Otters, jackals, civets . . . in Modderfontein
You can spot Cape Otters, Black-Backed Jackals, civets, fish eagles, goshawks and falcons, in a setting containing hundreds of trees, several dams, a river, even a waterfall, just 20 kilometres east of the Joburg CBD.
It’s the Modderfontein Conservation Park, and consists of 900ha of protected parkland, part of the original 4 200ha estate that made up the quaint village of Modderfontein, the home of explosives manufacture in South Africa.
The village just outside the factory area, set now in rolling green fields, tall trees and an idling stream and dating back to 1894, still largely exists. Some of the old houses have been converted into museums, others rented by companies, and still others rented for residential purposes.
Originally the factory area consisted of a weather station, a machine shop, shops for riggers, electricians, blacksmiths and boilermakers, a Masonic lodge, a power station, an interdenominational church, a grocery store, bakery, butcher, hospital and a salt plant. There were also single men’s and women’s quarters.
The modern Modderfontein village, half a kilometre away alongside a beautiful dam, retains the old traditions of friendliness and good neighbourliness.
The Modderfontein River, which starts in neighbouring Edenvale, runs through the park, stopping at three or four dams, around which many birds make their homes – some 250 species have been spotted in the park.
The Modderfontein Conservation Society, together with the owners of the property, African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI), monitors and maintains the park. The trees, mostly pines and blue gums, were planted 100 years ago, partly because they were quick-growing, but partly also to act as a blast shield, channelling detonations upwards rather than sideways, to minimise the damage caused by any blasts to neighbouring buildings.
Modderfontein was established in 1894, in answer to the urgent need of the gold mining industry for explosives to mine below ground. The industry had ground to a halt when the alluvial gold deposits were exploited. But thanks to Alfred Nobel (the creator of the Nobel prizes) and his discovery of dynamite, the rich gold reef of the Witwatersrand was opened up.
Eduard Lippert was granted several concessions by the Kruger government, one of which was the right to manufacture and sell dynamite. He formed the Zuid Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperkt. At first he imported the dynamite but after protests from the mining industry over his monopoly and high prices, the government took over the production of dynamite, and built the Modderfontein Dynamite Company.
It had to be located far away – a full day’s wagon ride – from the hub of activity and people, for fear of explosions occurring.
Foreigners came in to build and operate the factory, at the same time building their own separate villages around the factory area, named after their countries and towns of origin: Holland, Italy, Hamburg, and Berea, made up of a small contingent of South Africans. Everything, except bricks, cement, timber, wheelbarrows and shovels, had to be imported, mostly from Hamburg in Germany, where the original factory was.
The first buildings had a distinctive Germanic look to them, and some can still be seen in the small suburb of Modderfontein. Like the laboratorium, or the weather office, with its decorative wood finish, in use until the Johannesburg International Airport took over the function in 1948. Built in 1895, it was moved from the factory area to its present location in the village in 1975, and is now used as a storeroom.
In 1896 the mine manager’s house was built, called today the Franz Hoenig Haus - he served as manager for 53 years. It still stands in its classic Victorian style, with green iron roof and wrap-around veranda, the style of many early residential buildings on the site. Later styles are typical 1940s and ‘50s – low-slung, red-brick with white trimmings. The main AECI administration building is in 1930s Art Deco style.
One of these buildings housed the butchery, another the general store, Hammer’s Store, which stocked everything from pins to petrol. The dentist had rooms in the back of the store.
The factory buildings went up on the site at speed, and a year after being established, President Paul Kruger opened the factory in 1896. Buildings were spread out across the top of the koppie, surrounded by a mini forest.
A number of plants went up – the nitric acid plant, two sulphuric acid plants, and two concentration plants for the recovery of the acids. In addition, there was the laboratory, magazines, smithies, carpenters’ shops, pump stations and a cooling plant, according to AP Cartwright in The Dynamite Company.
