Too long it has again been from the last post. Too long it has also been from our South Africa trip to get something written. Our trips focus was not on climbing, but we still managed visit few places for that too. The experiences were quite mixed, but mostly fun.
Blyde river canyon
Our first stop after the ten days at Kruger National Park was at Blyde River Canyon. We stayed at the similarily named camping site, which might be a bit of an understatement as they did have dozens of quite luxurious looking huts or apartments also. The views from the establishment were one of the best you can find in the whole canyon. Even the views to the Three Rondawels were much better from the campsites view point than from the “official” Three Rondawels viewpoint.
Enough about the boring views 🙂 The climbing around here is all actually situated within the complex and is completely trad climbing. Before hand search from the topo had revealed that there should be couple of single pitch climbs and few multipitch climbs within our skill and focus range. In total there are currently 11 different crags to choose from. If you comfortably climb 6a-6b trad routes, you should have plenty of climbing available in any of the crags. For us that was not the case and there were basically just two crags that had easy enough routes in all of their pitches.
On the day we arrived there we took decided to take a little walk to one of the crags and see how it looks like. If it looked good, we could go back and fetch the gear. Sounded quite simple like that, but proved to be something totally different in the end. The instructions said that we should take one of the few walking trails within the complex from the lower lookout point and follow it for some time. That was simple enough at first, especially with the map provided by the resort, though the trail markings were quite worn off. The first hurdle we encountered was the small stream we were supposed to be crossing soon after the start. We found the stream, but it took some walking back and forth to really believe that the initial place was to place to cross the river. Never would had guessed that you were supposed to cross the stream by ankle deep in the cold water on a walking trail in such a place. But we did cross the steam and the trail did continue on the other side. From here we were supposed to walk until the trail starts to head down and some while after that there should be and old trail leading to the crag. We did walk down the path and tried hard to find the path with no luck. In one place there was something path like there, but after some climbing through thorny bushes and branches we kind of figured out that this was not it. We tried to look for the path a little more down, but with no results. Nor did we see anything on the way back and we returned to the car empty handed. It is a shame that the nice looking cliff you could see from the lookout point was just within out reach, but still somewhere in unknown. That scrambling was enough for us for that day and we went to do some braai.
The next morning we went to take look at another crag, near the upper lookout point. This time the walk over to the base of the crag was quite straightforward. Only after 10-15 minutes of walking on a good path we found ourselves at the bottom of the crag. Here, though, we encountered another kind of problems. As we looked at the wall and then the topo and then again the wall and few times more at the topo, we kind of figured out where the route could start… perhaps. We considered the wall for sometime, but it was quite clear that it would not be a wise thing to start a 5 pitch climb with quite scetchy idea were the route goes. I’m sure we would have just gotten ourselves off route into something out of our abilities. So, we decided to leave to wall for someone else with better knowledge and skills and headed off to see the sights along the Blyde River Canyon.
There is a PDF topo available for Blydepoort
After Blyde River we spent the night at Graskop, a short drive away. First thing in the next morning we did not do climbing, but we did a swing jump called Big Swing in gorge within the town. If we still had any dust in our eyes, they were all sprinkled off after that. The swing consists of a 68m free fall and after that the ropes will start to catch and you will swing across the gorge back and forth. We did a tandem jump and it sure was worth the big bucks they charge for it.
We did not get our adrenaline dose for the day yet though. After the jump we drove to a town called Sabie. Actually we stopped just outside the town at the bridge across the similarily named river. I’ve read that there should be climbing in all the grades on the walls of the gorge. We parked at the parking area next to the bridge and went to have a look at the crags. The routes were pretty easy to find as there was basically just one path that went down to the river downstream. We spotted some of the routes that could be in our grade range and also met two guys who were just finishing their climbing. We exchanged a few words and headed back to the car to fetch our gear.
Soon we were all geared up at the bottom of the first route we were supposed to climb in South Africa. It was graded 12 in South African scale (about 4a in French scale). It sounded easy enough for the first route. How wrong I could be. As I started up the route, I began to feel that this is a bit tricky for a route of that grade. I plunged on, but at the second bolt I took a rest and tried to figure out where the hell the route goes. I couldn’t understand that this should be something with that low grade. It didn’t take long for me to make the decision to bail out as I could still down climb a little bit on the side. That was not something I had figured out how the climbing here would be.
