Articles - More Stone than Sky: Bouldering in South Africa
Jamie Maddison - Posted on 12 Nov 2011
More Stone than Sky
Bouldering in Rocklands, South Africaby Jamie Maddison
Ripped fingers, broken toes.
Cuts under hand and under foot.
Fresh scars atop the old.
Dirtied clothes now much too big.
Scraggly facial hair, itchy sunburn.
Out of food and out of skin.
Low on strength, full on psyche.
Six days left.
An isolated moment of nothingness whilst the flight is underway, followed soon after by an abrupt, almost surreal, tactile sensation as fingertips clash forcefully against the rough stone. Reality jumps from the periphery back onto the centre stage once again and I’m swinging from the jug that seemed so impossibly distant a half-second beforehand, on the hardest problem I have ever climbed at the best venue I’ve ever visited on the last day of a month-long trip. It’s a lot to take in. Rocking over the lip of the egg-like boulder I’m treated once again to the captivating view that has dominated my horizon for these past few weeks: the deepest blue of an African sky gently punctured by luminescent mountains, a vibrant tangerine in colour, slowly fading in brilliance as the mid-morning haze advances. It is an outstanding sight, but then again this is an outstanding place. This is Rocklands, South Africa, and it could quite possibly be the best bouldering venue in the world.
The reputation of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, more widely known as Rocklands, precedes itself. Seemingly wherever you turn in the vast interwoven labyrinth that is climbing culture and media you run into stories, videos and pictures of this otherworldly destination, home of the most perfect looking lines ever envisioned. My first glimpse of this place of much acclaim was out of the rearside window of a bakkie, a small pick-up truck whose owner had seemingly been intent on running me down in a dusty petrol station an hour previously. He was in actual fact arriving to pick me up, just with a lot of style. And so an hour later here we were chugging resolutely up the winding road over the Pakhuis pass. As the landscape out of the window began to open up in front the true extent of Rocklands, which I’d previously only seen through the diminishing prism of a computer monitor, suddenly slammed into me. Looking at the vast expanse of orange rock, stretching away for mile after mile on either side the car, it was hard to shrug off the distinct impression created that here was an area with more potential for development just within my immediate eyesight than is now left on the entire British Isles as a whole!
The birth of Rocklands bouldering
So given the immense size of this vast stone ocean it’s surprising to learn that the first boulder problems in the area were not opened up until really quite recently. The initial exploration of the region came from the trio Todd Skinner, Scott Milton and the legendary Fred Nicole in 1996, after Todd had spotted the huge potential of Rocklands whilst passing through on a sports climbing mission three years previously. Rumours of an immense golden bouldering heaven soon got around, and the next season saw visits being paid by Nic Sellers and Cory Dawn who opened a number of stunning new venues and put up the now classic lines Creaking Heights and Kingdom in the Sky. 1998 saw the arrival of Klem Loskot on the scene and so began a true explosion in development. Over the following years some of the hardest problems being sent anywhere were climbed at Rocklands, including Thomas Willenberg’s The Vice (Font 8B), and Fred’s Black Eagle and Monkey Wedding, the 2nd and 3rd Font 8Cs in the world. Klem Loskot returned in 2005 intent on exploring the far side of the pass. His work, along with the efforts of several strong American teams, opened up the de Pakhuys, Sassies and 8 Day Rain sectors, arguable today’s most popular zones. Approaching where we stand at present, 2009 was of note for two outstanding lines: Killian Fischhuber’s Airstar and Nalle Hukkataival’s immense Livin’ Large, both audaciously difficult problems.
And so, after this whirling history of great achievements of the recent past, began my own little and quite inconsequential episode in Rocklands. A first day spent at a crag called Tea Garden was a perfect introduction to the true ethos of the bouldering in this part of South Africa. Wandering under the towering, twisted rock-architecture, some bearing inscriptions dating as far back as the early 19th century (although these pale in comparison to the San Rock Art scattered across the pass, the oldest of which dates back nearly 8000 years!), it was an inspiring experience just to follow the chalk lines and look upon what was obviously a massing of top quality problems in very concentrated area indeed.
