At the end of the month I’m leaving for a month’s vacation in South Africa with my wife. We are going there mainly for animals and nature, but we have included some scuba diving, trekking and even some occasional climbing in between.
In a month it is impossible to travel around the whole country. It is just so huge. That’s why we will just cover the eastern side of South Africa, the area between Lesotho and Mozambique. Our itinerary will include some animal-watching in Kruger National Park followed by some adventuring with canopy tours and caving before we head to the shores of the Indian Ocean to do some scuba diving. From there we will go to the Drakensberg for some trekking. By then, the month will be almost over and we’ll head back to Johannesburg for a few days before our return back to home. That’s all we really have time in a month. Of course you could really do a whole lot more if you really wanted, but on this trip we decided to focus on fewer things but experience them better.
I have done quite a bit of research to find suitable climbing venues on our route and I think I have figured out a pretty nice combination of sport and trad climbing for us. I also tried to find only the kind of places we both – me and my wife – could enjoy. Not that I would be a real ticking machine (I can do a 6b with a pinch), but I had to choose crags with more than one of 4’s and 5’s which is the grade the missus might enjoy too. Well, enjoy might be a bit of a push here, but at least she should be able do a few routes at any place we visit. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to some relaxed climbing too, with not too much pushing-to-the-limits kind of sweaty work. In total we will have something like 4-5 proper days for climbing but on most of those we will do something else as well. The route we take also dictates that we won’t be climbing at the big venues of Table Mountain or the world famous bouldering mecca Rocklands, they are just too far away. Neither will we visit the Magaliesberg even though it is just an hour or two drive away from Johannesburg.
Where we will be climbing then? Our first South African rock experience will be just after visitin Kruger at Blydepoort. Blydepoort is situated right at the edge of the Blyde River Canyon and one of its landmarks, the Three Rondavels. Climbing there is strictly trad climbing with the exception of the odd few pegs pushed into the rock in the early days. The routes are mostly multi-pitch with only a few single pitch ones here and there. The walk-ins are short as you can drive almost to the top of some of the crags, so the access won’t be a problem. Check out the resources at the bottom of this post for more details on this crag. Initially, I had considering the Manoutsa crags, some 40km north from Blydepoort along the road, but when I got some insight about the approaches there, I chose to go with Blydepoort instead. Manoutsa is somewhat similar to Blydepoort: all trad and multipitch, but the approaches for the easier routes could be two hours of walking uphill in the bush to the base of the crags. After finding this out the place did not sound too appealing anymore.
After Blydepoort and Blyde River Canyon there we might have time for a quick excursion to the Sabie Gorge crag. As the name implies, the crag is situated just outside (or within, depending on your view) the town of Sabie, some 45 kilometers west of Hazyview and 25 km south of Graskop. The crag has developed almost right under the Sabie bridge crossing the Sabie River. The routes are within the gorge and some of them could provide a deep water solo if you are brave enough to expose yourself to the risk of underwater rocks and possibly contaminated water. The climbs are all single pitch and bolted and are mainly on the 5/6 scale. I doubt that we will have time for this detour as there is a lot to see in the Blyde River Canyon and we been thinking about taking a swing at the Big Swing – a 68 meter high rope swing – in Graskop, and about doing a canopy tour in Hazyview. We aren’t sure about the latter, though, as a similar canopy tour is available in Swaziland that we might opt for.
After that it will be some time before we will have a chance to kick our feet on the rock again. We’ll first stay a few day in Swaziland and then head for the coast and Sodwana Bay for some scuba diving. In Swaziland we are going to do a caving trip, though, which relates to climbing a little, but I do not know how serious the stuff is. We’ll see. In any case I think it will be quite exciting as we’ve never done caving before.
After our few days of scuba diving, we will head towards Durban, but on the way we are planning do a stop over at oNgoye Forest Reserve. It is quite popular with bird ethusiasts, but I’ve read that there should be some climbing too. What would be nicer than climbing in a nature park! The place is not something you would call a popular climbing venue, but the idea of climbing there sounds really interesting. Overall there are three crags, or boulders you might say, that have established routes on them. There could be room for even more according to the route guide. The route grades range from sub 3 to 5b in the French scale, but the guide says that the grades are bit deceiving and are harder than they seem. Whether they are just under graded or sneakily tricky is not quite clear. The only problem with this venue is the access. On the official website it says that you will need a 4×4 car to visit the reserve and we will only have a so called “regular” car with us. But the route guide mentions that some kind of concrete slabs have been installed on the road and it should now be accessible with cars without the 4 wheel drive. The official website was last updated in 2009, so this really might be the case. I also received some information from one of the bed&breakfast places we have booked, who were kind enough to ask about the access from their friends about. They told that accessing all the roads within the park would require a 4×4, but that you can access the camp with a vehicle that has “a reasonable” clearance. I will take this as a good sign which encourages us to at least try to go there. Only when we get there we will know for sure. The accommodation should not be an issue, as there is a camping place in the park and it only costs 10R per person plus another 10R for the entry fee to the park.