I was not totally turned back by hardness of the grades, though, and I soon started up another route opposite to this one. This was graded 14 (about 4c/5a) and seemed to have some nice jugs to pull, but on the same it was a bit overhanging. Also the topo said that it is steeper than it looks. Well… it certainly was. I would not call that a easy 5a for any rate. In the end I managed to do all the moves and get to the top, altough I had to hang on the rope near the top to figure out how the last few moves would go. At the top I tied the rope to a tree and around a rock and absailed down. I had had enough climbing here with just the two routes tried. We packed all the things up and headed back to the car.
So, no onsights or even redpoints under my belt after the first real climbing session. I was not very sorry for it, but a bit scared if this is the level of climbing they have in here. I don’t know if it was the different type of rock or what, but that level of climbs I should be able to climb any day. All I could do was to wonder how the rest of the climbing would turn out as we drove towards the Swaziland border and our next destination.
The decision to leave the climbing to only two routes was on time schedule wise a very good move, as when we put our next destination to the navigator, the route was much, much longer than we had thought. It would be well after dark when we would arrive there and that did not include yet the border procedures at the SA-Swazi border. On top of that we had to do a slight detour too on the route, as at some point we came to realize that we are missing the paper that shows that we have a permit to take the car into swaziland. A quick call to the Avis number told that we would definetily need the paper and we could get it from any Avis location. Luckily we had just passed the exit ramp to a nearby airport and they had Avis office there. Then about one hour later we were again on the same spot, but this time with all the needed documents in hand. So, if you ever do cross the borders in South Africa, do check that you have the permit. We thought that the permit would be amongst the other paper we received, but it was not, altough I had many times said that we would need it. Well… things happen and this time we had luck and we eventually reached the next place, though, much later than we had planned.
There is a wiki topo for Sabie Gorge available.
We did not actually do any climbing in Swaziland, although there should be some climbing to do there. Instead we had other activities planned there. We had beforehand booked us a treetop canopy trail in the morning and a caving tour in the evening. These are not exactly climbing, but we had never tried neither of them and they have quite a few related aspects in them.
After some misunderstandings in our reservation and the time, we did get things rolling after an extra breakfast at the canopy tour venue inside the Malolotja Nature Reserve. The time issue might have something to do that we were the only clients there and perhaps the guides did not wish to wake up that early 🙂 I have to admit that, I was a bit dissappointed in this, though, it certainly will provide a lot of exitement for some others. Sliding on the wire across the canyon did not just have the same kick as the 68m free fall did the previous day. Still, we did enjoy the rides. The whole tour including the short jeep ride and walk ins and outs took about two hours or a bit more. Our guide was obviously keen to do this job and provided us a lot of information about the vegetation and surroundings, though the speeches did sound a bit rehearsed. There was also another “helper guide” who took some pictures of us as slided on the wires. At first we were told that we could not hold the camera ourselves during the slides, but I did take some video footage during a couple of slides nonetheless. Apparently the guide saw that this weren’t that demanding for us, as by the book you should hold the slings you hang on with your one hand and be ready to break down the speed with your other hand on the wire.
Overall it was fun to do those slides, but after couple of them it got a little bit of repetitive. If you haven’t done anything similar ever like climbing or other height sports, you will certainly find the experience thrilling, but for others it perhaps is not worth it. There are quite a few of these canopy trails across South Africa and then this one in Swaziland to choose from if you are interested to give it a go.
The evening program, the caving, did not neither start as scheduled, as we had asked for a pickup and they had a little scheduling problems with another event they were running the same day. We thought the the pickup would be great as there should be some food and drinks afterwards and driving after a beer or two is always discouraged.
