Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens: Hiking to the top of Mount Doom

I don’t know if it is particularly normal to have music playing in your head whenever it feels like. It’s almost like a radio playing except not really. This week saw the launch of the first independent space craft that docked with the International Space Station. The Dragon spaceship and the SpaceX Company are the brainchild of Elon Musk who is a local boy who probably spent a few days in the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. Well it was probably called the Witwatersrand Botanical Gardens back then. Anyway, the song that was playing when I entered the gardens on my internal jukebox was Tasmin Archer “Sleeping Satellite” which reached #1 in the UK in 1992. I would say it was rather apt taking into account the achievements of Dragon this week and what it means for the future of space exploration. This song knocked The Shamen “Ebenezer Goode” off the top of the chart and was then knocked off by Boyz II Men “End of the Road.” Both of these songs were genre-defining and are fondly remembered as exceptional gems. But I digress.

So after a rather tequila-fuelled few days, Sunday morning seemed the best time do something that my body would thank me for. The Johannesburg Book & Movie Club held one of their regular hikes at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. The gardens are superb. It covers 300 hectares of natural rocky Highveld grassland vegetation (both natural and landscaped) with the Witpoortjie waterfall being the centre-piece of the gardens. The gardens have this untamed beauty possessing an exuberance that is fighting off the encroaching um, civilisation of the West Rand. This area has been visited since the 1800s for its natural beauty. If you check it out on Google Maps, do take note that all those matchbox looking houses weren’t there before. The gardens would have been seriously epic back then. Although best visited in spring or summer, the gardens are painted in lush autumn tones that exude homeliness. Yes, that is the best way I could find to describe the yellows and browns that are so soft and smile-inducing.

Autumn Trees at Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens

The gardens have 600 indigenous plant species, 220 bird species and several small buck, jackal and a breeding pair of tigers. Okay, there are no tigers but the park is home to a breeding pair of Verreaux’s Eagles. The Tasmin Archer song references eagles flying which is why the song entered my head in the first place. Anyway, after reading the title of this board, I somehow thought it was a recipe for eagle sautéed in a garlic and lemon butter reduction.

Verreaux's Eagles

The hiking trails at the gardens start at the waterfall. These falls are at the source of the Crocodile River which flows into Hartebeespoort Dam in the Magaliesberg. The water you are drinking is probably from these falls. So is the water that cooled the production of nuclear isotopes in your…wait, I can’t tell you what is nuclear in your home. Anyway, this should be a sign to you as you are going to need water on this hike as the routes are pretty awesome.

Witpportijie WaterfallsAnd by awesome, I mean these are pretty challenging especially if you are a beginner. If you are injured, I suggest you don’t try them out. The paths are steep and there are a lot of loose stones. My friend told me about the last hike she came on where she passed this lady covered in enough red sand to build a house with as she presumably fell and rolled. It would have been funny to watch although I would have offered my sympathy to her. I am a bad person. Being pretty unfit, there were a lot of times when I just kept my head down and walked without gazing at the scenery. In some cases, this was okay. At the rear of Roodekrans Ridge, you can view the encroachment of urban dwellings. The houses adjacent to the reserve are luxurious which probably means looking at nature is more important than letting nature be free.

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens Hiking Trail

However, when you do look up, the view is unbelievable and totally worth all that perspiration dripping down your nose. The route we took went up parallel to the waterfall onto the pseudo-plateau at the top of the falls. The view from here is unnerving. It has the characteristics of the African savannah in the catchment of the Zambezi. Instead you wonder how can this much wild beauty exist in metropolitan Jozi? There was a lot of haze during the hike so the view of the Jozi skyline was obscured which added to this illusion somewhere far, far away.

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens view of the river

Along the route are a lot of informative pieces of granite. I wonder if the granite was sourced from the area mentioned on the left of this stone. The story of gold is an intriguing one and one that I shall be learning more about in the next few months…

Witwatersrand Gold

The highlight of the hike is definitely the view from the Roodekrans Ridge overlooking the gardens. Gosh it is a stunning view with Jozi central to the right and the western hemisphere extending towards the Cradle of Humankind on your left. This view is special as it showcases the stretch of the urban sprawl. In front of you mostly lies Fourways which many shun due to it being seriously drab and monotonous. It is built around boomed off suburbs with countless townhouses and several “all-in-one” estates. What struck me was the spread of it all. This is why South Africans MUST own a car. Getting around is impossible without one. Millions don’t have a car and getting around this labyrinth of brick and tree must be a nightmare for the taxis that dutifully transport the nation around. Once you’re done being all awe-struck, you can follow the path for a bit until it splits with the high road leading to a slightly more challenging route. I doubt you will get to Scotland before me if you do take it. The one we took was about 2.5km whereas the other takes you over the next ridge and is about 3.5km long. Even further beyond this are other trails taking you into the heart of the reserve. Couple of the hikers in our group ended up getting lost for five hours on one of these trails on a prior hike! That is why water is important as if you don’t carry any, you will keel over from dehydration and become eagle fodder. True story. One of the bridges across a river has been taken out due to Gandalf fighting with a Balrog so you shall not pass this bridge.

Top of Roodekrans Ridge

Click on the picture for a stunning panorama.

Top of Roodekrans Ridge

When to go:  The garden is open for 08:00 to 18:00 every day with the last entries being allowed at 17:00. It is an AMAZING picnic spot even though you cannot picnic at the waterfall itself. They regularly have concerts at the park so do some web searching and you might find a concert to attend which will be a lot of fun. If you are doing a hike, get there nice and early but as a hiker, you knew this.

How to get there: If you’re driving along Hendrik Potgieter in the direction of the Krugersdorp, turn left into Peter Road and right into Malcolm Road. The garden is at the end of Malcolm Road. This is all signposted quite well. Do not turn when you see a sign to “Little Falls Nature Reserve” especially if you’re meeting your friends at Walter Sisulu. If you’re in a single car, go there instead just for fun.

Cost: The gardens are administered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and entry costs R27 which goes to the upkeep of the gardens. There are concessions for students, pensioners and children. Do check if there is a special event happening as the entrance fee goes up even if you aren’t going for the event.

Anything Else: It is a beautiful place to go for a picnic with the family or for a wonderful hike to keep you fit. There is also a little café on the premises which has a great Sunday morning buffet for you to ease into the day. One thing to remember is that there are no bins in the gardens. The gardens are named after one of the most important historical figures in South Africa, Walter Sisulu. His contribution to the struggle is unparalleled.

Ice Cream Truck

3 thoughts on “Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens: Hiking to the top of Mount Doom

  1. Oh I love this place. It’s such a lovely peaceful place to picnic and the walks and hikes are great. My husband actually proposed at the falls on my birthday. Back then you could go right to the bottom to the pool that the fall cascades into. I think they closed it up after a girl from a school trip drowned there.

    Anyway , great post – this is one of my favourite places in Joburg

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