If you don’t live in Victory Park, Craighall Park, Linden or Blairgowrie, the chances are you haven’t heard of the huge “green lung” enclosed by these suburbs: Delta Park. You’d think that 104 hectares of grass, trees, dams and animal life in the middle of South Africa’s biggest city would not go unnoticed.
Delta might not have the rose gardens and water sport appeal of Emmarentia Dam and Botanical gardens; or the big five at the Johannesburg Zoo, the fancy restaurants of Zoo Lake; or the stone-age history of Melville Koppies; or the waterfall at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. But it does have in abundance those commodities that are altogether rare in Johannesburg: space, fresh air and tranquility.
Having lived next to the ‘Delta’ for the last 13 years and recently having started self catering accommodation at Moonflower Cottages I find that it offers just the right kind of continuity – in fact, the only important kind of continuity – in the natural cycles that, year by year, remind weary city folk of their ancestral connection to flora and fauna.
In spring, against all expectations after a brown, dry Highveld winter, the trees put on a display to rival the brightest Japanese cherry blossoms. The summer rains turn everything lush and emerald green and overgrown. Autumn brings crisp mornings and a layer of leaves to crunch underfoot. Even winter has its own attractions – the stark silhouettes of branches reflected in icy ponds confirms the beauty of all seasons.
Walking in Delta Park, one is never too far from the city – from certain vantage points, you can look across the valley and see both the old CBD and, away to the north, the new high-rises of Sandton. Yet these concrete-and-glass structures are put into proper perspective, receding into the background while the foreground is dominated by vegetation.
The soundscape is equally comforting: walk a few hundred metres into the park and traffic noises fade into a general quiet broken only by birdsong and the wind blowing in the trees, or the bark of a dog. In 1973 the park was laid out and was clearly fertile ground – it was soon a verdant corner of the city, with rolling lawns and a miniature wetland fed by a series of dams and the Braamfontein Spruit.
The Witwatersrand Bird Club asked the city council to establish a bird sanctuary within the park. Enter Norman Bloom, whose name would subsequently become synonymous with Delta. Bloom and his brothers, Dave and Harry, had proposed building bird baths at various spots in Johannesburg in memory of their late mother, herself an enthusiastic twitcher. This modest project was expanded, and within a few years the Florence Bloom Bird Sanctuary was created.
There are currently over 200 bird species in the sanctuary and surrounds, and they are carefully monitored by well-known avian expert Geoff Lockwood. Not being much of a birder myself, I’m content to recognise the regulars: plovers, shrikes, swallows, ducks and, of course the not-so-humble hadeda.
It may look clumsy waddling around suburban gardens, but at Delta the hadeda is king – and hearing that distinctive call as a flock takes off over your head, you start to understand why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the “Sacred Ibis”. There are numerous owl breeding pairs and, if you’re lucky, you might see a Spotted Eagle or Barn owl sitting implacably on a low tree branch.
Bloom also took charge of restoring the Art-Deco structure that was previously the main building of the Delta Waterworks. What was initially planned as a museum is now the Delta Environmental Centre, where pretty much any day of the week you can find a group of schoolchildren learning about the water cycle, southern Africa’s various ecosystems, or the root system of a fig tree.
According to Executive Officer of the centre, Di Beeton, about 20,000 people move through the centre each year – so perhaps Delta’s not such a secret after all. The task of looking after Delta falls to City Parks, and there are numerous challenges, from trying to keep alien vegetation at bay (such as black wattle and the rampant poplars, which were introduced during the Second World War to produce wood for matches) or removing water hyacinth from the dams.
There are also, of course, human invaders. A few years ago, a property developer proposed turning Delta into an enclosed housing estate; fortunately, this was quashed after a popular outcry and a formal petition.
Beeton points out that such a development would make Delta exclusive rather than inclusive – after all, like other city parks, it is supposed to be accessible to everyone.
This accessibility does, of course, bring disadvantages: as in all public spaces in Johannesburg, safety is a concern. Certainly, I wouldn’t go orienteering in Delta late at night, as I did twenty years ago. But regular “sweeps” by the SAPS, City Parks and Jo’burg Metro Police, combined with the efforts of CAP our local community policing and a private security company, have drastically reduced criminal activity.
So bring the kids, bring the dogs, bring the bikes – but just don’t tell too many people about Delta. The locals like to keep it hush-hush.