Eventually our pickup arrived and we got our gear (nice white jumpsuits and helmets with lamps) and shuffled on to the cave parking. From the parking space (on some of their friends property I believe, as we went through locked gates to get there) it was a 45 minute walk uphill to the entrance of the cave. Totally we were about two hours underground. The cave is not developed at all, so there were no signs or markings anywhere. The caving itself was quite a bit more challenging than I had thought, as we had to really crawl and squeeze ourselves through narrow gapes and climb up or down slippery chimneys or boulders. In the end it was fun allright, but on the same it was quite clear that this was not our cup of tea. It didn’t make it any more attractive that we had to stop and pose for a picture every few meters. It was fun for the first few times, but it soon became mostly just annoying. If nothing else we got quite a few pictures of us in white overalls. After the caving we went to a local cuddling place called quite intuitively Cuddle Puddle. It was an outside swimming pool which was sourced with hot water from the near by springs. That I have to admit was fun… float in a hot water and eat pizza and drink beer at the same time 😀
So, if you are at the area and have any interest in caving or want to try it out, by all means try it. Be warned though that it is not a walk in park I thought it might be, but you do require some amount of strength, agility and adventurous mind to manage it.
oNgoye Forest Reserve
It took a few days after the canopy tour and caving for us to do any climbing related things, though we did some scuba diving at Sodwana Bay in between. When I had searched for the possible climbing venues on our route, I came across with a little gem called oNgoye Forest Reserve. The place is basically a park where ornitologist go to see birds. I don’t know if there is much anything interesting for anyone else… except for climbers, of course 🙂
First a little warning if anyone is ever going there, that do take a four wheel drive car with you as it will definitely save a lot of stress on the way. The last about 3km is on a very rough (and when I say very rough, I mean VERY rough) road or on concrete strips they have installed there. The concrete strips are nice to drive on, but in places without 4×4 car you would not have wanted to drive off the strips as you might not be able to get back on. We managed to get there with a normal Volkswagen Polo, but I think the drive there was much, much more scary and mind shattering than any climbing there would be. Do your pick, but be warned.
We spent one night there and did some climbing in the evening and in the morning. There is a rangers office close to the crags and we camped there. They only charged us 10R (1€) each per day for that. The ranger who was posted there when we arrived did not speak any English, but only Zulu. With some sign language we managed to say that we would like camp there and our message seemed to hit the mark there. Later that evening there came another ranger, too, there and we were also told that we could use the water from a nearby tank and use the toilet in a structure behind the ranger office. We had prepared our selves with plenty of water, but the toilet was a welcoming surprise.
In the evening we scouted the crags and did some climbing on “oNgoye slabs”. They are more than fifty meter high, but actual climbing is on the highest 30 meters or so. It took some time to figure out where the routes are, but in the end we managed to do two sport climbs there. The rock there had quite a few interesting feature in it with few big holes or horns here and there. In places it was quite featureless, but still with some good holds scattered around. During the last climb we could enjoy ourselves with the gospel music that was played down in the valley at the local church. The place in itself was already quite amazing sight, but with the sun setting behind us and the gospel playing in the background, it made the whole scene surreal with serenity. That had to be one of the best and most memorable climbing session I ever had had. We even ended the day with a pancake party at our camp, so what more can you really demand from life?
The next day before breakfast we headed for a big rock called Baboon Boulder that had few routes on it. You could actually see the rock from the camp perimeters if you looked. It was a nice session there and my wife did her first ever lead climb outside which was great. After the climbs we had a break for breakfast and headed then for the third crag in the area, Barbet Boulder. This crag had the most routes on it, although half of it did not have the bolts, but only top anchors I’m understood. I did three climbs there, one going up a huge slabby flake onto a huge bowl, one with some bushy moves after some tricky moves and one with with big bowl shaped holes on the route. The routes here were much more trickier than the ones on the other crags. The rock and the quite smooth featureless surface reminded of me about some our Finnish crags with next-to-non-existant holds. Again the overall features of the rock were quite amazing. Never before I have climbed into a huge 3-4m wide crater like bowl.
The place is quite tucked away, if I might say, but it is a very amazing place and should be visited for just the sake of itself if not for climbing. There is enough fun climbing for a weekend or two, though the grades might seem a bit low. Don’t be fooled by this as the routes are trickier than you would imagine. The routes we climbed were in scale from sub 4 to mindblowing 5a, but that felt more like 6a to me in parts. In anyway the climbing was fun relaxed and very enjoyable and I would definately go back there again if I would be around there, but with a four-wheel drive car this time 🙂
There is a wiki page for oNgoye forest climbing at Climb ZA.
