Most weekends, weather permitting, we walk at Emmarentia. Promenading around Joburg’s Botanical Gardens isn’t exactly training for the Boston Marathon, but it gets in some steps and has become a pleasing ritual for my mother, my sister, and me.
It always starts with excellent coffee from the Smart Perfect Coffee stand in the Thomas Bowler Street carpark, and invariably involves intermittently stopping to talk to unsuspecting hounds (and their owners). As we perambulate and power up on dopamine and vitamin D, we handle our worries, my sister spins a yarn about some gripping documentary she’s watched, I tell a meandering story that has no point or ending — in short, these walks are a balm for body and soul.
We are part of a community that has the inside track on one of the city’s most verdant, unexpected jewels. The ladies who sell shweshwe home and canine accessories ask after our well-being if someone is absent, we greet walkers we recognise, we go down and watch the dogs swimming in the small dam. Joburgers are not blessed with a proliferation of public spaces, but we all have our favourites. There are, for example, the Delta Park die-hards, the James and Ethel Gray gang, and those wild about The Wilds. We are devout Emmarentia evangelists. Sure, it’s not in the same league as, say, New York’s Central Park, with its zoo and 42 million visitors a year. Nor does it boast a 1 000m2 multi-layered kid’s playground like Hong Kong Park, but our 81ha oasis certainly has its selling points.
The trees are glorious (there is even a minute lending library under one) and there is a book shop. From one vantage you have an astounding panorama over the rolling heath, out across the suburbs to the CBD. A couple of hundred metres away there is a view of Emmarentia Dam below and Sandton’s dubious architecture in the far distance. Here, London’s Primrose Hill has some stiff competition in the category of vistas. In winter, the park is a brushstroke of brittle beige grass, but even that has a beauty — broken by the searing reds of aloes and red-hot pokers and offset by sharp blue skies. In December and early January, the rose garden is shot with bolts of powdery colour. There should be more roses cascading down this stepped section of the park, but the blooms that are there bring instant joy.
Usable public parks might not seem a glamorous topic, but they are a little luxury that we should not take for granted
The place is not perfect — most of the water features haven’t worked in years and dog owners don’t seem to think they should pick up poop, but by and large this swathe of land is decently looked after by Joburg City Parks and Zoo. Most importantly, it is used by many Joburgers. In 1886, the year Joburg was established as a city, farmer Louw Geldenhuys bought the land that is now the dam and surrounding property and named it for his new wife, Emmarentia. The tract of former farm was only established as a botanical garden at the height of apartheid in 1969. Those mid-century city fathers would surely be appalled by the cross section of urban dwellers who use Emmarentia to picnic, take wedding pictures, cycle, walk, run, and canoe today.
We are all creeds, colours, shapes, and fitness levels and an antidote to the bad news saturating our newsfeeds. This is an enclave where South Africa works. Usable public parks might not seem a glamorous topic, but they are a little luxury that we should not take for granted. Join me at “ours” and let’s go for a saunter.