Three of artist James Delaney's owls in The Wilds. Picture: Supplied
Three of artist James Delaney's owls in The Wilds. Picture: Supplied

The Wilds was once an open and rocky grassland where Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld, roamed. In 1936, after the donation of the land by Johannesburg Consolidated Investment (JCI), the indigenous forest was planted.

In 2005 Yeoville resident TJ de Klerk and his German shepherd Dixi reclaimed the park for dog-walkers. This sparked a revival that  led to the trail and tree marking. After several years of crime and neglect, in 2014 artist James Delaney began caring for the plants and fixing the infrastructure. He employed a friend, Thulani Nkomo and began an epic clean-up including weeding, pruning, removing 50 truckloads of dead wood and fixing pathways.

As a sculptor, Delaney introduced aluminium animal sculptures to create destinations in the forest and “transform the space in people’s minds and draw people in”, he said.

On Nelson Mandela Day in 2017, he hung 67 little owls high in the canopy of a grove of a Yellowwood tree “to get people to look up”. As more people began to fall in love again with The Wilds, Delaney created more sculptures to mark the highlights of the park.

Two pink and yellow giraffes peer down the central park. Two fat ostriches mark the location of the sundial with its iconic view of the city. Four bush babies hide alongside the royal stone staircase that climbs the hill, and a huge red kudu stands regally at the ponds.

Sunday is park day at The Wilds and attracts people donating plants. There are a variety of activities including dog walks and exercise classes throughout the week. Transformation has also begun on the wilder east side of The Wilds, which has a rock climbers wall and stretches all the way up to Munroe Drive.

“Active citizenship means we always have eyes and ears in the park, taking care of big and small things. There are many ways of getting involved. When you add all the contributions together, then big shifts start to happen,” Delaney said.

The Friends of the Wilds community group now has 2,000 members and their success has had a nationwide impact. Inspired people on the Garden Route, on the border of a nature reserve in the Karoo, on a river area in Morningside and on a bush baby reserve in Fourways have contacted Delaney to ask how to go about activating the community to care for the environment.

Friends of the Wilds have formed a strong collaboration with the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, two neighbours, insurance group Hollard and Roedean School.

Under former headmaster Murray Thomas, Roedean replaced the large stone wall between the park and the school with a clear fence. The stone was donated to The Wilds to build an outdoor event foyer, whilst the scholars now have a stunning outlook into the park’s lush forests with their yellow-woods, wild olives, bush willows, fevers, cycads and clivias.

The park has provided the canvass for individuals to come together and create a community in a win-win collaboration where weeding, planting and fixing infrastructure in the beautiful, happy and healthy space of the park has added to the well-being of the participants.

The Wilds is linked by a gravity fed circular water system where waterfalls, plunge pools, and a stream flow through the forests and collect in a dam. This had not been functional for many years, but was given a major boost when a group of engineering volunteers installed a temporary operation to tap into the underground waters of the Jukskei River flowing underneath the park’s parking lot.

With the Gautrain’s Rosebank/Park Station line crossing through the water table, they are having to divert about 15-million litres of underground water daily. The repurposing of a fraction of this water will attract more environmental benefits to the park such as frogs, fish and water birds.

Gautrain’s Barbara Jensen Vorster pointed out that Gautrain recently assisted the Melrose Birdhaven association with the replanting of trees in Oxford Street. “At the end of the day it is about clever partnerships. The same will happen if and when we can assist at The Wilds.”