Two men’s voices get closer, and the bottom half of an AK-47 comes into view. Loosely slung over a shoulder, its banana-shaped magazine is unmistakable.
I step backwards.
I’m reminded of that Friday morning, two years ago, when I was stuck in traffic with a man pointing a 9mm at me.
His finger tightened over the trigger. I closed my eyes, told myself to put my stalled Suzuki into first gear, and slammed my foot on the accelerator.
Yet here I am, standing on a plateau on a Linksfield Ridge hike, my heart thumping as it did two years ago.
The two men are visible now. They’re wearing caps and boots and their camouflage vests are bullet-proof. Sewn-on fabric badges say ‘CORTAC Tactical Officer’.
“You guys nearly gave me a heart attack with that thing,” I say, pointing at the automatic weapon.
We laugh, but my amygdala would light up an MRI scan. I take a few deep breaths because I’m learning to rediscover life, and explore what scares me.
Up here you can see heaven. Or, at the very least, a 360-degree view of Gauteng. It’s also the only place where you can see the Absa Tower, the Carlton Centre, Ponte, the Hillbrow Tower, and the Brixton Tower in an uninterrupted cityscape.
Linksfield Ridge makes up a large section of veld belonging to the Harvey Nature Reserve, which was a gift to the city from a Mr and Mrs S.F. Harvey.
It’s said Mahatma Gandhi used to meditate on the ridge, too. But, according to Johannesburg historian, Kathy Munroe, it was more likely sightings of his son, Ramdas, who may have walked up here in the 1930s, after his father had returned to India.
What is certain, is that Linksfield Ridge was the only Jo’burg suburb to be established by an architect: Hermann Kallenbach.
Kallenbach arrived in Jo’burg in 1896 as an immigrant, and the Lithuanian-born, German-Jewish architect became a property developer, as well as a long-time friend of Gandhi.
In his 2011 book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Joseph Lelyveld, quotes excerpts from correspondence between Gandhi and Kallenbach, suggesting the two men were possibly lovers, although he doesn’t outright say this.
According to Munroe, from 1908, Gandhi lived with Kallenbach for 18 months in a twin rondavel in Orchards, before sharing a tent encampment for seven months on the rugged Mountain View hillside.
The two men left South Africa in 1914: Kallenbach was interned as a German national in England during the First World War, while Gandhi returned to India.
After the war, Kallenbach came back to Johannesburg where he once again worked as an architect and property developer. He then bought a huge expanse of farmland and developed Linksfield Ridge.
I begin my Linksfield Ridge hike at 7:30 on a Sunday morning with my friend, Janine, after an uncharacteristic December drizzle has just let up. There are a few cars parked in Morninghill’s Fouche Terrace, near the start of the path that leads up the koppie, and onto the ridge.
The air is fresh and smells like crushed geraniums; the rocky path is steep, and Janine and I stop every five minutes to just… look.
There’s an abundance of flora to take in: protea trees in full bloom; tiny ultraviolet orchids; bright yellow African potato plant petals; delicate wild dianthus.
A man is behind us, and we let him pass because we’re much slower. Using an arm for support, he rests a plastic, two-litre Coke bottle filled with water on his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” I ask the back of him.
“To pray!” he answers, without turning around and continuing his upwards pilgrimage.
Zionist churchgoers pray amongst the ridge’s trees and the quartzite. On a Sunday their chanting and shouting hurtle downwards, uninvited and unbridled into the suburb below, prompting complaints about “the mountain people” on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group.
As we get closer to the top and the suburb gets smaller, we hear chanting; a group of four people are spread out in the veld a little higher up on a slope. A man shouts his prayers to the sky and a woman in a white shroud throws what looks like seeds over her shoulder.
“The mountain people”.
The top of the koppie, in Pulford Road, used to be an informal parking area and dumping zone, but now there’s a locked gate with a huge no entry sign on it.
An electricity box – covered in red spray paint and the word SCUM – contrasts against the wildly overgrown grass, like a small, high-voltage Rothko.
We take one of the overgrown paths on the left, and the thorned branches of acacia trees give way to a veld plateau. A grouse breaks the silence with a squawk and a flutter.
Among the bush and the birds, there’s a man sitting on a log. He’s facing the northern Sandton skyline and reading a thick book.
“It’s the perfect place to read,” I say to him, as we walk past.
Using his index finger as a bookmark, he looks up at me, and I realise it’s a bible.
“Thank you so much,” he responds with sincerity.
Janine and I look at each other as if to say, ‘Oh, that’s what religion should be!’
We pass rocks with faded green capital letters scrawled on them (RASTA, WELCOME TO OUR GREEN WORLD, WALTER SISULU, BUCS); a ladybird on a blade of grass; cairns made from stacked bricks and stones; the Magaliesburg mountains in the distance.
We also encounter a pair of armed security guards, Cheslin and Donovan, on their morning patrol. They tell us that they patrol the top of the ridge daily, starting in Kallenbach Drive. It’s pretty safe up here, they say, but they can’t guarantee our safety on the ascent we took, as that’s not their jurisdiction.
But I don’t let that deter me; I will continue using the path to get up here. I have this amazing green space, almost on my doorstep, and to not explore it would be a huge pity.
I understand people’s reticence to do the same: on my hikes, I’ve only seen a handful of trail runners and dog-walkers. And, of course, “the mountain people”. But, as the Wilds has shown, the more people that use a public space, the safer it is.
And the view – the view alone cannot be passed up.
We traverse the plateau’s dip and, as we ascend once again, we reach a viewpoint marked by a white, concrete pillar.
A boy in a day-old Christmas hat scampers to his mother, who’s sitting in content silence on a rock, next to the pillar. A clear Jo’burg skyline is in front of us; a visual delight that I will never tire of. It’s so peaceful, and we breathe in the rain-cleared air.
“My app says we’re 1700 metres above sea level!” announces Janine, before we start making our way down.
Halfway in the descent, my phone pings with a message from a friend.
“Your Arch has left us. Died peacefully, as they say. He was your guy!”
I’m devastated. I was lucky to have met Desmond Tutu, many years ago. I asked if I could shake his hand and he refused; instead, he retorted, “Shake your hand? Let me give you a hug!” He pulled me into his purple robes, and I was awestruck.
I remember, in an interview, Tutu wondered whether there was rum and Coke in heaven.
“Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so, as a sundowner,” he mused. “Except, of course, the sun never goes down there. Oh, man, this heaven is going to take some getting used to.”
I stand still and look at the rocks and the trees and swallows, darting like winged acrobats in the sky.
I don’t know about the rum and Coke, but heaven might require Coke bottles filled with water.
And, I believe, it’s found on a ridge, 1700 metres above sea level.
A Linksfield Ridge hike can be started from the Houghton side in Kallenbach Drive, or via an access gate in Beryl Street, Cyrildene, but you need to know a resident who has keys for both options.
For a wonderful write-up about a walk starting in Kallenbach Drive, read my friend Heather’s (aka 2Summers) blog post here.
To understand how high Johannesburg is, look at this fascinating cities above sea-level infographic from the World Economic Forum.
To find the (now very overgrown) path that leads up the koppie from Morninghill (no keys needed), go here.