During the South African War (1899-1902) the factory supplied ammunition to the Boers, and after the British occupation of the city in 1900, a camp was set up at Modderfontein under Lord Baden-Powell, writes Cartwright.
In 1924 the African Explosives and Industries was formed, with Ernest Oppenheimer as chairman. In 1944 the company became known as the African Explosives and Chemical Industries, eventually abbreviated to AECI in 1972.
Besides fertilizers and explosives, AECI also eventually produced insecticides, cyanide, paints and chemicals. A plant in Umbogintwini, on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, was opened in 1909, and another one at Somerset West in 1903. Between the three factories, they could produce 500 000 cases of explosives a year.
Today AECI specialises in producing electronic detonators, specialty chemicals, decorative coatings, with plants in Durban, Cape Town and the US.
In 1895 an electric light plant was installed at Modderfontein, indicates Cartwright. “In adopting this new invention it was ahead of some of the big factories in Europe. The neighbouring farmers and even the sophisticates of Johannesburg drove there at night to see ‘the lights of Modderfontein’.”
The foreigners who came out to work at the factory all had worked in the Nobel factories in Europe, who were, states Cartwright, “on the whole, a remarkably well-behaved, hard-working team who grew to love Modderfontein and South Africa”.
Cartwright suggests that Modderfontein was probably the first industry in South Africa to employ women. Girls from Avigliana in Italy, referred to as “cartridge girls”, because they packed the dynamite into waxed paper, were the first inhabitants in Little Italy in Orange Grove, on the eastern edge of the growing town.
Those girls had another influence. Cartwright says that Modderfontein was a “cheerful place and that the sound of women’s voices raised in song was heard in the danger area while the Italians in the acid plants made the air ring with excerpts from their favourite operas”.
The park is on the north-west edge of the site, fenced and not open to the public, except through the regular hikes held by the Modderfontein Conservation Society. The reason for this is that explosives testing still takes place in the park.
Also to be seen in the park are guinea fowl, grey duiker and leguaans. In a fenced section animals have been introduced: blesbok, springbok, red Hartebeest, black wildebeest and zebra.
This area is used for educational purposes, says Robbie Vermont, membership secretary for the society. The animals have flourished in their enclosure, to the extent they have had to be thinned out.
Dam 3 has a story to tell. John Voelcker was personnel director in Modderfontein in the early 1950s. He had Dam 3 built and alongside it, a hide constructed. He loved observing the birds around the dam, and started a bird book fund, the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, which was the spark for one of the first bird books in the country, the Robert’s Bird Book of South Africa.
As the river runs northwards, on its way to join the Yukskei River, it falls four metres over a rockface, a natural waterfall called Vic’s Falls. Vermont says it’s named after Vic Sharp, a 92-year-old who, at that age, used to walk other hikers off their feet. “At 93 he decided to visit Russia for the first time, and at 94 he visited Egypt. But shortly before the trip he bumped his leg, which became septic, and he died on the Nile.”
But the park has associations with another, more famous man. In the 1880s Randlord Alfred Beit had a hunting lodge built in the area, before Modderfontein was established. He used to bring friends out on leisurely hunting trips, when the area was still largely uninhabited, and wildlife roamed the veld.
But by the 1930s his lodge was derelict and was demolished. All that is left is the gate house, which has been restored, and is the entrance to the Isidleke Conference Centre, where regular training sessions are held, overlooking Dam 3. For the past 20 years a pair of blue cranes have returned to the dam, every year producing offspring.
Every year between 200 and 300 white storks migrate to the area. There are also two pairs of long-crested eagles, two pairs of fish eagles, several steppe buzzards, and several species of smaller falcon and goshawks in the park.
AECI plans to sell off some of the 900ha park land. Plans are on the drawing board to put in place residential, commercial and retail developments, says Leticia Potts, planning manager of Heartland Properties, AECI’s property arm. It’s likely that these developments will cut into the park, intruding on the natural habitat of the wildlife in the park.
The path of the Gautrain is also going to cut its way through the north-western edge of the park.