I discovered South Africa 3 years ago, at a time where David and I were just done repeating Waking Dream in Tioman. Dave suggested me to explore his beautiful country and the amazing climbing it offers. We were also thinking that it could be a good opportunity to meet with the Cape Town section of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MSCA) and produce a slide show of our adventures in Malaysia. With the recent developments in Tioman/Takun, we were willing to promote climbing in our dear SEA region. And this how, on November 2013, I was off to Cape Town.
As an outdoor enthusiast, it is just impossible not to fall in love with Cape Town and its surroundings. This is such a surreal environment with endless possibilities: rock climbing, paragliding, kite surfing, sailing, diving, trekking or just chilling out in the vineyards; there is not enough space here to list all the activities available. I cannot stretch enough how stunning this country is. When it comes to rock climbing, it is a climber’s paradise…Needless to say that you won’t have the time to even scratch the surface of all the possibilities that are offered to you: all the styles from trad climbing to sport climbing and aid climbing… Single pitch, multi-pitch, big walls… Sandstone, granite, limestone (well, this one is further south east)… Table Mountain, Lion’s head, Muizenberg, Silvermine, Paarl, Montagu, Cederberg…
During my first discovery trip, I spent most of my time on Table Mountain and Lion’s head, the most iconic landmarks of Cape Town. The predominant style is multi-pitch trad climbing on sandstone and I wanted to clock miles on my trad skills before hitting Yosemite the following year. These venues are also perfect spots considering their proximity and ease of access from the city center.
- 2 x 60m Mammut Genesis Half Rope (8.5mm Ø)
- Around 15 x quickdraws (6 regular draws, 3 alpine draws, 3 short slings, 3 long slings)
- 1 set of BD C4 from #.5 to #4
- 1 set of regular CCH Aliens
- 1 set of regular Totem cam (Orange, Red, Green, Purple, Yellow, Blue)
- 1 set of nuts from #1 to #12 (DMM)
- 1 set of hexentrics (4 pcs)
- Slings, locking biners and spare gates.
- 2 x cordelettes for anchors
- personal gear (harness, shoes, chalk, helmets, headlamps)
- 1 x first aid kit + sunblock
A little bit of an overkill. I could have just doubled some BD #1 and #2 instead of taking my full rack of Totem cam.
Where to get some information:
There is an important climbing community in South Africa. The easiest way to look for a climbing partner is online on the Climb.co.za website. You will also find there a lot of useful information on the Cap, the local ethic, the dangers as well as the security issues in the region (don’t hike alone, stay in a group – avoid some paths). The wiki page contains some online climbing topos for the main areas. I would strongly advise you to pay a visit to CityRock, the main climbing gym in Cape Town, in the Obs district. They have a wide choice of gears including guide books for the region. It is also an easy way to meet people that climb regularly on Table mountain and around (there is a whatsapp group for climbing).
I would recommend these 2 books (all the guide books can also be purchased online for around 20 USD – Cape Peninsula is a must):
Part 1: a wedding
This year, the purpose of the trip was a bit different as David was getting married. After an exhausting journey, I finally landed in Johannesburg where we were planning to do his bachelor weekend. As usual, it doesn’t take long to find a piece of rock in this country and we aimed for Harrismith and its “Mount Everest” range ;). The lodge there is a charming place, lost in the middle of a nature park surrounded by beautiful orange sandstones. Impalas and other kind of antelopes are roaming freely around the hunts; a real gateway from the tough city life of Joburg. There are around 140 bolted routes, most of them being multi-pitch, and, even if we did not get the chance to do real climbing, it seemed to be a very promising crag.
The highlight of this first week remains David’s wedding. It was held in a splendid Stellenbosh vineyard overlooking both the vines and the mountain. It was a beautiful, authentic ceremony and, for sure, one of the most pleasant time of this trip.
Yeah, the bride is like “Mmmmmm why did I marry a climber ????”. At least, she was relieved Dave did not marry me ;).