Jumping on the Font 7B classic Arch Climb was a crash course into the often upside-down nature of climbing found on the rocks of the Cederberg. Starting out with confidence on good holds it was tempting just to gun for the finish in a thoughtless campus-hungry manner, but after your feet have slipped off for the second or third time you’re in end game; pumped into oblivion with no fuel left for the suddenly nasty finishing crux that springs out of nowhere. Indeed, you can forget all about the delicate balance-orientated nature of Fontainebleau or even at home on the grit, here is an area where technique is required, but only when accompanied by a strict framework of intense power and a grim determination to hang for as long as possible. Slabs aren’t really the done thing and big moves are the order of the day. And whilst the rock, a unique type of sandstone (part of the Table Mountain group), was a constant pleasure to climb it could also be terribly rough. Many a coming evening was to be spent muffling little screams in the shower as the hot water worked its way into the plethora of abrasions created throughout the day.
Right: Sarah on Warm-up Crack, perhaps one of the best Font 3 lines ever put up.
Into the wild
The campsite de Pakhuys has to be, in my opinion, the very nucleus of Rocklands. From this centralised locale on the far side of the pass all manner of the area’s more recently developed venues can be explored with ease; from the low but popular Close Plateau, where crowds gather every morn and eve to hop on the insanely classic Girl on Our Mind, through to the behemoth highballs (even by British standards) to be found up in the Fields of Joy sector. Such a concentration of easily accessible, dastardly good lines was a complete lifesaver to myself who, in the early days of the trip, having arrived quite out of season and devoid of personal transport found the campsite to be completely deserted. And so for a good week or so all I could do was poodle around the many different crags within walking distance of camp (of which there are a great many) bouldering with only a loyal farm-dog called Charlie for company. On occasion when the weather got too hot to climb then it was back to the caravan for my secondary objective of whittling an entire hand-made chess side!
But the best memory of this self-enforced period of solitary confinement came from getting up one morning at ridiculous-o’clock to attempt a line called Panic Room before the day’s heat got too stifling. Attempting a seven-metre rising traverse with only one pad and no spotters makes for quite an interesting puzzle; in the end all that I could think of doing was to move a few rocks out of the landing zone and throw the mat down in the vague direction of where I thought the crux may lay. A minute later the air was blue; pumped out of my head and higher up than I’d like to be and over some distinctly unpleasant looking spikes I hadn’t thought were in the fall zone, having gone far past the defunct pad. I pulled over the top in a cacophony of grunts, curses and heavy breathing, breaking the blissful serenity of a location otherwise devoid of human noise, a growing tingling sensation finally alerted me to the fact that the one hand was now minus several of its calluses. Lying on the top, the elation at having done my first ‘hard’ Rocklands problem, the pain from the fresh wounds and the icy sensation of the blood dripping down the hand onto the cool rock below, all surged together. Mixing and growing, the feeling peaked as some cathartic release of joyful abandonment; a single instance of realised achievement in a wild and solitary world.
But that’s not true Rocklands. Ask anybody who has been there and most will tell you instead about the massive social depth of the Orange Crush bouldering scene. When the climbers arrive, most congregate at the one campsite. With so many like-minded people all rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder, tent-to-tent and pad-to-pad, it’s inevitable that large bouldering-orientated friendship groups form. It is probably because of these that development has erupted so exponentially and so extensively across the region in the last few years. The focussed gatherings of dedicated climbers has aided the swift opening of new areas, the working out and sharing of problem beta and also has provided the logistical aid of access to an army of crash-mats to help wild individuals pad out even the worst landings. To a self conscious British person, attuned to the serenity of solitude, this may sound like the seventh circle of hell, but then Rocklands is so massive that at some venues you can follow the crowd but upon getting to the destination set yourself up on your own problem and be completely removed from the radar of everyone else. Rocklands exudes connectivity; it’s a place that inexplicably manages to balance the atmosphere of a friendly cultural gathering whilst at the same time retaining its bearing as an isolated and beautiful wilderness.
