Bouldering in the Cederberg Mountains
The rock climbing begins at dawn. It’s usually cooler then so the fingers don’t sweat as much, which would make gripping the hand holds harder. The climbers are a funny bunch, for instead of the usual array of helmets, harnesses and ropes you’d expect to see dangling off their person, these athletic looking men and women seem to opt instead for a single pair of slippers, some gymnast’s chalk and what, to most, looks like a portable mattress bed. This is because they are ‘boulderers’ and we are in one of the most up-and-coming places to go ‘bouldering’ in the world: South Africa’s Cederberg Rocklands.
The mountains and nature reserve located just outside Clanwilliam, around a three-hour drive north of Cape Town, have for a long time been recognized as a place of greatbeauty; an ideal setting for leisurely holiday breaks to view the diverse array of local wild flora and fauna (including the endangered Clanwilliam Cedar, the tree from which the region gains its name), the numerous ancient San rock art paintings, or the many excellent wine farms in the area. Yet, it was only fairly recently that the mountains started to attract an altogether different breed of character; trained and determined athletes with all the musculature of Olympians, arriving from around the country as well as from abroad to pit themselves against the strange looking rock formations that litter this landscape, like derelict monuments from a twilight other-world.
The phenomenon of bouldering is an offshoot from the more commonly known activities of mountain and cliff climbing. The main difference lies in the height; boulderers usually ascend no further than five metres or so off the ground, although people have attempted climbs up to fourteen metres high in a bouldering style. With the ground padded out with the crash mats (which to the unknowing are often mistaken as portable beds or even masseuse tables!) the climber can safely jump back down to the floor if they fail to get a set of moves right, ready for another go. This simple, time-saving and above all social style of rock climbing has allowed an ever-growing number of enthusiasts access to the sport who may otherwise never have done so. How many of us can afford to take the three or more months off work needed to climb a big mountain in the Himalayas, for instance? Bouldering tends to encourage within itself a twofold desire to seek greater and greater difficulties on the rock, as well as to search for the ‘perfect line’; a boulder on which the natural formation of climbing holds force the attemptee to move in a particular and aesthetically pleasing manner. Think of bouldering as a cross between gymnastics and ballet, with the sole aim to reach the ‘finish line’ at the top of the rock – although it doesn’t matter how long you take to get there – and you’ll pretty much have got the picture.
Anybody who has driven over the Pakhuis Pass will be able to tell you why the place is affectionately known as Rocklands. There is just so much rock!
Many visiting European climbers, especially the British, will tell you that there are more boulders on display just visible from the roadside here than are available in the rest of the climbing areas in their home country combined! And yet, surprisingly , it was only relatively recently that the vast amounts of potential at Rocklands began to be developed for the purposes of South African bouldering . It all started in 1993, with an American climber, Todd Skinner, who made a visit to the area to look at the older, more traditional climbing on the large walls and cliff faces on the mountains above Clanwilliam. Bouldering at the time was quite a young new sport; not many people did it as an activity in its own right. But Todd must have been an early enthusiast , for in 1994 whilst on a trip to Hueco Tanks, another world-famous bouldering destination in Texas, USA, he convinced one of the world’s top climbers, the Swiss, Frederic Nicole to accompany him on his next trip back to Rocklands in 1996.
Development has exploded since then. As the word got out an ever growing number of climbers visited the mountains, exploring the different regions, traipsing through the fynbos and inquiring at the local farm houses whether they could boulder on their rocks, much to the blank stares and initial bemusement of the land owners! When a climber gets up a particularly difficult or noteworthy piece of rock, they tend to make a record of it, giving the line a name as well as a grade, to help inform would-be-repeaters how hard that particular ‘problem’ is to climb
..(it is referred to as a problem because of the puzzle-solving nature of working out where exactly to put the hands and feet). The grading system is relatively straightforward, but still takes a bit of getting used to: it is an open-ended numerical structure with Fontainebleau 1A (boulder grading first originated in the forests outside of this town in France, hence the name) being not much more than a scramble, to the currently reigning high point of Font.BC+, which would require many, many years of intensive and phenomenally dedicated training to achieve. Even then, it’s far from guaranteed.
So when Fred Nicole put up in Rocklands the second and third climbs to be given an BC grade in the world (he called them Black Eagle and Monkey Wedding, respectively) climbers knew this was ‘the’ place to visit. More and more regions were explored, especially from a climber called Klem Loskot who opened up many fantastic new problems in all sorts of grade ranges across the entire pass. Today, typing ‘Rocklands’ into a search engine will churn up thousands of hits; descriptions of good problems to try,
breathtaking pictures of fantastic looking boulders with people hanging off them, and hour’s worth of absorbing video footage of people’s climbing efforts, often accompanied with some …ehem… interesting personal choices of funky music to go with it! In effect, this quiet and once relatively unbeknownst region of the Western Cape has now become a massive focal point of both national and international sporting interest.
