A Humbling Holiday at Rocklands, South Africa's Sandstone Mecca
Two passionate sport climbers ascend on one of the world's most notorious bouldering areas to camp, climb, and bask in the atmosphere
Rocklands. If you’re into climbing you will likely have heard of this magical place. If not, think of it like this: What Yosemite is for big wall climbing, what Japan is for powder snowboarding, what Las Vegas is for gambling, Rocklands is for bouldering.
Though a passionate sport climber myself, I'll admit I'm not a very talented boulderer, prefering a rope over a crash pad to catch my falls most days. But when I had the chance to live in Cape Town, South Africa last year it was clear that I had to get my hands on some of this legendary sandstone.
Still back home in Germany, as I packed my climbing shoes, I was already picturing myself hanging from tiny crimps, topping out picturesque boulders, and ticking off classic climbs in the guidebook—a vast overestimation of my skill and strength that would soon be corrected.
It’s a common understanding that anytime between October and May is a definite “no” for Rocklands. During this time the area goes into full on desert mode—scorpions and spiders included—and temperatures can get pretty heavy. But if you’re not planning to project “The Finnish Line,” and are willing to get up early and look for lines in the shadows, it can definitely still be worth a shot in December.
Fun is not measured in V's or Font's but on a grading system that you get to define yourself.
Of course, as with everything in the outdoors a bit of luck in regards to the weather is essential too. And scrolling through the weather forecast a few days before this past Christmas, it seemed we would have just that. A couple of mild days were promised to us and the decision was made to spend the holiday in Rocklands.
The climbing community in Cape Town is amazing, so it didn’t take long before my girlfriend and I had organized a guidebook, loaded my little Citi Golf up to the roof with crash pads and camping gear, and were on our way—a 2.5 hour drive on the N7, aka the Cape Namibia Route.
A bit more than a third of the way between Cape Town and Namibia, Rocklands lies in the Cederberg mountains, a beautifully isolated semi-desert area. The closest town is Clanwilliam, where one can stock up on camping supplies or enjoy the last bits of cellphone reception before driving up the De Pakhuys pass, from whereon you will mostly be without a signal.
The first trip was spent falling, taping bloody fingers, and proclaiming, “There’s no footholds!”
The different climbing areas are scattered along this pass and mostly involve a short walk-in from the parking lots. There are a couple of options for accommodation but De Pakhuys Campground—as a poster in their communal kitchen proclaims—is “where the climbers stay”. And so did we.
Humbled by a previous visit to Rocklands our approach to climbing there had changed a bit. We stayed clear of anything harder than 6a and were determined to slowly climb our way up from the bottom of the grade scale and prioritize fun over grades—a strategy I had little choice but to adopt and embrace after my first visit a few weeks before this trip, when I still naively thought gym boulder grades had a somewhat meaningful correlation with outdoor grades. This first trip was mostly spent falling, taping bloody fingers, and proclaiming, “There’s no footholds!”
This time around our ambitions were more modest. And despite Rocklands being most notorious for its hard, stunning lines and videos of the worlds elite climbers demonstrating near superhuman strength, there is actually plenty to do for rookies too.
We spent most of our time in the sectors surrounding de Pakhuys, Roadside, and Kliphuis Camp. The Kliphuis Camp sector even has a boulder that is aptly named “Beginner Boulder.” A great place to start out or warm up depending on your level. The 7a on this “Beginner Boulder” is a subtle hint to the level of climbing that goes down in Rocklands when the world’s strongest and most committed climbers flock to South Africa in high season and continuously redefine the limits of the sport.
While our time in Rocklands showed us again just how unattainable that level is for most, it also confirmed my belief that fun is not measured in “V”s or “Fonts” but on a grading system that you get to define yourself.