Go Climb in South Africa, But Leave a Goddamn Tip
South Africa. A country of luxury safari resorts and Apartheid. Of good wine and water shortages. Of huge wealth disparity and Nobel Prize winners. And rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Rocklands is a dream destination of boulderers, pebble wrestlers, dirtbags… people who climb small and not-so-small boulders with no gear except for chalk, shoes and hopefully a crash pad or six. Situated in the arid, mountainous landscape of the Cederberg Wilderness in South Africa’s Western Cape, the Rocklands are exactly that: a sea of sandstone boulders of every size and shape imaginable.
The Grampians, formerly our local climbing oasis, continues to shrink as Parks Victoria bans access to more and more climbing areas. Climbers were accused of misusing the park in ways which threatened Indigenous sacred sites and furthered environmental degradation. It seemed the perfect moment to pursue our passion overseas.
From Cape Town we sped past kilometres of dense blocks of ramshackle huts, little more than brightly painted pieces of corrugated iron held together with wire and hope. Before long, wide open farmland gave way to mountains encrusted with towering rock formations and the knot in my stomach was momentarily forgotten. From the car window, boulder fields extended as far as the eye could see. Rocks seemed to tumble past in every direction, streaks of amber intertwined with orange and black.
Relatively isolated by its ring of mountains, the Cederberg feels like a different world. Mostly occupied by climbers, it’s a place where one’s daily dose of happiness can be measured in physical exertion, chalk streaked clothes, and bloody fingertips.
The Travellers’ Rest is the epicentre of this little haven and any given night you will find dusty climbers eagerly recounting the day’s efforts, as the smells of hearty stew and woodsmoke welcome you into its embrace. You will most likely also receive a warm embrace from Aubrey, the waiter whose smile could be heard from across the room. Remembering names, asking what climbs had been done that day, Aubrey worked seemingly tirelessly all day, every day. Aubrey explained he was in fact from Malawi and had come here because, despite never having a day off to climb himself, the money was better. I couldn’t bring myself to ask how little money that might be.
As I walked amongst the seemingly endless rows of orange trees that filled this region, I wondered if these were the same as those that had earlier been thrust through my car window, proffered by a man in an adidas tracksuit who shouted “3 RAND!”. He barely waited for the bewildered shake of my head before racing to the next window. These roadside vendors weaved their way across the highway, their wares hanging from their backs in mesh sacks piled with oranges, car accessories, or giant tennis balls. Franticly, but with an air of tired repetition they rushed from car window to window, trying to make a sale, trying to beat the lights.
Each morning we would pass people lining the dirt roads with their thumbs held aloft, hoping only to ease their daily work commute, and every time I would guiltily glance at our gear-laden seats, my mind replaying the old warning to never pick up hitchhikers. We continued to drive through towers of precariously stacked boulders, our only worry which we would climb that day.
As we weaved our way through towering avenues of rock, we noticed ancient rock paintings of the Bushmen San people lining walls en route to established climbs. I wondered whether access had been negotiated here, or if we too had come to exploit this country where indigenous people have even less capacity to defend their land than our own.
On our final night we watched the waves of the Atlantic breaking on the pristine sand of Lamberts Bay. Clam shells littered the beach, hinting at the abundance hidden beneath the sea. As the sun set, we were served a seafood buffet freshly cooked on an open braai. Delicacies came forth that caused my fellow Australians to exclaim at how ludicrously cheap the meal was. Our South African friend shrugged,
“Not for us.”
He pointed out that the price was twice as much as the servers might make in a day. I awkwardly shuffled my potatoes around my plate, conscious of the seemingly absurd luxury I possessed that I could travel to a country to pursue something so frivolous as climbing rocks.
I felt that knot of nausea swell in my stomach as everyone stood to leave the table, covered in the husks of crayfish, the dish reserved for tips bare.
Photos by the author