The good thing about climbing is that however fit you feel there’s always a boulder that will offer just the right level of difficulty for you to spend your time trying …”
This intensive flurry of new visitors has helped add to the Cederberg wilderness’ principal income as a tourist destination . It has brought more revenue into Clanwilliam itself, with businesses such as the local coffee shop now offering services geared towards the arriving climbers: things like a cheap laundry wash (they can be a smelly bunch after a week up in the hills!) and even a book exchange.
But the biggest restructuring of the local economy is to be found up in the mountains themselves , with the region’s farmers and land owners , who are not only benefitting from the drastic influx of visitors to the area, but are also helping to channel this sudden unanticipated growth into manageable and sustainable eco tourism practices, so as not to destroy the pristine and special environment in which these boulders occur.
One of the shining examples of such environmentally friendly commerce is to be found at the De Pakhuys farm . What began with the same blank stares as everyone else when asked by the fresh-faced youths if they could go bouldering on their land, has turned into an innovative business model, centred on a core philosophy of mutual understanding and shared access with the many passionate climbers who visit here.
A small fee for a day-long bouldering permit or a night’s camping has allowed De Pakhuys to invest in facilities to accommodate the travellers when they do stay and to look after the special landscape when they are not there. Perhaps as important , places such as De Pakhuys have enabled special spaces to flourish where all climbers can meet, chat and climb with like-minded individuals from across the four corners of the earth.
Such focal points are vital to the expansion of sustainable development of tourism in the Cederberg mountain range, as well as to the continued special cultural growth of a popular international sporting movement that has found a new home here in South Africa.
Finally, you may have got the impression from this article that the sport of bouldering is only for the young and super-trained athletes of the world; not at all! The good thing about climbing is that, however fit you feel, there’s always a boulder that will offer just the right level of difficulty for you to spend your time trying , especially in Rocklands. There are now even facilities available to hire the little equipment you need – shoes, chalk and crash mats -whilst you’re out there, so there’s no need to buy anything beforehand! Here in the mountains the air is crisp, the sky a crystal blue; down on the earth below, a multitude of twisted and special orange shapes jutting out from amidst the greenery of shrubs and the occasional tree. It is a space of serene beauty and quiet contemplation, in which anyone of any age and ability can attempt their hand at an activity they never in a million years thought of trying before.
Rocklands, Cederberg, a place of something new. And of something special.
WHEN TO GO:
The best time to experience the bouldering at Rocklands is from the beginning of May through to the start of September. It is coolest then, so the rocks will not feel as greasy under the hands, which makes the climbing a bit easier!
WHERE TO STAY:
Clanwilliam and its surrounding areas offer a variety of accommodation to suit every visitor. Whilst some prefer to stay in Clanwilliam, choosing between B&Bs, self-catering or hotel accommodation, others prefer to live more remotely, closer to the climbing areas, choosing between camping or self-catering chalets.
Close to the climbing areas are De Pakhuys (www.depakhuys.com), Alfa Excelsior (www.alphaexcelsior.co .za) , Traveller ‘s Rest (www.travellersrest.co.za) and Klein Kliphuis campsite – Joan (027-482 2564) – Visit www.clanwilliam.info for more info on alternatives in the area.
FOR THE REST DAYS:
When you’re too tired to climb there are a number of different places to see and activities to enjoy:
The Hen House offers a selection of excellent coffees, teas and light meals and is a popular hit with the climbers. Other places to visit include a tour of the large Rooibos factory in Clanwilliam , horse riding at Traveller’s Rest or the pleasant waterfall walk from the De Pakhuys farm.
For virtually all of your food shopping needs the big Spar supermarket in Clanwilliam (Mon – Sun: 7am – 7pm) is your best choice, whilst the nearby AgriMart is a good place to stock up on last-minute camping goods before you head up into the mountains. The Olifantshuis and De Kelder restaurants are a great way to escape the restrictions of camping life and have a fancy meal or quiet drink around the fireplace.
Cell phone reception is available until roughly halfway over the pass from Clanwilliam . Most accommodation owners do have a telephone line, however, should you need to use one in an emergency. De Pakhuys now also has wireless internet available on its campsite. Clanwilliam has a number of internet cafes and public telephones should you wish to use them.
Generally climbing equipment such as shoes, chalk and crash pads can be purchased from most major cities, especially if they have their own climbing wall, or online . If, however, you’d prefer to ‘try before you buy’ to determine whether rock climbing really is for you, then it’s probably best to rent your equipment for the first trip. De Pakhuys offers a rental service for most basic climbing items, but if it’s the busy season make sure to inquire about them in advance, as they can get booked up pretty quickly! If you’d like to know more about all aspects of rock climbing in Rocklands, including topographical maps and descriptions of the main bouldering areas, then you should get your hands on a copy of the Rocklands Bouldering guidebook by Scott Noy, whose invaluable compilation of research was a great help in the writing of this article