Surviving a picnic in Johannesburg

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If you’re ever in Johannesburg and looking for a spot for a picnic, you can’t just spread out your red-and-white-checked blanket in any old public park. I don’t know what it’s like overseas, but here in Jozi, and pretty much everywhere in SA, we always think of safety first.

Most of our small public parks are overrun with shady characters. The bigger parks are usually fenced off to try to keep unwanted elements out… but even an eight-foot pallisade with barbed wire doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. For example, we have a large fenced-off, residents-only park in our neighbourhood. But Ninja and I never go in there anymore since we’ve heard of people being mugged at gunpoint in the park while innocently out walking with their dogs and kids.

Some public recreation areas started out well but over time have gained a bad rep. Emmerentia Dam in Johannesburg is a great example of this. People still use the park frequently, as it’s popular for picnics, dog walking, rowing and feeding the flocks of Egyptian geese. But there have been a few ‘incidents’ over the years, so now the whole point of going to the park in the first place – to relax and forget about the cares of life for a while – is tainted with the need to be alert and aware and suspicious all the time.

It’s almost like we Jo’burgers have a mental checklist for surviving picnics and public outings:

  1. Don’t bring any valuables. Or, if you have to bring valuables, keep them hidden.
  2. Park your car in the safest spot you can, preferably keeping it in sight the whole time, or going back periodically to check that a) it’s still there and b) it hasn’t been broken into.
  3. Take note of everyone around you. Be alert all the time.
  4. Only picnic during daylight hours, in an open spot where you’re clearly visible.
  5. Don’t interact with strangers. If anyone approaches, fob them off as soon as possible. Rudeness is better than gullibility.
  6. If you’re going to be distracted focusing on little kids or photographing the scenery, make sure one of your companions is on sentry duty.
  7. You will, of course, have companions with you. Never, never, never go to picnic places alone. Especially if you’re a woman.

I’m not exaggerating.

But on the upside, I do know of one safe spot left for picnics in Jozi: the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. I’ve mentioned them briefly in a previous post. The gardens are vast and beautiful and well maintained and safe. You have to pay a nominal entrance fee, but I think that’s what’s saved them from deteriorating like so many other spots.

Once you’re past the ticket booth, it feels like you can relax a little at last. You’ll see the better side of Jozi stretched out before you on the rolling green lawns: families of every colour and creed; people of every shape and size. You’ll hear happy children playing and laughing adults unwinding together under the beautiful shade trees. The park enforces very strict rules about noise and littering, so you’ll find your fellow picnickers are generally pleasant and well behaved.

Most visitors bring their own picnics, but there’s also a restaurant with a kiddies’ playground. On certain days there guided walks, music shows and free yoga classes. At certain times of the year the resident black eagles attract a lot of attention at their nest near the waterfall.

The gardens are a popular place for romantic celebrations, too; we know several guys who picked that spot to propose to their girlfriends, and Ninja and I celebrated our one-year dating anniversary there too. There’s something special about this natural haven in the middle of our city. A little bit of escapism; a chance to do nothing more pressing than admire God’s creation and stare up at the sky.

Ninja and I recently picnicked there to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Here are a few photos I took on the day:

The botanical gardens on a sunny summer's day

The botanical gardens on a sunny summer’s day

The messy nest of the black eagles

The messy nest of the black eagles

A stunning male white-bellied sunbird

A stunning male white-bellied sunbird

A locust in the 'Big Bug Expo' in the gardens

A locust in the ‘Big Bug Expo’ in the gardens

All the big bugs are cleverly crafted from recycled scrap metal

All the big bugs are cleverly crafted from recycled scrap metal

Monster mozzie!

Monster mozzie!

Scrap-metal spider

Scorpion against a classic South African backdrop

Scorpion against a classic South African backdrop

A twisted tree branch

A twisted tree branch

A path to one of the hiking trails

A path to one of the hiking trails

Phew! We survived another picnic in Johannesburg. Fancy that 😛

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