Right after oNgoye we drove to another climbing venue, Kloof Gorge. Kloof Gorge is a large canyon just north of Durban. We purposefully skipped the Durban itself for other more interesting things. Our guesthouse was situated right at the bank of the gorge and you could look right into it from the yard. We arrived there just at the twilight, though, and had to wait until the next morning to really see the scenery.
There are plenty of crags to climb on, but most of them start from 6a-6b range. We had planned to go on a trad climbing cliff called Boothill. With that on our minds we drove to the parking area for that crags after the breakfast and started the walk in. It was supposed to be just a few minutes to the crag, but after about 10-15 minutes we decided that there must be something wrong. Also the trail was steadily heading away from the cliff more and more. We turned back and this time aimed to the top of the cliff. We soon found it and figured out that the few minutes approach must be to the top of the cliff only. There was supposed to be a trail to the bottom too, but we did not see it perhaps. Now we faced the fact that if we would like to climb here, we would need to abseil down with a natural anchor as there was no bolts or anything like that.What would make the thing more difficult was that we did not know exactly which part of the crag we were. After a couple of minutes of pondering, we decided to head instead to a sports crag nearby.
Soon we were again approaching a crag, this one called Rumdoodle. This time it should take about 20 minutes to the crag on a good path. That timing was spot on, but we again found ourselves stranded on top of the cliff. There was supposed to be a path on both sides of the crag, but again we failed to find neither of them. We were already checking on that which of the top anchors would be the best to abseil down, when out of nowhere came a park ranger who asked if we were looking a way down. We certainly were and he was nice enough to show us the correct spot where the route down would go. I don’t believe that we would have ever found the spot neither from the top or from the bottom by ourselves. The “path” was more kind of a scramle with few almost climbing moves involved and it was quite nicely hidden and tucked away behind some bushes. Anyway we got the the bottom and in no time were under the first routes we would climb.
We only did two routes there and both of them were in a less than two meter wide canyon that separated the tip of the gorge escarpment. Our routes were on the slabby “island” side as the other side was a bit too challenging and a bit too overhanging for us. The climbing was more “juggy” than in oNgoye and the grades I think were more spot on than in Sabie Gorge. Both of the routes were nice, pleasant and relaxed climbing. As one of my friend would say, holiday climbing. It was easy, but fun. We could have tried a couple of more routes there, but we decided to call it a day and instead head for the Drakensberg mountain range so that we wouldn’t have to drive in the dark again.
There is a wiki topo page at @ KZN Mountain Club pages.
Our original plan was to climb to the peaks of Cathedral Peak and Sentinel Peak, but former one was ruined by a bad weather and the latter one of my injured ankle giving some trouble while coming down from the former. The route to Cathedral Peak is not, as one could say, technical, but it would have had a 1600m elevation gain from the car park. We managed to get to the bottom of the actual Cathedral Peak, but the fog that had been lingering around the whole morning prevented us to go any further. We did not know the exact route and trying to find it in that weather would have been just plain stupid. The last 200-300m climb would have been a scramble and no ropes should be needed. The scenery from our high point was quite amazing, though, in the moments the clouds did give some break and we were still happy with the trek. On the way back the weather did naturally get better and we were quite amazed for how ofter you could see peak enroute as on the way up we literally could see about 50m maximum in any direction. The descent on the wobbly surface also took some toll on my ankle, as it was very sore on the way down and during the evening and even in the next morning. This made us to do some alterations in our trekking plans, but we eventually did almost all the hikes we had planned, though it looked kind of bad in some point.
The sore leg of mine did also quickly dissipate the thoughts of climbing the Sentinel Peak too. The “normal route” up there is mostly a scamble, but it did have a short climbing of one pitch in the beginning. We didn’t want to push it and decided to skip it. Instead we did visit the highest point in the area, Mont-Aux-Sources 3282m, at the border of Lesotho. Despite the initial goal were not met, the Drakensberg range is truly an amazing sight, especially the Royal Natal National Park area. You should definately go there if you have the change. There are also a lot of climbing to be done, but the rock quality of the mountain range is quite poor and the climbing then a bit iffy with poor protection everywhere. There is only one bolted route on the whole range which is a route up the sheer North face of the Sentinel Peak. If you are adventurous enough, though, there should be enough routes climb for one’s hearts content.
