Explosive content: on the old gunpowder trail in Modderfontein
Once home to the world’s largest explosives factory, the village is reinventing itself as a quiet place in which to commune with nature
As a child, when the air smelled sulphurous my mother would blame it on the explosions in the dark heart of Modderfontein, ringed by trees and mystery.
Now, I can’t help but think how different things are as I walk along clean and quiet streets on a weekday morning tour with Modderfontein resident Robbie Vermont, who has been involved in the Modderfontein Conservation Society for 27 years.
It’s like taking a trip back through time. There are few cars on its deserted streets, no buses and no minibuses. The only sounds come from the children playing at break-time at the Montessori school, and the hellos Vermont exchanges with those working in the area who know him by sight.
While the AECI factory is still in operation, Vermont tells me, explosives are much safer nowadays than before. That is why the village is open to the public — there are restaurants to eat at, a farmers’ market is held monthly — and the Modderfontein Reserve, a place of lakes, walking trails and restaurants, is open to the public. Far from being a place of smells and darkness, Modderfontein has become a popular place to spend the day.
Taking a tour with Vermont as a point of entry into the history of the village is highly recommended.
I meet him at the AECI Dynamite Company Museum. He immediately takes me to a time when Paul Kruger was president of the South African Republic. Gold had been discovered and there was a need for a dynamite factory. Modderfontein was then at the far reaches of the city, “a day’s ox-wagon drive from Johannesburg”, and a factory and a village to house the workers were built. At the time it was the world’s largest explosives factory and the biggest industrial enterprise in SA.
We pass 33 High Street, a stately 1890s home with echoing wooden floors, high ceilings and a wraparound veranda. Once the assistant factory manager lived there; now it’s a popular and acclaimed restaurant.
We walk on and Vermont points to an ordinary-looking white home with a pitched green roof. This was the general store that kept everything the citizens of the village might have needed — from cigarettes and cloth to fresh produce and, later, petrol. At the back, Vermont says, there was a dentist, and when he wasn’t around, it was used by the barber. The bakery, and later the butchery, was housed in a similar-looking house until the 1950s.
As we walk, Vermont reveals other nuggets of information: that Antwerp Street, which is now under the bridge where the Gautrain passes, was called Mixed Pickles Street because of the different house styles.
We walk on through the streets, flanked by gum and pine trees, planted in the early days to make the village as cool as possible, as they were fast-growing and tall. They also created a shield should a blast occur, as it would be channelled upwards.
We pass other homes — mostly now used as businesses — and Vermont points out the typical architectural features of the houses, with their narrow frontage, a long central corridor front to back with rooms leading off, and corrugated roofs. The high-pitched roofs are a nod to European influence, “so that the snow wouldn’t settle”. In stark contrast are the homes on the opposite side of the road: squat, bungalow-type homes built for factory workers in the 1940s.
Even by the 1950s and 1960s not all the roads were tarred, and pollution from the heavy industry and dust was everywhere. In later decades environmental lobbies took note. The original compound, housing 5,000 workers, was demolished. Vermont, who describes the compound as appalling, first visited it in 1968 when he started working at AECI in the communications department.
In the 1990s Boet Coetzee, the factory manager, started improving life in the village. Though workers were now housed in better facilities in hostels, the company closed them and workers were offered homes in townships such as Tembisa. As third-generation water-based explosives introduced in the 1990s were a lot safer than before, there was no longer a need for a buffer zone and that is when the great land sell-off began.
The tour takes us past other landmarks, such as the official weather station in the Transvaal; an empty building with fine art deco details; the “casino” where the management came to play; the Modderfontein War Memorial; “Harley Street” where the hospital was housed; and a ridge where Robert Baden-Powell had a blockhouse erected.
In the AECI Dynamite Company Museum, a hushed space housed in another old building with creaking floors, I find out more about the origins of the factory and the people who worked there. The information boards are detailed and there are exhibits of this long-ago era: there’s the desk of 1890s manager Franz Hoenig complete with an old-fashioned telephone, stretcher, typewriters, adding machines, and even a replica of an office. The museum is curated by the gentlemanly Lodwick Mahasha.
Weeks before, I had been to the farmers’ market held in the grounds of Franz Hoenig House, a beautiful sprawling home with lush, equally sprawling gardens. The house itself is closed, except for special occasions, such as on World Museum Day on May 18 and Heritage Day, September 24. The grounds are only open on market day. The house is also available for hire.
The market provides another chance to step back in time — on the day I visited we ate food from the stalls while sitting on cushions on the grass listening to the gentle sounds of a group of musicians playing old-time tunes.
A visit to the Modderfontein Reserve, spread over 275ha, is a must for nature lovers, walkers and cyclists. There are a number of trails, suitable for all fitness levels — anything from 3km to 4km, or combine the trails and add on the kilometres.
The walks are easy and take you past a number of dams. There is also a picnic area where you can braai.
The guide available at the reserve entrance is packed with information about the points of interest along the trails, from bird hides to information about the bridges, dams, grasslands and rock types in the area. On another afternoon, we sat in the hide at the Blue Crane Dam and marvelled as birds swooped over the water. After emerging, we saw antelope in the distance and passed a cyclist looping through the trails.
You can also eat in the reserve. I can recommend a meal at Dobbs Cottage, where we had a light lunch of toasted sandwiches, but heartier bistro fare is also available. They are open for breakfast too.
If you eat under the spreading canopy of trees at 33 High Street, I can recommend “bubble bread” or harissa pizza, and their self-styled “notorious” cheesecake. The restaurant is also open at night and serves a variety of dishes — from casual burgers and pasta to Portuguese-inspired cuisine. They are also open for breakfast.
As I leave the village after my loop into the past, the Gautrain thunders past, a flash, and it’s gone. The past and present intermingle — and the future is certainly coming to Modderfontein. Townhouse developments are being built on the edge of the reserve and near the heart of the village. Flamingo Centre is also newly built and opened, replacing a 1950s-type centre.
But for now, take a gentle step back in time.
BOOKINGS AND PRICES
• Book a tour with Robbie Vermont on 011 608 2693 or 082 800 3704.
• 33 High Street: www.33highstreet.com; 011 608 0733 or 072 241 2012
• The Dynamite Company Museum, No 2 Main Street, Modderfontein: 011 608 2747.
• Other places include Moddercrest Coffee Shop in the Moddercrest Office Reserve at the top of High Street, Oakes Coffee Shop on High Street, and the Fireman’s Tavern on Ardeer Road.
Click here for the Modderfontein Conservation Society webpage.
• The Modderfontein Conservation Society also hosts a number of walks and talks in the reserve. Click here.
Modderfontein Reserve: https://www.modderfonteinreserve.co.za
Take a self-guided walk in the reserve. Entry is R30; R10 for pensioners.