After oNgoye we will have another climbing opportunity when we go to Kloof, near Durban. My original idea was to go to Monteseel a bit further north, but after googling and asking some questions, it became clear that it isn’t possible to stay at the “old MCSA club house”, situated just a few minutes’ walk away from the crags. Monteseel is a trad only venue and it would have had plenty of nice and easy routes to climb for us. This meant more work for me as I now needed to find another place to stay and possibly another place to climb as well. Things seemed to eventually sort out as we booked a bed&breakfast at the very edge of the Kloof Gorge, which also has plenty of climbing to do. Unfortunately most of the climbing here is sport climbing and worse still, it is way too hard for our skills. If you can climb confidently from 6b and above, you would have a lot to climb there. But despite the fact that most of the routes are beyond our reach, there are a few easier routes to climb too and even one trad climbing crag with some routes for us to try. Considering that we will only spend one night here, there should be plenty of climbing option for us with the odd 10-20 easier routes. In addition, if we are lucky, we might have time for a quick stop at Monteseel too, on our way to Drakensberg.
So, after Kloof our plan is to go to the mountainous area of Drakensberg, the region with the highest peaks in the whole southern Africa. We will be spending a few nights in both Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal national parks. Our idea is not to actually climb there, but to trek instead. We might do some scrambling, though, as getting on top of the Cathedral Peak or Sentinel Peak requires a little bit of that. We might have an opportunity to do a route which requires more climbing and even a rope, but we’ll have to see how it is when we get there. In general it will be mainly trekking in Drakensberg and there should be a lot of that to do there. If you would have the time you could do a one-week traverse trek from Cathedral Peak to Royal Natal or if you were even more enthusiastic you could cross the whole Drakensberg in two weeks. The best option is said to be the first mentioned week-long trek. Sadly, we won’t have time for more than just day treks from the comfort of the camps.
After we have had enough of Drakensberg, there won’t be many days left of our trip. However, on the way back to Johannesburg there is, conveniently, a grand climbing venue on the way – the Everest … or Eagle Mountain as some people call it. Eagle Mountain is situated just outside Harrismith in the Free State. There should be over 200 sport routes, both single and multi pitch, and you should find some trad routes there too. The grades range from easy scrambling to 7c, so everyone should be able to find something suitable. We won’t have too much time to spend there and will only get to scratch the surface. If we would have an additional day to climb there, we could utilize the lodging facilities right under the crag. The whole place is actually situated on the property of the Eagle Mountain Game Lodge and a nominal fee 5R must be paid by day visitors.
I wish we would have more time for everything, but we don’t. After the last climbs at Eagle Mountain, we will drive to Johannesburg and will spend the last few days there taking in the sights around the town. I won’t get into details about that, but our plan is to visit the Cradle of Humankind, Soweto and the Apartheid Museum. And, of course, just enjoy good food and drinks before we fly back to home. That was our itinerary for the trip summarized. I’ll make some more detailed posts either during or after the trip.
Finding the places to climb in South Africa is, if not tricky, at least time-consuming as it takes a bit of work. Especially getting information about the routes is complicated as the real guide books are hard to get a hold of outside South Africa. I’ll list the resources I have used below.
Online route guides:
KwaZulu-Natal MCSA guides is a collection of route guides of most of the venues in KwaZulu-Natal and some from the neighbouring states too. Some of the guides you can find only here, like the oNgoye and Old Baldy. Check also the old KZN MCSA sites guides as there could be some information that has not passed to the new site.
Climb ZA route guides includes venues from all over South Africa. Most of them have similar information to the KZN MCSA route guides, but there are some venues, like Eagle Mountain, that have an online topo only in here.
SACIN route section has information on routes all around South Africa. Not nearly as vast as the two above, but seems to have some unique pieces of information like the cave of Shongweni.
There are several guide books on South African crags. I only looked for the ones on KwaZulu-Natal, but there are books for other areas too like Table Mountain and Rocklands in Cape area.
A Climber’s Guide to KwaZulu-Natal Rock is a comprehensive guide book for the crags in KwaZulu-Natal.
Serpent Spires is a rather interesting hybrid of a route guide and a short-story collection for Drakensbergs. It is compiled of articles from MCSA Journal about Drakensberg climbing and of route descriptions in various areas. You can find most of the routes in KZN Drakensberg route guide, but they lack the many topo pictures and introductions and comments you can find in this book. There is also a leaflet type of a guide published MCSA, but I have not seen it.
More difficult than finding the book titles is finding a place to buy them from. I bought my KZN Rock guide from Mammoth, a Cape Town based outdoor store, though you cannot see the book in their web store. I asked them about the book via email and they had it available. I bought it at the same time as I bought two Drakensberg hiking maps. The maps cost R55 each and the KZN rock guide R239. The shipping to Finland for all three items was R139. I could not place the order online because the rock guide was not available from the web shop, so I paid the order with a credit card that was processed on phone. They were nice enough to call me and we handled the payment like that. As for the other book, Serpent Spire, it was much more simple as it was available at Book Depository and it took only a few clicks before the book was on its way. For the other books for South Africa you could try the Climb ZA shop where they have a few titles available, and they offer international shipping too. You could also try Bush & Bundu, a Pietermaritzburg based outdoor shop, from where you should be able to get many of the books and also some of the MCSA published leaflets like the one for Drakensberg.
If you need a guide for Durban/Kloof/Drakensberg area (or even further) you could contact Peak High which offers guiding for both rock climbing and mountaineering.
I hope that the pieces of information I have gathered will have some value for fellow climbers!