JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS – The Modderfontein Nature Reserve

[ 5 min read ]

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.

modderfontein nature reserve spruit trail
River & rocks | Modderfontein, July 2019

Since my first visit, I’ve been back a few times – it’s my new favourite place in Joburg, and I recommend it if you’re getting a bit overwhelmed by the hoards of late at The Wilds (my other favourite place in Joburg). Not that there’s anything wrong with The Wilds being popular, it’s just if that overflow car park is full I ain’t going in.

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.

modderfontein nature reserve fish eagle dam
Fish Eagle Dam. Make sure you get to the reserve early on a Sunday (at least by 9am, possibly earlier in the summer months) to avoid people, as this area gets a bit busy later on (there are spots to braai and picnic here). Also, do not DO NOT come on a Saturday morning as a Park Run is held in the reserve | Modderfontein, July 2019

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 unidentifiable Yeti feet and takes you mostly along the spruit, which is also partially wooded. Doing this walk will make your soul soar (just don’t ask me what the route markings are supposed to be, is it a bird? Is it an otter? I’m going with Yeti, even though I don’t think he’s endemic to South Africa).

modderfontein nature reserve trail marking
What the hell is this? Let’s call it the Yeti route because I’m really not sure what it’s supposed to be
| Modderfontein, July 2019
modderfontein nature reserve spruit route
Who says Joburg isn’t beautiful? Part of the Yeti route | Modderfontein, July 2019
modderfontein nature reserve aloes
Aloes flowering in winter | Modderfontein, July 2019
modderfontein nature reserve walking trails
The end of the Yeti trail – but not really the end. You’ll pop out of the river/wooded path section here; look ahead and you’ll see a big rock (and no more Yeti markings; the first time I did this walk I got totally lost). Just turn right and follow the semi-tarred road (this will more or less take you back to where you started).

The other walk I’ve done has bird-feet route markings (I’m confident it’s a bird), 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).

modderfontein nature reserve bird hide
View from a bird hide | Modderfontein, July 2019

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.

modderfontein nature reserve explosives bunker
A disused explosives testing bunker | Modderfontein, July 2019
modderfontein nature reserve old explosives bunker
Still life with sacred ibis and explosives bunker | Modderfontein, July 2019
modderfontein nature reserve abandoned explosives bunker
Entrance to the bunker structure | Modderfontein, July 2019

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 weird 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 (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 restaurant as well as 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

13 comments Add yours
  1. Hi Kerryn, I’m dismayed to hear that one of the property developers is in charge of managing the reserve, that can’t be good.

  2. There is a lovely 14km walk my wife and I do every month. It goes around all 4 dams 🙂 We have been enjoying Modderfontein Reserve for over 10 years. And it’s not a yeti footprint – its a frog … pfft.

  3. Unfortunately the reserve is zoned for development (you’ll see fenced off areas off the tar roads) and one of the property developers is now in charge of managing the space. It’s definitely time to protect it

  4. Thanks for your comment Ray. I agree, it’s a hidden gem and I’ll join in the prayers with you (even though I’m not religious, because nearby developments are indeed a threat to this green pocket of heaven).

  5. You should go more often – see Carol’s comment about the proposed new development. Joburg doesn’t need another freaking lifestyle estate, or whatever they plan to do!

  6. Thanks so much for your comment Carol; that’s very concerning. Do you know who the new developer is, and I assume objections have now closed? I did know about the change of management and I’m also perturbed to hear that maintenance standards are dropping (who manages the reserve now?), considering there is a conservation fee…

  7. I.m glad yoou enjoy the Reserve it is a special place, unfortunately the proposed developement has not been stopped only delayed, by the sale of the land to a new developer. The developement plan was published for comment and objections at Sandton in October last year, The other sad thing is the change of management of the Reserve by the new developer. The standard of mainatinence is dropping very quickly, hopefully this will improve as the new team learn what needs to ne done..

  8. A hidden gem indeed. Lovely to walk or mountain bike in. They are developing around it though and I pray they will leave this much needed green reserve alone for the people of Jozi to relax in.

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