South Africa. A country I always wanted to visit, but ending up on the “Love to but probably won’t” list, alongside the likes of Antarctica, Everest, The North Pole and many more. It seemed too far, too expensive and too difficult to travel around. But then I heard there was to be an exchange meet between the BMC and the Mountaineering Club of South Africa. I’d remembered the stories from the exchange back in the 90’s, and how it was a trip of a lifetime. Maybe this was the chance.
In fact if ever, this was the chance! A 10 day trip with hands held to the most amazing traditional climbing in the country. I applied and hoped!

10 Brits were selected from the applicants, I fluked my way in, maybe with the offer of a free couple of talks at their clubhouses swung it my way. A strong team, with some household names like Ben Heason, Pete Robbins and Emma Twyford, alongside scene regulars Becky, Sophie, Tess, Mike, Jimmy and George. It almost seemed a little elitist, but then it had to be, with an agenda including 4 hour long walk-ins, wild camping, trad climbing on potentially loose rock and multi-pitch routes at over 12 pitches, with guaranteed in-the-dark top outs and the associated complex descents, all in the middle of nowhere. A good level of experience was somewhat essential!

One thing is for sure, the moment this trip came into being the Africans were planning to make this a trip of a lifetime. And they more than succeeded. It was completely knackering, sleep deprived, leg destroying, skin battering, often scary and usually boiling. But I’m sure we’d not have had it any other way. All of us climbed some of the best routes of our lives, made great friends and experienced the African wilderness on a level we’d never have managed on our own. The organization was at expert levels, with food for 30 people, including various variations of gluten free, vegetarian and greedy all catered for, and this is up on a mountain, 4 and a half hours of walking for multiple days and nights!
All of the brits had the time of our lives, each with our own story…..Typically, I began my preparations only a few days before going, vaguely scanning the 100’s of group emails that passed my way assuming that if they were important someone else would deal with them and let me know. There was an

Typically, I began my preparations only a few days before going, vaguely scanning the 100’s of group emails that passed my way assuming that if they were important someone else would deal with them and let me know. There was an adgenda, apparently, but I only realized the scale once I’d arrived into Capetown and was slogging my way up Table Mountain to be on its 1000m summit within a few hours of landing. I had no idea of the amount of walking we’d be doing. And then later, after a 3.5 hour drive to Cederberg, 2am bed time and 6am start the following day, it became clear the few hours sleep I’d got on my overnight flight was about as good as it was going to get!First climbing day at Wolfberg was a big one, finishing the last route by head-torch, and then wishing we’d not been so greedy as we stumbled the hour long descent sharing a dwindling lamp between myself and local star Jimbo (star maybe, but it was my torch we shared!). But the last minute ascent of RedRain (E6) was worth it, easily. Stories were shared of fantastic sandstone and ‘railing’ left and right (awesome horizontal breaks abound everywhere, greedily accepting solid cams and paving a way around the massive roofs). What a start. I was knackered already!

Next day was a killer. Three hours of total slog in the boiling African sun up to Tafelberg. Its way up there, with no supplies; we took in everything for 2 full days: food, full rack, ropes, camping stuff, stoves, and 8 kg of water. Heavy! I was wobbling a bit after that, and pretty sun stroked, but just about managed to claw my way up one of the best E5’s I’ve ever done with Pete Robbins, like an amazing Pembroke classic but way up on a mountain on sandstone! Then we sat and took in the view, the enormity of it stretching away forever, no signs of life. And not a breath of wind, silence, almost eerie. And the stars above like nothing I’ve seen before, a billion dots of light covering every inch of the sky. I was beginning to get into it, starting to feel very far away from home.
An early 6am morning found aching legs, but today was an easy one: just climbing! Taking in a 6 pitch E4 first of all we then retired to single pitch, a classic arête frightner gave me more than a moment, before setting off on-sight up a ‘why hasn’t anyone climbed that line’ new line, only to find out why, as I gibbered my way up doubtfull holds facing a horrendous pendulum smash. Only about F7a+, but not a sport route… and probably not to have many more ascents!

