Commonly described as a man-made urban forest, Johannesburg has come a long way from its dusty origins as a gold mining town. From any vantage point – the Carlton Centre, Munro Drive or Linksfield Ridge, it is now distinguished by swathes of greenery stretching way into the distance.
As an indication of the city’s wealth of green lungs, there are over 2 300 areas in the environs of Johannesburg supervised by City Parks. Some family favourites are Delta Park in Victory Park, the Emmarentia Dam with its adjoining Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, Melville Koppies Nature Reserve where guided tours are regularly offered, the Zoo Lake, Roodepoort’s Kloofendal Nature Reserve, the James and Ethel Gray Park in Melrose (this one includes a tree-topping, zip sliding facility), The Wilds in Houghton Drive and the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve with six hiking trails in the south.
A little further afield, Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve near Heidelberg is a challenging hiking and cycling space, while the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort is highly rated for its scenery, small game and indigenous plant life.
Stately Pretoria is known as a garden city. The capital’s parks and gardens are often used for summer open-air concerts and picnics. The Pretoria National Botanical Gardens in Brummeria stands out among them. Paved nature trails make for good walking, and the aloe collection is prized. Other Pretoria parks good for walking are the Victorian-style Burgers Park, the terraced gardens of the Union Buildings, the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary, the hilltop Freedom Park with its panoramic views, the Moreletta Spruit nature trail, Fountains Valley and Magnolia Dell.
If its animals that induce a ‘get back to nature’ feeling, both Johannesburg and Pretoria have excellent zoos. The province abounds in animal attractions such as the Lion Park, the Lion and Rhino Nature Reserve, reptile parks and bird sanctuaries. With the opening of the Dinokeng Game Reserve in 2011, free-roaming Big 5 species can now be encountered a few hours’ drive away from the cities.