Eagle Mountain (Mt. Everest)
Before our return to the city, Johannesburg that is, we stopped at Eagle Mountain on the way from Drakensberg. Eagle Mountain (also know with a name Mount Everest) is a three rocky hills on a private game reserve right outside the town of Harrismith. You could spend a day there or even a week or two for just to climb as there are a lot of routes on both the cliff faces and on boulders scattered around the area and if that is not enough there is plenty of room for new routes. At the reserve you can either camp or stay in the huts. We don’t know how much that would cost, but our day visit was 60R (6€) per person, though the guide book was talking something much less than that. I guess the inflation runs here quite steep too.
The three main hills at the area are called Eagle Mountain, Mount Everest and Mooihoek. In addition to those there are at least a dozen boulders which have bolted routes of all grades. We had bought a guidebook (120R) from Bush & Bundu in Pietermaritzburg and from there we had chosen a long single pitch trad route with a grade 12 (around 4a) at Mount Everest. We parked the car to a most closest and most convenient place we saw, gathered our gear and started off towards the route. At the parking place we could not yet really see or figure out the exact location of the route, but we chose to follow the rock and check from the guide where we were heading. It didn’t take long to notice that the vegetation is quite impassable in places and we had to make quite a few detours and turn-arounds on the way. It didn’t make the walk any easier that the lower slopes of the hill were surprisingly steep, much steeper than they looked. Eventually after wandering around a good while through the thorny bushes and scrambling around small cliffs, we arrived at the bottom of the route. It looked like quite pleasant one with huge jugs and a lot of features, almost like limestone cliffs. We then started to sort out the gear and just as we had almost everything in place I noticed one crucial thing missing. The nuttool. I had left it at the car trunk. I tried to figure that if we would need it, but I couldn’t really be sure if my wife or even I could get all the gear off the wall if they would happen get stuck too much. I had quite a few cams with me which I knew we would get out, but the stoppers or nuts I weren’t that sure. After a few minutes I came into conclusion that we’ll head back down to the nearby boulders to do some sport routes again. The little hangover from yesterday evenings beer did help a little also to make that decision. So, it looked like that we had carried all the trad gear for no reason through the whole trip. I weren’t dissappointed though as I was sure I would get plenty of use for those back in Finland.
So we went to down to a boulder called Bonni Boulder where we climbed few easy routes. My wife did the first on-sight on really easy route in her own words. I also soloed a route next to it with similar grade. It was a bit scary eventhough it was quite easy is it was about 10m high and on the beginning there was an ant colony living inside one whole in the rock! Just the few route under the hot scorching sun was enough for this time and called a day and had some lunch.
This weren’t yet the end of our trip (we still had a few more days left), but it was the end of the adrenalin filled action. If I would have to some howe gather the feelings of our climbing in South Africa, I would say it was fun and relaxed. It might have something to do with the grades we climbed, but in the end I think thats what I will like to do on a holiday. It would be a different thing to go on a climbing holiday, but for this trip it was just perfect. If I would give any advice for people going in these areas for climbing I could say that really take some for the approaches. This probably is valid for any location anywhere when you are going to a new crag, but here sometimes we couldn’t even find the cliff though we tried. So take some time. Also the grades seemed to be quite inconsistent, at least on the lower end of the scale. This too might relate to any place anywhere, but just some causion could be use when choosing a route. As always.
You can find some route descriptions from the KZN MCSA site.
For the rest of the summer so far, I have been climbing outside only few times as my time schedule has been hindered with all kinds of other activities and illness. And about the rest of the summer, I will be doing more climbing and at the end of the August I will be going to Chamonix for a mountaineering course. This will be focusing on more technical stuff, which I think might help me get climbing routes above AD in future. I’ll try to put a separate post about later on, I hope.
Then another issue. That my injured ankle. As you might have read on the Drakensberg section that it is still causing some trouble even after 10 months from the accident. In June I had an MRI scans taken from it and got the results back. It turned out that there is some tendon rupture there and also some cartilage damage. I’m not sure how it will be eventually be healed, but good changes are that I’m up for some minor surgery later on. I have scheduled appointment on a specialist on ankle injuries and a surgeon in two weeks and then will know more about it. That I’ve told that it won’t get any worse now and I can use it within the limits of my own feelings.