By Tom Newberry
Up there with Fontainebleau and Bishop, Rockland’s main draw is the endless sea of quality sandstone boulders. As a climber it’s hard to believe a playground like this exists outside a dream. Found in the Cederberg Mountains, 250km north of Cape Town, the rural, semi-desert setting gives a very isolated and safe feel. Wild Rooibos tea bushes (red bush to us) thrive among the rocks. At the higher elevations of 3,000 feet you find the Clanwilliam Cedars, from which the nearby town gets its name. Baboons huck big dynos on the short cliff bands then howl triumphantly on the summit. And nothing beats staring into the red western sky to conclude a day’s climbing; Van der Post wasn’t wrong, African sunsets are biblical.
From June through to late August it’s hard to ignore the constant stream of Instagram feeds regularly updated with pictures of the world-class boulders of Rocklands, South Africa. A Mecca for boulderers across the globe; social media feeds are dominated by the who's who of climbing as they dispatch yet another unfathomably hard problem. Rocklands has undoubtedly become famous for its high standard of elite level bouldering that attracts the likes of Dave Graham, Nalle Hukatival, Daniel Woods and Jimmy Webb year after year. Flashing 8B+s and establishing new 8Cs, the standard portrayed in Rocklands by the media seems astronomical. Yet, this should not deter the mortal climber from sampling the countless amenable classics. In fact, a vast majority of the developed boulders in Rocklands are below 7B/V8. The aesthetic formations lend themselves to glorious juggy features, offering amenable grades through some unlikely terrain - problems such as Roof on Fire (6C+) and Creaking Heights (6C) are justifiably sought out by every climber that visits. What’s more, climbing side by side with the world’s best boulders you get to learn from these masters of stone. As if Messi would rock up for a kick about with you at the local park. Watching how they grip holds, how they use their feet, how they talk and how they think as they transform a set of moves that appear blatantly impossible into something that the human body can execute.
Gav Atikins enjoys Orange Heart (6C). Photo: Callum Coldwell-Story
The large number of bouldering areas, and unique weathered shapes provide the ultimate playground with blocs of all heights, angles, aspects and styles. Add to that reliable weather, the beautiful surroundings of the South African wilderness, with its mesmerising flora and fauna, and it’s easy to see why these orange, grey and black boulders have become such a draw. Most of the problems follow strong lines; wandering among the featured boulders you barely need the guidebook as you eye up arêtes, roofs, and well-featured walls. The style is predominately gymnastic and the grainy rock is far from forgiving, so looking after the fingers is essential. Fortunately, many of the problems are basic and easy to read, but it's one thing figuring out what to do, and another to actually do it. Rocklands’ top-outs deserve a special mention. Unlike the smooth, bald summits of Fontainebleau, Castle Hill and Albarracin, most Cederberg boulders feature giant chicken heads, bulbous protuberances that peer down curiously from the top like medieval gargoyles. Few moments are as sweet as lassoing one of these features with groping hands to successfully complete a problem, then effortlessly levering onto the summit and taking in the sweeping red stained valleys and the racing alpine clouds. The Cederberg backdrop never gets old.
A trip to Rocklands isn’t just about the climbing. As the African sun sets, the smell of Braai (BBQs) and beers fill the air. The social scene during the high season is akin to the beach bars of Tonsai, Thailand or Miguel’s Pizza at Red River Gorge. The scene mostly centres around the bar, De Kelder, in Clanwilliam, where you can share a burger or down shots of tequilla with your idols, or at De-Pakhuys campsite which also hosts the yearly Rocstock festival; a mid-season party that has been running every year since 2007.
So what are the Top 10 Problems <7B...
- Up the Spout 6A, Campground. The first recorded problem in Rocklands, put up by non-other than Fred Nicole, makes this an essential historic tick.
- Creaking Heights 6C, Roadside. If you could describe this problem in one word it would be BIG; BIG walk in, BIG boulder, BIG line, BIG moves and a BIG fall potential! Although this may sound and look scary, it’s not too bad with all the difficulty contained in the first half before a victory romp up jugs to finish.
- Orange Heart 6C, Roadcrew. A popular classic, despite being hard for the grade; it must be good! Two tactics can be utilised… brute strength or cunning trickery. Suits indoor climbers.
- Welcome to Rocklands 6C, Fortress. A problem that screams to be climbed, up the centre of a proud house size boulder with a stunning backdrop. The exposed situation of this problem means a fall isn’t an option and it feels more like E5, but an ascent won’t be forgotten quickly. (Header image).
- The Roof is on Fire 6C, Roadcrew. This photogenic boulder is more than worth making trip out for and will be the highlight of anyone’s trip. Some of the coolest moves around make this a guarantee for your all-time top 5.
- Springbok 7A+, Sassies. Seeking out this gem is a must do for those operating at the grade. It’s a friendly on the skin too! Barracuda Rail 7B, Fields of Joy. The long and aesthetic rail is a “proper line”, with balancey, sequencey and technical finish that may leave you either frustrated or elated.
- Silky Natural 7A, 8 Day Rain. A justifiably popular classic with steep power endurance climbing.
- Vanity 7A+. 8 day Rain. Physical, gymnastic yet precarious climbing on perfectly sculpted features. Bring your guns, it sure is burley!
- Minki 7B, Far Plateau. If one problem summed up Rockalnds bouldering it’s this one. Steep, burly, amazing moves and in a superb setting! Fox-like cunning can change this from a desperate to amenable line.