Part 2: a rock climbing trip
Another part of this trip was dedicated to make Hande discover the amazing rock climbing in the Cap. It was our first long holiday together and her first climbing trip. She had never experienced multi-pitch or trad climbing up to these days. Table Mountain and Lion’s Head have a great route diversity. You don’t have to necessarily climb hard to get a full value day with some exposure and, as always, some incredible scenery. On my first visit here, Malcom took me on the easy routes that can be found either on the “Amphitheater” section of table Mountain or the “Clifton” section of Lion’s head. Ross Suter, a legendary guide in the Cap, took me on the “fountain ledge” section. The “Cape Classics” routes can be downloaded from the climb.co.za website and it is a very good starting point. The good thing is you can access those spots easily by taking the cable car up to the top of TM. We opted for the trek, which is also a highly recommended experience. TM has a rich biodiversity and it is a protected area under the World Heritage Site with more than 2000 species of plant. Just beware of the blister bush or the puff adder.
We decided to begin with one of the fountain ledge’s classics – “Staircase” – which, for the grade (12), is one of the most amazing route on earth. It has everything packed in a single climb: exposure, crack climbing, face climbing, a wild traverse, a big ledge with a view, and, more importantly, the pub at the top… What more can you ask for ???? It was Hande’s birthday and this multi-pitch was her present !
Even on such an easy route, it can be easy to get impressed and intimated, especially when it is your first time. It is more an alpine style climbing rather than your weekend crag climbing. The weather changes very quickly and goes from sunny and warm to windy, drizzling and cold in the blink of an eye. If you are unfamiliar with the area, you can also spend quite some time finding your way. Communication is not always easy as the wind or some features like roofs/traverses block your voice. Hande was feeling uneasy during the first pitch and we had to take things slowly. She was getting through the process of embracing trad climbing, relying on anchors made of cams and nuts, dealing with height and cold as the wind was picking up strongly. I was nervous too as I didn’t want to put her in an uncomfortable position… On the second pitch, the traverse, I was over-protecting everything, making sure she could follow easily. I set up an early anchor so that we could still see each other and communicate. She then started to relax, enjoying being here on the wall, in such an “outrageous” position. At the end of the day, what matters is the fun factor. We wanted to keep a memorable time of her first “big” climb… and I wanted to give her the bug for more adventure climbing.
Time to enjoy a beer at the cable car restaurant and take a ride down to the parking lot.
The following day was dedicated to Lion’s head. I had in mind to do “Aquanaut” (15) another classic and one of the most spectacular climb for the grade in the region. That was also the first route I did with Malcom back in 2013 and I still remember myself being in awe in such a beautiful landscape, facing the Clifton and Camps bay beaches on one side, Table Mountain on the other. The weather was perfect, warm but windy, and the face gets the shade all morning long. We started the short hike up to the “Clifton” sector and the “Tea Cave”. On our way in, I took the opportunity to spot the different paragliding takeoffs. I even had a chat with some locals and gather some information on the very specific conditions on these sites (the wind management is very tricky here… Table Mountain and Lion’s head have their micro-system, which, combined to the sea breeze, can lead to disastrous consequences during your flight… like being blown in the Lee side).
The climb was as memorable as the first time I did it. Hande was now hooked to adventure climbing and following easily during all the climb. She even experimented her first frustration removing gears and had to leave a nut behind her after having spent 20 minutes hammering the poor thing with her nut tool. At the end of the first pitch, we met two South African brothers crushing some mid 20’s single pitches on the upper section. I asked them if they would possibly know someone able and willing to come with me on “Roulette” (21). This route was on my bucket list, but more on that later. After exchanging numbers, we continued on the splendid 2nd pitch of Aquanaut and a few hours later, we were at the top of Lion’s head. This is always funny to see the expression on the face of the tourists when they realize you have been coming here the “unconventional” way.
One more photo on the top and we were hiking down to the car parks, ready for another biltong/meat/wine fest.
During the evening, and to my biggest surprise, I received a whatsapp notification from someone called Henk. The message went like this: “Bonjour ! So you want to climb Roulette ?”. The chat we had earlier with the guys on Aquanaut did pay off and I was feeling very excited at the idea of tackling this climb. I had been fantasizing about it since the last time I was in Cape Town and I could not find anyone willing to follow me on the route previously. Most people are very intimated by it and, oh boy, the route has its reputation…
Roulette (21) Fountain Ledge. It’s possible that no other rock climb in South Africa has attracted the attention that Roulette has… Never before and doubtless never again have climbers stood in line to pit their skills against such an obvious and dangerously alluring piece of rock. The line consisted of a steep undercut traverse followed by a forty-degree overhanging crack and was, at the time, futuristic, ambitious as well as clearly beyond the grade of any route in existence.
