when they risked police harrassment in the 1970s when they first ventured onto the Koppies.
Photo: Norman Baines

Important users of Melville Koppies West are the African Independent Churches who worship here on Sunday afternoons.

The churches which use the Koppies are Pentecostal, Charismatic, and consist of small groups of worshippers bound to a single inspirational leader. About 30 groups use the Koppies, and there are probably more than 400 worshippers, clad in traditional white, and green or blue robes, on MK West every Sunday afternoon.

Each Church has a numbered circle. A representative of the churches sits on the management Committee, and there is a code of conduct agreeed between the Committee and the Churches.

Walkers in Church Circle

A group of Saturday morning hikers takes a break at a shady church circle.
Photo: Norman Baines

What to expect when you visit...

The monthly hikes take place on one Saturday of each month. Contact for details. The walk leaves promptly at 08:00 and lasts up to 1.5 hours. Socialized dogs on leads are welcome. R40 donation.

This is not a guided walk, so the pace is brisk. The paths are very steep in places.

Melville Koppies West is public open space. It is not advisable to walk alone or in small groups.

Consult the Hike/walk/map page for a map.