by Ronnie Charrier
Welcome to the Rocklands
Let me just start by saying that had we not already been planning an Africa trip next summer, we would’ve booked a repeat of our Rocklands & Cape Town trip as soon as we got home. It’s not only one of the best trips we’ve ever been on, but it has put South Africa at the top of our list of potential places to live one day.
The Rocklands is an bucket-list worthy bouldering area located in the Cedarburg Mountains, about 200km north of Cape Town, South Africa. The Rocklands is a climber’s paradise, with sandstone boulders stretching as far as the eye can see - it’s pretty obvious why this area got it’s name in the first place. With its diversity of rock, from proud arêtes, to big roofs, to outstanding highballs (if you’re into that sort of thing), Rocklands draws climbers from around the world, but because it is so out of the way, it boasts thousands of unclimbed routes. This spring, Phoebe and I were lucky enough to spend a week here, and this article aims to highlight a few recommendations about the climbing, where to stay, what to do on rest days, and a few other bits and pieces in between.
First things first, buy the guidebook ahead of time! We assumed, foolishly, that we would be able to pick one up when we got there, like most European climbing locations. Unfortunately, there is only one guidebook, and we managed to hit the sweet spot where they had sold out of the old editions, and had yet to publish the new one. So, no guide book for us. We ended up spending much of the first day asking other climbers about spots they had been to, taking photos on our phones of one climber’s book, and then just playing on any rocks that looked interesting and had some chalk marks (again, there are tens of thousand of boulders to choose from).
Getting there ('in style' optional)
Getting there is pretty straight forward. Fly into Cape Town, rent a car (I think it was around $20/day), and then head north on the N7 for roughly 200km until you take the R364 turnoff towards Clanwilliam. It's about a three hour drive, and there was a fair amount of road works to negotiate when we were there. Now, we chose to fly business class, which allowed us to be quite rested when we arrived. And if you’re thinking to yourself “I’m not the kind of person who is going to waste money on a business class flight”, then you need to read our Beginner’s Guide To Travel Credit Cards. Taking advantage of a 70,000 point sign-up bonus for a single purchase, combined with a Lifemiles promotion, we were able to fly two of us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Cape Town and back in Ethiopian Air business class for about $600 total! It takes a little extra time to collect and find good ways to use miles, but when you’re in a bed in the sky with champagne and steak, it becomes clear that it was time well spent.
Anywhere to lay my head...
There are a couple of options for where to stay once you get to the Rocklands, ranging from cheap camping at De Pakhuys for as little as $5/night, to multi-bedroom cottages within walking distance of the restaurant at Traveler's Rest for around $80/night. We opted for a small, one-room cottage at De Pakhuys for about $50/night, which was also next to a beautiful infinity pool - which was perfect after a long day of climbing. It came with a little kitchen, air conditioning, and everything else we needed. Again, there are definitely cheaper ways to do this trip than what we did, but we thought every extra dollar we spent was worth the extra comfort. Weekends, as well as June-August will get pretty busy, so if you want a cottage, it’s best to book in advance.
Speaking of when to go, the best season for climbing in the Rocklands is during summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, which is their winter. We were there in April, which was still a bit hot, but we were able to avoid a lot of it by doing most of our climbing in the mornings and working on problems in the shade. June through August would be ideal, but we hear it can be very crowded that time of year, so plan accordingly.
Bouldering (AKA the reason we are all here)
600 words in and we haven’t even talked about the climbing!
Despite the boasting some of the hardest problems in the world, Rocklands actually has a ton to do for the non-superhuman climbers too. A great area to start is near the campsite area at De Pakhuys. There are some iconic boulder problems within walking distance of the campsite, as well as it being a great place to meet other climbers. It took us all of 30 minutes on our first morning to meet a group of Germans who we spent most of the morning working on problems with. This was also a good opportunity for us to hear from other climbers about potential spots for us to go to during the rest of our stay. Neither Phoebe or I are climbing V7s and 8s, but we had no problem finding a number of fun and interesting boulder problems to work on, and the best part was, they weren't totally climbed out and shiny like the lower grades in other popular climbing spots (we're looking at you Krabi and Kalymnos).
Probably are favorite area though was Roadside and Roadcrew, a short walk off of the road between De Pakhuys and Clanwilliam. These areas are full of well known classics, set in a quiet wilderness overlooking the surreal, rocky terrain. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of boulder problems in close proximity and the day flew by, without us even scratching the surface of what was available. Because we were climbing during the off-season, and on a weekday, we didn’t see a single person for the entire day. After working in a couple of locations, we set off to find Rhino, which is still the coolest boulder we’ve ever been on. We couldn't climb the V8 problem, but we had fun playing around.
Eating out, like many things in South Africa, is very inexpensive compared to the U.S. (currently the exchange rate is a little more than 12 Rand for 1 USD). The main options near the climbing areas are the Restaurant at Traveler's Rest (which does great scones with jam and cream, and a delicious burger), and the Hen House coffee shop. Mostly we bought our groceries about 30 minutes away at the Spar in Clanwilliam, which had everything we needed (there's also a small cafe upstairs which did cheap and cheerful cooked breakfasts and coffee). We mostly made sandwiches and cooked our own food, as we knew we would be treating ourselves to some amazing meals on our last two days in Cape Town.
If you're not coming from Saudi (like us) you may not have our urgent need to locate the nearest source of alcohol, but just in case, the wine at the Spar is only available after 9am; there's wine served the cafe at Traveller's Rest; wine tasting available at the vineyards on the way to the campground; and there's a small bar in the campsite at De Pakhuys.
The closest gas station is in Clanwilliam, just beside the turn off to the main street (where the Spar and cafe are). It opens at 7am daily.
During off days there are a number of hikes in the area, a waterfall you can check out, a swimming hole at De Pakhuys that a large group of climbers had set up a slackline across, or you could make the drive back down to Cape Town. We happened to be there the same weekend as the Highline Festival, which was super cool to watch.
But wait! There's Cape Town...
I know this is a climbing trip, but since you're coming through Cape Town, you should take advantage of this amazing city. I'll keep it short, but there's a few things everyone absolutely must do while they're in Cape Town. First, the food: the two best meals I've had in the last year were both on this trip. The first was Chefs Warehouse, a no-reservations, tapas-style restaurant that is a favorite of almost every top chef in Cape Town. I'd highly recommend the tapas-for-two menu that comes in "courses" of two and three amazing dishes at a time. Hard as it was for us to believe, our second night's meal managed to top the first. We were lucky enough to snag two of the 18 seats available each evening around a single table at chef Julia Hattingh's restaurant, Reverie Social Table. Every night, chef Julia creates an incredible five-course meal, accompanied by carefully selected local and regional wines, and a captivating story to go with each (oh, and there are model dinosaurs in the centerpieces). We met some truly fascinating people that night, and the food was absolutely delicious.
And finally, no trip to South Africa would be complete without penguins!
Well that's all for now. If you have any other suggestions, please leave us a comment below.