The first attempt on the traverse was made by Honey who gave it a look but, after covering just a short distance, scurried back to the sanctity of the wormhole stance. The ‘sharp end’ was then handed to Don Hartley. Don scampered across, lassoed a flake at foot level and speedily executed the difficult move to the top rail… As he grabbed the upper rail, his heavy boots cut loose and he found himself hanging free. The eeriness of the position and the sudden overwhelming sense of commitment must have struck a sharp note of terror causing a severe sensory overload… Watts yelled for him to ‘Go for it’ but the encouragement was lost in a maelstrom of fear and panic as the situation began to unfold. He let go. With his gear far behind, below and away from him he took the flight. His body gathered momentum in free-fall and pendulumed at full force into the opposite wall – connecting it head-on. Concussed and badly injured, he was lowered to the ground and later transported to hospital.
At this point, grades don’t matter. I wanted to try a piece of the South African climbing history (and anyway, like all old-school routes, grades become irrelevant… these are just massive sandbags and I have climbed easier 6c+ than some of the 6a’s and 6b’s found on TM…). We met Henk the following morning at the lower cable car station. We clicked immediately. Like Malcom on my first trip, this guy was just nice from scratch, patient, attentive and we felt very secured with him. This is what I like with climbing, the community is full of passionate and extraordinary people. Henk is definitely one of them. And I could never thank him enough for the time he has dedicated to Hande and I.
It must have been written somewhere that each time I would go on the “Fountain Ledge”, I would not be allowed to see the sun and have to climb in the mist. This day was no exception and unfortunately, we would not benefit from the spectacular view on the Jacob’s traverse. Hande was not very thrilled at the idea of following us on Roulette. We agreed with Henk that she should climb Jacob’s ladder instead. Both routes connect at the end of the second pitch of Jacob’s (the famous traverse – not to be confused with the infamous Roulette traverse ;)). We would send the ropes back to her once done with the first two pitches of Roulette and belay her from Jacob’s traverse belay station. We abseiled from the upper station at the top of Table Mountain and quickly scrambled to the start of the route.
Henk was going to lead the first pitch, I would then lead the traverse and the overhanging crack, belay Hande on Jacob’s ladder and he would finish the climb combining the last two pitches into a big one. Henk would belay us simultaneously thanks to the double ropes. I was becoming nervous and climbing in the clouds was adding a “dramatic” touch to the climate. The route immediately starts with a bouldery move and Henk climbed it efficiently. He made his way up quickly to the stance and I was soon seconding. This is really enjoyable to witness an effortless trad climber in action, the way he makes his placements and protects the route. You learn a lot.
That was now my time to lead. I wanted to onsight the traverse pitch. Trad climbing is so different from sport climbing… Not only do you have to onsight the moves, but you also have to onsight the gear placements. On the top of that, you have 5 kg of cams/nuts/draws and other shits hanging on your harness. Not the same game anymore. From the belay station, the traverse was looking way much more intimidating than from the ground. It looked steeper and more overhanging that I had anticipated. I began to make my moves under Henk’s encouragements. I was tensed. The pitch is not difficult per-say. It is just pumpy and you have to go fast with precise footwork. I made it to the rail handover and committed to the crux. I placed my last cam just after the move, ready for the final rush to the belay ledge with Henk shouting “fast fast fast” to boost me. Too pumped and scared, I finally took my deserved whimper… and had to prussik my way back up to the #3 cam. Bye bye onsighting Roulette. That will give me an opportunity to come back and properly redpoint the route, let’s see the positive side. After resting for a few minutes I finally made the last move, build my anchor and started to belay Henk. Seconding on a traverse is far from being an easy task. Especially on Roulette. The last placement is right after the rail handover as most climbers then dash to the anchors. That leaves 5m without protection and a promising swing should your seconds fails to make it through the crux. Henk succeeded after an impressive fight! Wow! The guy is good!
While belaying me, he even took some extraordinary pictures of myself.
