Trip Report: Rocklands, South Africa

Climbing in Rocklands, South Africa

If you’ve ever flipped through a climbing magazine, you’ve almost certainly seen photos from Rocklands, South Africa. Rocklands isn’t a secret. And yet, there is a lot of information about Rocklands that isn’t readily available. There’s also a decent amount of misinformation out there, so I’m hoping to shine a little more light on this pretty incredible place…

Why Rocklands, South Africa?

Rocklands is every boulderers dream. It’s like Hueco Tanks and Joe’s Valley and Bishop mixed together, all in one place.

There are some places to rope up in Rocklands, but this isn’t a sport-climbing destination, it’s a bouldering mecca that also happens to be home to some plant life that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

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A Lot of Rock + A Lot of Variety = Something for Everyone

Rocklands is incredibly varied in style. It has some of the most aesthetic high balls in the world, and also some upside-down climbing that reminds me a lot of Hueco Tanks. We found crimpy face climbs and scary, amazing slab. Then, around the corner, we found outstanding technical body-tension stuff, and then a stellar dyno problem up the hill.

Quite simply, I have never climbed anywhere that has so much variation packed into one place. Each sector of Rocklands has a slightly different feel, and all of it was top notch. It is a place that rewards you for getting out and exploring.

Before I went to Rocklands, I heard that you had to be extra strong to climb there and that the moves were all really big. This is false.

Yes, lots of the moves are big. But I am 5’1” and I found plenty of fun stuff that suited me. And also, if we always worried about being short, well…we’d always just be short. Plus, everyone thinks they’re short until they are 6’0”. Then those people think they’re fat. So cheers, everyone! Let’s get over ourselves and try hard!

There are cool problems in every sector. It is not uncommon to find an 8a right next to a 6a. So a group of varied abilities can all go out together.

There are lots and lots of classic problems rated 6C and below. But for those of you who are climbing harder, there are lots and lots of classic problems 7C and above.

(Rocklands uses the Fontainebleau grading scale, so a 6C is around V5, and 7C is around V9.)

In fact, it is possible that Rocklands got its reputation for being “hard” because there is a huge concentration of problems in this upper tier of difficulty, so it makes sense that it collects folks who climb at that level, because those guys will have enough to keep them occupied for a very, very long time.

But in my experience, this doesn’t mean that moderate climbers are marginalized. It might just be that you don’t hear about the moderate climbs and the moderate climbers because we don’t make the headline news.

A Note about Grades

if you are going to a foreign country to climb, you might want to leave your grade expectations at home. Try hard, but also be ready to let go, because being disappointed in your number will only ruin your trip, you might have an embarrassing tantrum, and then you’ll miss the fact that the dude you just met is AWESOME, the succulent plant over there by your lunch bag is AWESOME, and the boulder you are going to climb on later is AWESOME! And holy crap! A baboon just jumped from my boulder to the next one!!!

Yep, Baboons!

And they are awesome. If you encounter one, don’t run, because it can trigger a predatory response; don’t smile, because showing teeth is a threat and a challenge; and just go ahead and hand over your bags. It’s kind of like being mugged, but very pleasantly. The baboon will go through your things and be on his way as soon as he steals your food.

Rocklands Access

Prior to the trip, I had read on the internet that this was an issue. So when we arrived, we asked what sectors in the guidebook were closed, and which ones were open. It turned out that there was only one small area called the Tea Garden that was closed. The other areas were all accessible on any day, any time you wanted. You just stop by the office at De Pakuys and get a permit, or see the host at the De Pakuys campground.

Wait, I thought access was supposed to be tricky. What happened?

In June of 2014, after much discussion amongst ranchers, campgrounds, and the conservationists, an agreement was reached to come to a central permit system. It used to be that each sector of climbing had different rules for accessing the boulders. But now you can buy one permit that is good for all the different areas. Easy.

We were asked to show the permit a couple of times at the Kliphuis Campground, a point of access for some of the very best boulders, but everyone was polite and nice about it. Obviously, we wanted to behave ourselves and observe the rules that are explained in the guidebook. None of us want to have to sell our souls to rules and regulations in order to get to climb, so my strong suggestion is to mind your manners so that no one feels the need to address poor behavior and invent rules as a result. Pick up your cigarette butts. Don’t leave toilet paper around for everyone to see. Don’t crush plants with your crash pad—as I mentioned, there are plant forms growing in Rocklands that don’t grow anywhere else in the world. Be nice to the locals who let you climb on their land. This stuff isn’t hard.

The Community at Rocklands

After this trip, I have decided international bouldering trips are perhaps the most exceptional way to do travel. There are some reasons for this related just to the genre of bouldering, and there are some reasons for this related to Rocklands in particular.

Bouldering is a very social sport. Even bouldering in the states, I often leave a climbing area having made some new friends. Bouldering, maybe more than any other sport, gives front row seats to failures and successes up close and personal. We cheer for each other, share crash pads, and borrow each other’s beta. We compare arm length and discuss injuries. Instantly, we all have one thing in common. We love to try hard on boulders. So take all this to a foreign country, and you have the perfect formula for common ground, quick friendships, and connections.

Foreign friends are the best kind. Take all I just said about bouldering as a good medium for finding buddies, and ramp it up a notch or two for Rocklands in particular, because it seemed to me that between 80 and 90 percent of the climbers we met out on the rocks flew from a different country to get there. They need friends just as much as you do, because more pads is always better. And even if you don’t speak the same language, trying the same boulder problem makes language barrier irrelevant.

I’m sure somewhere in the history of Rocklands, there was an elitist snob, or a grade muncher, or a crag hag, but over the course of three weeks, we never encountered such people. Everyone we met was simply psyched to be climbing in Rocklands, and share the experience with the people around them. I was often the weakest climber in the group, but I got encouraged just as much as the strongest guy. I never felt out of place.

Having said that, 98% of the time I was the only woman in the group. Girls, Rocklands needs you! And I think the guys would agree – bros can’t always flirt with bros, you know. In fact, there’s a joke circulating that women are on the endangered species list in Rocklands, along with the Namaqua Rain Frog. I think I was one of 10 women out of 200 men. But again, everyone was so nice, I never felt weird or unwelcome.

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