JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS is a guide for those of us who hate crowds, and who just want to find a quiet spot and be left alone (if you’re looking for a ‘vaaibe’, you won’t find it here). Next to feature is a trail walk (or two) in the Modderfontein Nature Reserve, which is in the east of Joburg.
The first time I went to the Modderfontein Nature Reserve I fell in love with its silence – it was the kind of silence that pressed heavy against my ears; the kind that’s unusual to experience in a city like Johannesburg.
The reserve is also a bit weird – which is probably another reason why I like it. Established in 1988 by chemicals and explosives company AECI, the Modderfontein Nature Reserve was set up to be an example of nature and industry co-existing. Here, a spruit’s gentle gurgling is interrupted when the Gautrain bullets by, walking trails snake through African grassland, and cooling towers billow and steam on a dusty horizon.
The town of Modderfontein was borne out of Joburg’s nascent mining industry, and in 1896 a dynamite factory was officially opened here by Paul Kruger (it was deemed a good location for a dynamite factory in case something was blown up by accident – at the time, it was 12km north east of Johannesburg and in the sticks). The Modderfontein Dynamite Factory became the munitions supplier to the two Boer republics during the Anglo-Boer war, and, under AECI, it was one of the biggest dynamite producers in the world.
Well, that was until the early ’90s at least, when AECI phased out dynamite production due to its safety hazards: a number of people had been killed in accidental blasts at the factory, as this New York Times article from 1978 points out (and, in a non-fatal – but almost as devastating – incident, my partner knew a scientist who worked for AECI and had her eyebrows burnt off).
Interestingly, Johannesburg history expert Kathy Munro grew up at the dynamite factory (she makes no mention of her eyebrow situation though). She writes on The Heritage Portal:
“Strangely I lived at the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory as a child between 1949 and 1957 and my father worked at the factory for decades […]. We lived in a disciplined combination of village and workplace factory. The hooters at the factory signalled dangers, risks, ends of shifts and explosions. At the factory, explosions were rare events but they did happen and like a mine community everyone shared in the loss when someone was killed. One would hear the deep thunderous rolling sound and then that loud cacophony would die away to silence and an ominous sulphurous cloud would mushroom to the sky.”
Despite its industrial links, the reserve is home to the likes of steenbok, reedbuck, duiker, black-backed jackals, Cape clawless otter, four varieties of mongoose (or is that mongeese?), and over 250 bird species. The 275-hectare private park is the second-largest private park in Gauteng and parts of the Modderfontein Spruit pass through it (it smells nothing like the Jukskei); the reserve also has dams, grassland and hills.
The reserve is tranquil and there are a number of marked walking trails that take you along different routes (although on my first trail walk I got horribly lost, but my sense of direction is atrocious so a normal person will probably be fine). I’ve had a couple of issues with Google picking up the reserve too, so check your route beforehand. Once you pay your entrance (conservation fee), park at Parking 1 at Fish Eagle Dam.
I’ve only been to the reserve on Sunday mornings, starting my walks at around 9am. It’s pretty quiet at this time (for summer I’d suggest getting there earlier). Despite the general lack of people at 9am, as well as trail walking solo, I feel perfectly safe here; you’ll run into the odd cyclist and fellow walker, but mostly it’s people-free – this changes abruptly from around 10:30am (when I’ve finished my walks the car park is full). All the trail walks start near Fish Eagle Dam – just follow the signs. I’ve done two different routes and both were just under 4km each.
The first walk I did is marked with frog feet and takes you mostly along the spruit, which is also partially wooded. Doing this walk will make your soul soar.
The other walk I’ve done has bird-feet route markings and it takes you past the Fish Eagle Dam, then along a reed/wetland area that has a few bird hides (expect poop and feathers, as well as plenty of African sacred ibis).
Along this route you’ll also come across abandoned bunkers, which were previously used for explosives testing. They add a Chernobyl vibe to the reserve.
A few years ago Modderfontein was pegged to become an $8-billion “smart city of the future”. I kid you not. The massive development was Chinese funded and was set to take 30 years to complete, but thankfully none of it panned out. And I hope it never pans out, because no doubt the reserve would be incorporated into, God forbid, a “lifestyle estate.” Until then, this introvert will keep walking its trails, exploring its bunkers, and figuring out its (somewhat confusing) route markings.
The main entrance gate to the Modderfontein Nature Reserve can be found on Arden Road, Modderfontein, and it’s open from 6am to 6pm (closed on Mondays); entrance is R30 for adults, R15 for kids and pensioners (this is a conservation fee). After entering through the main gate drive along the dirt road until you see the sign for Fish Eagle Dam; park at the dam as the walking trails start nearby.
If you don’t go to the dam and carry on straight for about 10 minutes you’ll get to Parking 2; here you’ll find a craft brewery called At Hops End. Their coffee is really bad and I haven’t tried their beer, but I’ve had a toasted sandwich here and it was great (breakfast served until 11am). It’s in a really peaceful setting with tables under trees and I definitely want to go back for beer-tasting (not sure if I’ll combine it with the trail walking though…)
No dogs are allowed at the reserve. For more information visit the Modderfontein Nature Reserve website
UPDATE July 2020: The Modderfontein Nature Reserve has become a bit of an introvert hell: it’s been hectically busy during the opening up of nature reserves during lockdown. I advise that you get there very early over weekends (before 7am, or even earlier) to avoid 1km queues of cars (mostly cyclists) at the main entrance. Alternatively, try the late afternoons.
The Fourways Farmers Market has also now moved to the Modderfontein Nature Reserve (yay, more people…) and has a handful of food and coffee stalls operating on weekends (find them at Parking 2, excellent coffee from State 5 though). At Hops End is closed for renovations.
The Modderfontein Nature Reserve is also under new management (Taroko Trail Park; find them on Facebook for latest updates). Tap and pay is offered. Please continue to wear masks and practise social distancing; no picnics/fishing during lockdown.
UPDATE November 2020: I no longer go to the Modderfontein Nature Reserve on weekend mornings due to the hoards. If anyone goes in the afternoons let me know in the comments how it is, crowd-wise? There’s also a new entrance which can be found at Norfolk Lane, Klipfontein 12-Ir, Lethabong.