I've been climbing regularly for around 18 months to 2 years now, so quite late in life (35 last October) I have taken up what is proving to be a very rewarding sport. I have a regular climbing partner, and we manage to climb most Tuesdays after work. We also try to get out to higher and more remote spots once every couple of months, although this is more recent as we have branched into trad. So, I decided that I'd document it a little and let you all in on climbing here in South Africa in case you ever want to make the trip. We have some truly beautiful spots, with climbs ranging across the difficulty spectrum. Whether you prefer bouldering, top-roping, sport or trad there is plenty to choose from and most climbs are less heavily used than those in the US or Europe, meaning that there is less waiting to get on the rock and often you can find yourself blissfully alone.
First off, some of the logistics about climbing in South Africa.
- We use the open-ended Ewbank system to grade climbs, which is also used in Australia and New Zealand. For a good comparison with other systems you may be familiar with, see the Wikipedia entry on climbing grades. As a brief example, what we call a 16 would be a 5.8 in the USA, VS in Britain and a 5c in France.
- Many of the climbing areas are owned and controlled by the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA). If you go to these areas without permission you are trespassing, so please do the right thing and get a permit if you are not a member. At R30 for the day (around USD4) you can't complain, and it pays towards the upkeep of facilities and ensures that areas are not over-run by people on any one day (the number of permits available is quite large, but finite). Getting a permit is as easy as emailing the section for the area and making a bank deposit/transfer.
- South Africa has a crime problem, and in popular climbing areas located close to informal settlements or cities people have been mugged. Don't take large amounts of cash or other valuables. Some of the more popular routes have guards, some places have fallen out of favour. As with the rest of the country, use your head and you should be fine.
- Some routes that are described as traditional do have old pinions from ages ago when there was less control over the rock. Do not use them - the rust and general dodginess should give it away, but I thought I'd mention it none-the-less.
- A good resource for route information is the SA Climbing Info Network (SACIN) website.
In the city of Johannesburg
I live in Johannesburg, which is in the province of Gauteng, and despite being a city of around 10 million people there are places you can climb without leaving the metropol, and all the outdoor climbs below are free to access. I am incredibly lucky in that I work on the slopes of Northcliff Hill, which has some of the best city-climbing here. It takes us at most 5 minutes to get from our desks to parking area, and from there it's about a 3 minute walk to the face. Because it is not on any footpath routes, and because you can't actually see the face from the top (you scramble down to the climbing rock), it is safe from muggings etc. Northcliff has bolts at the top, so no sport climbing here but some of the climbs have sufficient cracks etc for pro making them good to practice trad. None of the climbs are terribly high, being at most around 15 metres, but there are various grades and there is plenty to keep you occupied. And when you're done you can have a beer and watch the sun set over the largest man-made forest in the world.
Strubens Valley is possibly the most popular area to climb in the city, and can get pretty busy on weekends. It is mostly bolted for sport, but we find the climbs too short. It's a great place to start out, for your first few climbs, but typically there is not enough variety for us, and just as you're getting into it you're done. I suppose tastes will vary, but we prefer Northcliff.
The Wilds is one of the classic original areas, but it has a reputation for muggings so we've never been. It is supposed to be good climbing and safe in large groups, but I am not sure we'll bother with it. It's a pity though, because some variety would be good.
We started our climbing at Melville Koppies, which is bolted for sport and has some good if short climbs. Unfortunately, it is also on a high-traffic footpath which has led to it becoming less than savoury.
Finally, for those who prefer indoor climbing, or just want some practice, there is the Wonderwall climbing gym in Kya Sands. I much prefer real rock, but this is a pretty good gym with lots of grades and possibilities for both top-roping and sport.
Further out in Gauteng and its surrounds
If you're heading out of the city to climb, then your most likely destination is somewhere in the Magaliesberg. This mountain range is only 45 minutes from Johannesburg, but climbing areas are just a little further. Most are easily accessible for a day of climbing, heading back home before the sun sets.
The Chosspile is not overly exciting but there are a good number of climbs of various grades, mostly bolted for sport. It is closer to the city than other areas and for this reason can be quite busy. It is also a short walk from the parking area to the face, making it good for a morning's climbing. If you like sport, but don't have a lot of time, this is a good spot.
The rest of the Magaliesberg is far too expansive to list properly here. There are over 1800 multi-pitch trad routes, although there are some sport routes from times of old. The Magaliesberg consists of numerous kloofs (gorges) that supply the climber with a massive amount of choice in an area of great beauty. This is all MCSA owned land, so please do the right thing and get your permit. The Upper Tonquani area is where Vaughn and I are currently experimenting with our new-found skills and gear, learning to lead and follow and the accompanying lessons. Look out for my upcoming articles on two outings to the climbs here, and I plan to report each time we head out there. So far we have climbed Donkerhoek Recess, Beetlejuice and Reunion, and have Hawk's Eye in our sights - the Hawk's Eye is a hole in the rock that you have to crawl through, making for something entirely different. We also want to try other kloofs, here is a list of classic climbs in their respective kloofs in the area. I am particularly keen on Golden Balls in the Cedarberg.
Other areas in South Africa
Further afield there are other areas of brilliant climbing, most of which I have yet to experience. From speaking to others who have, the rock quality differs between different places so (obviously) always do your research to be sure that you have the right gear and won't be freaking out because the rock is not to your liking.
Waterval Boven has the distinction of being world-renowned as a top climbing destination. There are over 400 bolted routes of all grades, and guards are supplied. The rock is excellent, and it is located so that it is shaded from the harsh sun in summer. It is a good all-year climbing area. As a bonus the town also gives access to white-water rafting if you are not getting enough from the rock. A good place to start is Roc 'n Rope who will advise on safety, access and anything else you need (including accommodation). I climbed here many years ago, before really getting into the sport, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Mount Everest is so-named because it is a fairly large outcrop in the middle of the flat Free State province. Reports are that there is excellent climbing to be done there.
The Drakensberg is the premier mountain range in South Africa. It stretches for hundreds of kilometres through (mostly) Kwazulu Natal, and is well known for its numerous hiking trails, beautiful scenery, and stunning holiday spots. The Tugela River has its source at the Mont-aux-sources section of the Amphitheatre, and plunges 947 metres off the top, making it the second highest waterfall in the world. There is a lot of climbing to be done in the Berg, and we definitely plan to do a big multi-pitch sometime in the not-too-distant future. We haven't settled on one yet, and keep changing our minds. One of the main problems with climbing here is that most involve quite a long walk in and out, meaning you need to camp for a couple of nights which is not necessarily family-friendly, if they're not joining in the climbing.
Finally, what would anything on South Africa be if I didn't mention Table Mountain? There is quite a lot to be done here, much of it apparently pretty exposed. To my knowledge nothing is bolted, so this is for the trad climbers only. In terms of views I doubt you get much better, and you can take the cable car back down. One day I will climb this mountain, I feel sure.
Well that's it. It's short, it's massively incomplete, but that sums up my climbing experience too. I hope you enjoyed it, and have some of the feeling of climbing in South Africa. Let me know if you're ever over here, perhaps I can take you somewhere high and rocky.