And then an easy day, a mere stroll back down to the car, without water it was easy. Then a relaxing sit in the car for 3.5 hours, and an evening of getting drunk - for everyone else, while I stayed sober waiting to give my talk. Probably best, with a 5am next day start up on Table Mountain. A proper hard day’s climbing, attacking the famous Jeopardy Face, I went for a flash of Tripple Jeopardy, ‘30’, or 8a, on trad. Good but spaced gear, E8 probably fits the bill. I got it by the skin of my teeth. An amazing route on perfect rock, totally sustained pumpy technical climbing the whole way up. Psyched I threw myself at more routes, An E6v and E5, until eventually I ran out of energy, which was probably not ideal considering the next days plan.
In fact at 3.15am I realized it was definitely not a great plan to have got knackered, further emphasized as we began the 1 and ¾ hr trudge up a massive hill to Yellow Wood in the pitch black. But it had to be done, the routes are big up there, my allocated target the 13 pitch mega classic ‘Newborn’. A rare sport route, but with pitches up to 29 (7c+) I was glad of the bolts. And the sun would be on it by 2pm, We’d have to be quick. Climbing with Alex we swung leads and joined pitches to make it, but only just, topping out on the easy (E4) pitches as the sun frazzled us. Possibly the best routes of the trip, with views to die for the whole way up.

Relaxing on the top, taking in the view and sucking in the crystal clear air I began to feel I was part of something special. This was an experience above a normal climbing trip. Everything had been aligned to make life perfect for us, even if it felt like it was breaking us!

Stage one complete, now feeling pretty broken, but life didn’t get easier! As I frantically packed my bag at after midnight I was watching my sleep disappear with an alarm set for 5am for our ride to the airport for a flight to Johannesburg. Today was a long day indeed, with a full 5 hr drive from J-Burg to Blouberg, and then another 4.5 hr slog uphill in pitch black, again with all our junk (though fortunately without water this time). But this was a cool journey, this was real Africa. Capetown could almost be in Europe, but not out in the plains surrounding Blouberg. Its straight off the TV; with tiny settlements scattered everywhere. Poverty is obvious amongst the dilapidated mud huts and dusty rutted tracks. And then into the jungle as we hiked up, sweat dripping as we tangled ourselves amongst dangling vines. But the reward was worth is, high up at 2000m at a paradise campsite and a star studded sky covering the vista below.

Even yet another 5am start passed without barely a yawn, and we found ourselves on the massive Blouberg wall with about 12 pitches of the classic hard route Dogs Of Thunder above us. Climbing with Clinton was a blessing, as he’d done it before, allowing me to completely ignore the complex approach, route finding and descent, and just enjoy the climbing. And what a route. I fluffed one of the 29 pitches, a crimpy wall as it baked in the sun, but managed the other two 29’s (7c+), amongst a cluster of E4 and E5’s, to top out with just enough time to get back without a head torch. It almost felt like cheating! (though most of the team did need a torch, for more than a few hours!).

Next day was the last. With broken feet from tight shoes I couldn’t face another big wall, but opted for a 7hr hike in preference to a lazy day; it seemed appropriate considering the trip so far! And it could have been the best day of the trip, exploring a valley that seemed almost lost in time, discovering crystal clear pools that may never have been swam in before, and eventually coming out into the plains of ‘the lost tribe’ (which apparently remains lost – we couldn’t find them). Then later, back on the summit of the mountain our little walking team of 6 sat and stared out at the 360 degree view into an endless vista. Absolute pin-drop silence; we shared it for a long while without speaking. It was pretty special. I was far away from anything familiar. It became very clear I’d been part of something really very special, the realization slowly growing on me day after day, to finally become clear as the sun set on my final night.

I guess I need to go back…