- A distant paradise on earth -

Text by Tommy Vänskä


For most boulderers, I suspect, "South Africa" or "Rocklands" is equivalent a distant paradise on earth. The relatively few articles and videos that are available all reinforce this image. Perfect-looking yellow-and-orange sandstone, seemingly constructed by some benign being aeons ago, specifically for the pleasure of a select few bipeds yet to evolve, for whom making their way up small boulders the hardest way possible constitutes a significant portion of their identities. One problem, though: Rocklands is very far away from almost anywhere, including Finland.

The absurd workings of our economic system has come to our rescue, however. For considerably less than 1000 euros I found myself seated on a Cape Town-bound plane on June 1st, 2008. My usual tactics for overseas flights - not sleeping the night before in order to get some sleep on the plane - failed as miserably as always, and at 5 a.m. the next morning I was waiting for my companions Ville Kurru and "Lil' Tony" Rantanen at Cape Town airport with blood sprained eyes. Serious sleep deprivation probably contributed to the thoroughly confused and disoriented state which erupted when we took a turn off the N2 Highway in what we believed to be the right direction. With all the authority of a natural scientist I declared we were going in the opposite direction: we were plainly heading south instead of north, as evidenced by the sun! It took a level headed man with no training in the sciences - Ville - to point out that the sun in fact is in the north at mid day in the southern hemisphere. This, combined with the left-handed traffic and little sleep led to a feeling that nothing was quite right: my snus tobacco was on the wrong side of my mouth, my wallet in the wrong pocket, and had someone wanted to shake my hand I would probably have offered the left one.

This state of general confusion quickly gave way to one of exhilaration as the Cederberg mountains began to show up on the horizon under an unbelievably vast African sky. We had only one thing on our minds: to touch the rock before dark. After passing through Clanwilliam, the nearest town, the road loses its tar surface and climbs upwards into a landscape best described as outlandish. The boulderer's brain simply cannot grasp the amount of rock that passes before the eyes on both sides of the road. It tries, but fails. Rocklands proper, where the development began in the 90's, lies at the highest point called Pakhuys Pass. Beyond, the road drops into the next valley and the full scale of the area becomes apparent: Rock as far as the eye can see. With minds close to short circuiting we tossed our stuff into our home-to-be on de Pakhuys farm and rabidly started to make our way towards our "home area", what was originally known as Alpha Farm. Fortunately we met our host, Thys, on the way, and he graciously gave us a ride to the nearest sector where we got our evening fix. That night I was out for ten hours straight.

So, how does the Cederberg stand up to its reputation and image? With ease. But some myths and misconceptions need to be corrected. Although the amount of rock in the form of boulders and faces is indeed staggering to say the least, only a fraction of it is suitable for bouldering. Most of it is either too soft or too featured, often a combination of the two. The trick is to find pockets of the good stuff, which may be likened to finding a needle in a needle stack. The good stuff is what is seen in the magazines and videos - boulders made for bouldering, bullet-proof rock with holds and shapes that scream out to be touched and fondled. Improbable roofs and overhangs with even more improbable lines going through them. All this set in a magical semi-desert environment, which truly deserves to be called a widerness.

After going through the established areas, like Roadside, the Fortress, and the sectors of de Pakhuys (Alpha farm) during the first few weeks we found ourselves hungry for doing what we do all the time at home, namely exploring and putting up new lines. An evening walk on a rest day sealed our fate for the rest of the trip: an untouched set of valleys at walking distance from our house just beyond the Fields of Joy sector. Here the rock consists mostly of the good stuff, so we spent our time plum-picking, i.e. only bothering with the most exceptional
lines. Sure, we did our share of hiking around, but compared to the normal order at home - studying maps, driving for hours, groveling through swamps and inpenetrable forests in order to maybe find something - finding outstanding lines was almost too easy. Not to mention the fact that the equipment needed to clean them consists of ... a toothbrush! Mostly, brushing and chalking the holds was done because we felt we had to do something! Surely you can't just walk up to an unclimbed line and just do it? (You can.) In the end, we established some 40 new problems at the "Finnish area", none of them bad and most of them of the highest quality. We had a blast.

Consider, for example, a problem which was to be christened "Archibald" by its creator, Ville. Set next to a small rock arch, the line starts deep in a cave on sloping underclings, your body at a right angle to the direction of progress - the only way to get your arse off the ground. Then, some sloper-slapping in the roof leads to the crux, which involves doing a what in skateboarding jargon would be labelled a 180 shifty: first, you turn around and go feet-first for the lip of the roof, again on poor undercling slopers, with the feet providing the opposition necessary. Then, another weird 180 before topping out the long, horizontal problem. As in Hueco, climbing here forces you to learn new ways of adapting your body to the shapes of the rock, and often the impossible becomes very possible indeed by some a-priori inconcievable trick.

Outside of climbing, life in the Cederbergs quickly took on a natural pace. Nearly every night we would drive the 25 kilometers to Clanwilliam, resupply at the Super Spar, hit the video rental shop, and go home and cook. Alternatively, skip the last one, and eat at Oliphant's House instead, which cost about the same, and was simply delicious. Meat. That's the word in these parts, and they really know how to cook it. This was evidenced by the great buffet on Midsummer (or Midwinter to be exact): tables almost giving way under the weight of beef, Kudu and Springbok. The climbers present did what they could to stuff their tortured bodies full, and then proceded to the best bar in town, de Kelder.
This bar somehow embodies the spirit of the whole experience. Justin Hawkins, one of South Africa's best boulderers was there that night, and he confided that this was the fourth time in Rocklands for him this season, but so far he'd failed to get his climbing shoes on! He just loves the atmosphere which to my mind contrasts sharply with the one in Cape Town, comparable to any western city. In de Kelder, the bartender Marius is part of the party, and when the often (very) drunken guests leave he makes sure everyone gets home safe by following the Rocklands-bound caravan in his car. At a later party, to good effect, as Justin's car broke down in the middle of nowhere. He was duly picked up by Marius and taken to safety.

What else? Well, leopards, for example. We spotted not one, but two of them. They are extremely shy and very rare to see, so Peter, a Cape Townsian spending the whole season in Rocklands, was devastated when we told him about our sightings: "I'm riding with you guys from now on!". Other impressions include the unbelievable contrasts in the standard of living. The main street in Clanwilliam could be anywhere in the western world (well, almost): shops, restaurants, big cars. But lose your way a bit, and you might find yourself in the local township, basically a pile of mud with hundreds of shacks built from whatever can be found, including cardboard. This is less than two kilometers from the Oliphant's house mentioned earlier. Political apartheid may be history but its economical counterpart is alive and well.

A good month after I returned home I spoke to Nalle on the phone. He had just spent six weeks in Rocklands (he arrived the day I left), and I asked him what he thought about the place: "aivan käsittämätön" ("utterly unbelievable"), he replied. I tend to agree. Without doubt the most fantastic place for bouldering I've ever visited, and there are some quite worthy contenders for that title. I can't f¤#&ing wait to go back.

Text by Tommy Vänskä