The following pitch was mine as well. Same story as for the traverse, the overhanging crack was looking more impressive than expected. How can this thing be only french 6b ??? Already too pumped, mentally and physically exhausted, needless to say that my attempt failed miserably and I climbed very poorly to the stance of Jacob’s ladder. Even the jugs on the way were feeling like crimps. Henk followed me in a nice style, as usual, and we started to send the ropes back to Hande who was freezing at the tree stance of Jacob’s. She literally walked the route and soon we were all 3 together, enjoying a sun bath at our anchor ;). A few more efforts and we were at the top of Table Mountain, back to the cable car station and on our way to enjoy a glass of wine, celebrating an amazing time outdoor.
Thanks Henk for allowing us to spend this fantastic time with you. We hope to see you again in Cape Town or here in Singapore if you happen to fly in our region. As for Hande and I, mission accomplished; three days of stellar rock climbing. The weather was now deteriorating and it was time to do more cultural activities and stack the biltong reserve for Singapore.
Thanks to Hande for capturing most of the action on video:
Nora from my Singaporean paragliding group was on her way to Cape town for a paragliding competition. We would meet with her and visit the Cape of Good Hope.
Part 3: a paragliding trip
South Africa is not only famous for rock climbing… As usual, wherever it is possible to climb, it is most probably possible to fly. I really wanted to take this opportunity to discover the paragliding scene in Cape Town. Moreover, one of the paragliding world cup event was going to be held in Porterville, a small city 150 km north of Cape Town. And Nora was on her way to join. There are tons of sites in the Cape Peninsula. And with most of them, you can either soar or go on a cross country adventure.
It is strongly advisable to hire a guide if you want to paraglide. This way, you’ll maximize your time flying while enjoying the best conditions and the best security. it is better to rely on a local that knows which site works and when. Don’t underestimate the different areas. Takeoffs like Lion’s head or signal hill can become very tricky due to very local micro-system. It’s not unusual to see the weather deteriorating fast and sometime the window of opportunity is very slim. Porterville has a very specific window too.
One way to monitor the weather is to have a look to the iweathar website that broadcast live wind conditions for most of the paragliding site.
Prior to this trip, my paragliding group in Singapore recommended me to talk to Barry & Candice Pedersen from the Birdmen paragliding school. As they were fully booked for the period, they offered me the guidance of their assistant instructor, Frank. This choice will turn out to be an amazing call !!!! I contacted Frank who organized for me a small road trip across the country for 3 days. Depending on the weather, we would fly in Capetown, Porterville or Hermanus.
The first contact with Frank was amazing. We quickly decided to head to Porterville in order to try some XC. We booked our room at the Flyer’s lodge guesthouse. This is basically the place to be! All the flying scene meets here, all the adventure happens here. And if you land in the garden (which is 15km from the takeoff), the beer is on the house. Porterville is a small paradise in the country side next to the Cederberg and Winterhoek mountain range: it is very quiet, very authentic and when you cannot fly, the only thing to do is eat, drink, sleep, repeat…
The flying part was very good too. Although the conditions were not the best, we could still enjoy some 1h+ flights. For me, it was very interesting to practice thermalling in stronger conditions that I’m used to in Asia. And Frank was dispatching some nice advice on the radio. We spent the following day there too and made a move back to Capetown as the takeoff window for the next days were not going to be great.
Next on the list was Hermanus as flying in Cape Town wasn’t possible either. Hermanus is mostly famous for its whale watching during winter. This is a coastal soaring venue, but with the correct condition you can practice cross country too. Frank invited me to stay at his house (we had a fabulous dinner at his local restaurant, Moltenos – highly recommended !) and the next morning we were the first on site. The sea breeze was already strong at 9am but would still allow us 2-3 hours of flying. Barry and Candice were also there with some students. The air was very turbulent and it was clearly a very good exercise on active piloting. I was very happy with my takeoff/landing skills in strong conditions… I guess that all the ground handling done in Singapore finally pays off.
PS: take the scenic road when coming from Cape Town !
I didn’t get the chance to fly from Lion’s head or Table mountain. That will give the perfect occasion to come back to this beautiful country. Cape Town is now in my heart forever. This city will always remain very special for me.