Right: An unknown climber on A Question of Balance at The Pass.
My last day bouldering was an encapsulation of these dual qualities. Racing around the rocks with a group of young South Africans we ended up once more back at Close Plateau, the espresso-like climbing fix for the campsite connoisseurs. Having previously been trying a big dyno called You Say Party, I Say Die, a Font 7B+, today was either sending or going home time. The crux of the problem was all in the head; you’d set yourself up each attempt with a bed of mats and hands awaiting your return below, knowing for certain that your legs have enough spring to reach the aloof jug.
And yet every time one of us committed to the jump something would misfire; either the hand wouldn’t latch or a foot would slip or the distance wasn’t quite enough. In the end the only way I could work the problem out was to pretend to turn everything off; to become a mere point of focus, a set of eyes devoid of body, and just go. Latching that last hold was the final seal of approval on already mind-blowing trip.
Right: Marcel Van Zyl tackling one of the hardest 'Font 4s' ever conceived, found in the Fields of Joy sector.
In truth, the Cederberg Wilderness Area remains many different things to many different people. To the local farmer it’s a means of making a living through the district’s excellent conditions for olive, citrus fruit and wine production. To the Capetonian middle class the region is a pleasant weekend’s distraction away from the rapid pulse of city life. To the chronic traveller it’s a lonely paragraph in the middle of a South Africa guidebook. But to Fred Nicole and the first developers, Rocklands was a blank canvas; a means by which to etch out their vision of a brave new playground and to leave recorded in rock an indelible memento of the efforts of their physical selves. Now, standing on the shoulders of giants, it can be seen that Rocklands has become a new international home for all those who profess to love the sport of bouldering, regardless of age or ability. It is, by way of a circular conclusion, one of the most important new climbing destinations on the planet. Long may the development continue!
When to go:
The warmest months in Rocklands are during the summer and autumn seasons from December to May. It gets exceedingly hot with average daily temperatures ranging between 30° (86F) and 40º (104F) with very little rainfall. The cooler months are during the winter and spring seasons from May / June to October making these the most suitable time for climbing.
How to Get There:
Clanwilliam, the closest town to Rocklands, is located 220km’s North East of Cape Town. Public transport in South Africa is pretty limited so it’s advisable to hire a car (details of good rental companies can be found on the main Rocklands website www.rocklandsboulders.com). That being said, getting to Rocklands without personal transport (as I did) can make for quite an interesting and adventurous experience. If you wish to attempt this then your best bet will be to look into the Intercape buses, which travel along the main N7 road and can drop you off just outside of Clanwilliam.
The South African police confirm that the crime in Clanwilliam is extremely low consisting mostly of petty-crime and is almost non-existent within the Cederberg mountain range. However, one should always act with discretion and take every effort to minimise temptation.
www.rocklandsboulders.com is a good first stop for online topos, as is the Cutloose Bouldering Google site. However the best of the lot is the Rocklands Bouldering guidebook by Scott Noy. It isn’t widely available in the UK at the moment but can be bought from the de Pakhuys campsite upon arrival or at the City Rock climbing gym in Cape Town. At around £30 it’s a rather pricey but, in my opinion, invaluable resource in discovering and exploring Rocklands to its fullest extent.
Where to Stay:
I’m being entirely partisan but de Pakhuys is the place to stay! However, make sure to reserve a spot well in advance, as it is a safe assumption that the campsite will be completely booked up throughout the entire climbing season. Other options include self-catering lodges at the Alpha Excelsior Guest Farm, Traveller's Rest and Kleinkliphuis. For further details look on: www.rocklandsboulders.com.