I grew up watching “The Endless Summer” as a kid. The idea of being the first person to carve your mark on history in some exotic land captivated me. The film has heavily influenced my passion for establishing first ascents and exploring new climbing areas. Ever since first watching that film, I have dreamed of being able to see Africa, however, the idea of going to the other side of the globe to climb seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream.
That is, until I summoned the courage to finally take the leap and click the “purchase tickets” link. With cold sweats, the reality that I was finally going to be able to check Africa, specifically the Rocklands, off my bucket list began to sink in. “The hardest part of the Rocklands, is just getting there,” I remember hearing from friends who had gone 4 years prior and who had helped to convince me that I should go with them on this trip. The logistics of traveling that far by myself to meet friends in a place I had only seen in videos and photos was a bit daunting.
In preparation for the trip, The Sierra Climbing Team, of which I am the Head Coach, held a gear drive for our sister climbing team in the De Pakhuys area of the Rocklands. “The Rocklands Rangers,” as they are known, is a small team of local farm kids from the area who gather under the direction of a local land owner JP Du Plessis. Thanks to the generosity of the local climbing community and a donation from the Whitney Peak Hotel, we were able to bring three huge duffel bags filled with climbing shoes, approach shoes, backpacks, shirts, and jackets to the Rangers.
With the gear in tow, I found myself on a landing approach to Cape Town International Airport. After making my way through customs and a quick battle learning the intricacies of the choke on my right-hand drive manual VW Citi Golf rental car in the airport parking lot, I was rocketing down the freeway towards the Rocklands. Palms sweaty with anticipation, or maybe it was from the terror of driving on the wrong side of the road while praying my car didn’t stall again on the highway. Either way, I soon found myself in the breath takingly beautiful playground that is the Rocklands; with its gold and black streaked, griptape textured, overhanging, and heavily featured boulders as far as the eye can see.
The scenery while driving around South Africa felt oddly reminiscent to the hills of Northern California, but then I would pass a baboon or springbok on the side of the road, and become acutely aware that I was indeed on another continent across the globe. It is such a vast area that in the month I spent climbing in the area, I was not even able to see half of the climbs I had on my “must see” list. I could drone on about how great the scenery, food, wine, and climbing are, but it is one of those places you need to see to believe.
Once settled into the pace of life in the Rocklands, we spent one Saturday with the Rangers. We then gave them as much gear as they could take and spent the afternoon climbing and coaching them on the boulders surrounding the farm, known as The “Plateau” area, which has climbs ranging from 4a to 8a+ (V0-V13). At most, the Ranges have about 15 kids at a time, so the amount of gear that we brought to donate was simply too much for them to handle.
JP, always thinking of ways to better his community, had the genius idea to donate the gear to the local primary school nearby called, Elizabethfontein. This school, as we came to find out, was home to about 60 kids and is located near “Travelers Rest,” a spot which is rumored to be the lodging choice of “the pros.” And indeed, you may just find yourself elbow to elbow with the likes of Dave Graham and Nalle Hukkataival while snacking on their delicious Chicken Curry and drinking a “Black Label” lager. Climbers have to drive past the Primary School in order to access nearby areas such as “The Sassies,” which, is home to Fred Nicole’s “Shosholoza”. These kids literally have world class rock climbing in their backyard.
With the help of our gear and climbing program knowledge, we helped them to start a climbing program at the school itself. Elizabethfontein even went so far as to let us bolt a few chunks of rock on the side of the building to traverse (another one of JP’s ideas that he envisions eventually going all the way around the school).
During our visit we came to learn more about the struggles that these kids face everyday. The economic and social ramifications of Apartheid are still ever present in South Africa, especially in such a rural farming area. “Today, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, a place where poverty breaks down largely along racial lines. 1” One of the most glaring issues that most visiting climbers don't realize, or choose to ignore, are the substance abuse issues that come along with such economic disparity. Under Apartheid’s Dop system, “Farmers would pay their workers in the form of wine.” “You got kids being born alcoholic … This system and culture of inebriation reproduces itself. 2” which has resulted in, not surprisingly, extreme Featal Alchohol Syndrom (FAS) rates. “The rate of FAS found in (the) study (are) the highest yet reported in any overall community in the world, 65.2-74.2 per 1,000 children in the first grade population. These rates are 33-148 times greater than U.S. estimates. 3”
A large majority of the kids in the area have FAS and come from dysfunctional alcoholic homes. So, for these kids, simply having an option other than drinking as an after school activity is massive. The Rangers, for example, have formed a little crew of climbing kids who look out for each other and have kicked trouble making kids off of the team. They are a shining example of how a positive group of likeminded people can help improve a community by simply being stoked on climbing and wanting to focus on a healthy obsession, rather than drinking or other forms of substance abuse.
To have walking access to some of the best rock climbing in the world is a huge opportunity. Unfortunately, the prospect of obtaining proper climbing gear to enable them to play on these climbs is entirely unrealistic when the median estimated income is $91 USD a month in the area 4". So, having climbing shoes of all different sizes will enable the school and these kids to not only get out and enjoy the mecca in their backyards, but will give them all the social, mental, and physical benefits of rock climbing.
Eventually, our trip had to come to an end and we had to return home. As of our leaving the Rocklands, a local South African climber by the name of, Unio Joubert is running the Elizabethfontein’s climbing program and has since built a “Gia ball” and is in the process of building another wall on the school grounds.
I am incredibly humbled to have had the opportunity to help these great kids in any way I could, let alone help set up a climbing program at the local school. If you would like to see how you can help, please direct inquiries to the Principal of the school; Mrs. A. C Dames at Elizabethfonteinps@gmail.com.
1. The Atlantic. 2016. Serino. 21 September 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/south-africa-apartheid-mandela-born-free-university/500747/>
2. News 24. 2014. Web. 27 January 2014. <http://www.news24.com/Archives/City-Press/Twisted-tale-of-alcohol-and-apartheid-20150429>