Picture this: A bubbling spruit, cool wooded glens and pristine grasslands: all of which form the backdrop to an area steeped in history. I refer to Melville Koppies, a jewel in the otherwise slightly tarnished crown of Johannesburg.
In 1933, Frans Geldenhuys, a farmer donated 13 hectares to the city. Parts of this land became what is now known as Westdene. The Johannesburg Council later bought more of the farm which now comprises the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, Marks Park Sports Club and West Park Cemetery.
Melville Koppies Ridge formed part of the acquisition. Unfortunately the area deteriorated due to an influx of vagrants, plant theft and quarrying. A group of concerned Johannesburg citizens organised a campaign to revitalise the area. Through these efforts, in particular those of Sporie van Rensburg (then councillor of Melville) the area was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1959.
In 1963, a 500 year old Iron Age furnace was excavated on the koppies by Professor Mason of the University of the Witwatersrand Research Unit. As a result of the dig, the site was named a national monument in 1968. In 2001, it became a national heritage site.
Melville Koppies covers an area of 170 hectares, 67 hectares of which make up the central nature reserve. A key feature of the reserve is the host of ancient rock formations. According to geological experts, the Melville Koppies base consists of ‘greenstone’ which is three billion years old. Apparently, the area is situated on what was once part of the ‘Johannesburg dome’, a massive cap of granite which has weathered away over the millennia.
Rock fundis will appreciate the various other fascinating geological points of interest such as the quartzite ridge which contains gold bearing reefs. Some rocks bear ripple marks-a tribute to the inland lake which once covered the area.
Considering the relatively small size of the reserve, a surprisingly wide variety of fauna and flora inhabit it. African Civet, mongoose, the Lesser Spotted Genet, African Hedgehog, and the Mole Rat are but a few of the mammals which call the reserve home. Bird lovers will delight at the plethora of birds which nest here. Over 200 species have been recorded, some of which are residents, others of which are summer visitors.
Reptiles aplenty live in the reserve too. Don’t let that put you off though as the only dangerous snake present is the Rinkhals. The chances of encountering one or any of the reserve’s slithery residents are slim though. 584 different species of flora have also been catalogued in the Moss Herbarium at Wits, all of which stem (pardon the pun) from the Koppies. Two Red Data plants ie. prone to extinction are also present in the reserve.
As previously mentioned, Professor Mason excavated the Iron Age furnace on Melville Koppies. Various Iron Age and Stone Age artefacts were also discovered at the dig. From this and other evidence, it is clear that the area provided for the Iron Age inhabitants every need. For example, it has been deduced that particular plants were used for eating, medicine, magic, technology, poisons and perfumes. The find has provided a fascinating window into the lives of the people who lived in the area at the time. Modern day homo sapiens can view the furnace on certain days.
Today, Melville Koppies is used for multiple purposes. Students use the reserve for research purposes as do local schools. Specialist groups such as bird enthusiasts and hiking clubs also make use of the area. Tourists, church groups and locals alike also enjoy this beautiful retreat on a regular basis.