A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

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(Bloomberg) -- At the moment, all of our plans are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. We’re sharing our ideas with you in the hopes that they will inspire you—and we’d love to hear what you are daydreaming about, too. Send us your ideas at daydreams@bloomberg.net, and we’ll flesh some of them out for this column.

Time spent under lockdown has Matt Gross fantasizing about the world’s prime bouldering destination—and some wine-soaked downtime after making his ascents. 

After weeks of New York City’s stay-at-home orders, confinement is finally driving me up the wall—but, sadly, not literally. See, I’m a rock climber, and up the wall is precisely where I’d prefer to be right now. Several times a week for the last few years, I’ve trekked five minutes from my apartment to Brooklyn Boulders, near the Gowanus Canal, to go bouldering, the no-ropes, low-altitude climbing discipline that’s not just about building flexibility and upper-body strength but about puzzle-solving, figuring out the precise combination of movements that will unlock a complex route.

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

Ever since Brooklyn Boulders shut down in March, my forearms have gone limp and my once-calloused hands are now baby-smooth. But as much as I’m craving the mental and physical rush of a climb, the last thing I want to do is spend more time indoors

In my four years of bouldering, I’ve never touched actual rock, so as soon as humanly possible, I’m off to Rocklands, in South Africa—“an ocean of beautiful, bright-orange sandstone boulders as far as the eye can see,” says Gavin Heverly, who in nine years at Brooklyn Boulders has been everything from COO to director of climbing and fitness. “It is a literal lifetime of world-class rock-climbing.”

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

Located about three and a half hours north of Cape Town, in the semi-desert at the edge of the Cederberg Mountains, Rocklands has been drawing climbers from around the world since 1996, when Todd Skinner, Fred Nicole, and others began documenting the area—an undertaking that’s far from complete today. The Mountain Project lists 130 named routes at all levels, from V0 (beginner) to V15 (beyond expert), but those who visit regularly spend lots of time exploring the landscape, on foot or via 4x4, in search of new rocks and new ways up them. You can climb there for two weeks, or two months, and never get bored.

That’s partly because Rocklands has more than just rocks. From wineries to wildlife to wildflowers, it’s a potential paradise not just for climbers but also for anyone who craves space to roam. With high season (the cooler, drier days of June through August) on its way, here’s how I’ll roam—once it’s more than just a daydream:

Getting There

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

In December 2019, United introduced nonstop service, on a 787-9 Dreamliner, between Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Cape Town, cutting six hours—and plenty of hassle—from what had been a trip of 20 hours or more through, say, Paris or Nairobi. South Africa’s airports are currently closed, and the whole country is under strict lockdown, but United.com optimistically lists late-May round-trips to Cape Town starting at $762 in economy, $4,271 in business.

That direct flight is a no-brainer, but how to get from Cape Town to Rocklands itself? “South Africa is a really easy place to drive around if you want to be independent,” says Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and chief executive officer of the tour company Extraordinary Journeys

But should I drive the long way, up the Atlantic coast, or hurry along inland? (The roads and scenery are excellent either way, Gordon says.) And do I book a plush Land Rover Discovery 5 TD6 ($350 a day from Avis), or do I rent a Cobra, the gorgeous little classic topless V8 sportster (about $153 per day from Cape Cobra Hire)? Perhaps if I’m in a rush, I might consider dropping $4,000 on a one-way helicopter trip via Cape Town Helicopters

Nah, it’s the Cobra for me—I need a racing stripe.

The Climbing

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

“It's like you're climbing on a different planet,” says Ashima Shiraishi, the Japanese-American who at 19 is already one of this planet’s greatest climbers. The rock itself, she says, “is orange, and it has blue stripes on it, and it's like nothing I've seen anywhere. It's so crazy.”

The rocks of Rocklands generally lie within CapeNature’s Cederberg Wilderness Area (permit required, although easy to obtain), often alongside a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) stretch of road, but they’re also on the land of various campsites, cottages, and hotels. There are so many, in fact, that it can be tricky to figure out where to start.

“If you want to get all iconic and historical, the first climb is from Frederick Nicole in I think it was like ’96,” says Rowan Toselli, who with his wife, Siobhan, runs Be Bolder, a South African film and video production company focused on hiking, camping, and climbing. The route is Tea Time, and “it just climbs up what looks like a teapot spout.” 

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

Then there’s the Rhino, one of the first boulders you’re likely to encounter at Rocklands. “It's this gorgeous roof that just juts out, and it looks like a rhino,” says Toselli. 

“It's so iconic that there's been a breakfast named after it,” adds Siobhan. It’s available at the Henhouse, a cafe at the Alpha Excelsior guest farm. “It's bacon, eggs, avocado, French toast, and one or two other things.”

Whichever corner of Rocklands you wind up at on a given day, “there's a lot of different grade ranges,” says Daniel Woods, an American who’s one of the world’s top-ranked boulderers. “So even if you're climbing V0 to V3, there's tons of stuff to get on that's worth it. It's not some lowball dirt-burglar thing—it's impressive.”

That’s important for me, because while I love bouldering, I’m not very good: I’m happily challenged by V3s and V4s, and if I really worked at it, I could be a V5 guy. If I could send—i.e., finish—the Rhino, I’d be psyched, which is why I’m also deeply interested in...

The Scene

The South African climbing scene remains nascent, so while you might spot a couple of notable locals, such as Matt Bush or Arjan de Kock, Rocklands tends to attract a highly international crew. “You're gonna see a lot of climbers from Switzerland, France, Italy, the U.S., South America,” says Woods.

At night, they congregate for beers (perhaps a blonde ale from the nearby Cederberg Brewery) and braai (South Africa’s iconic barbecue) wherever they happen to be staying, often at hybrid campground-cottage-farms like De Pakhuis, Alpha Excelsior, or Traveller’s Rest. The accommodations tend to be simple (a hut can be as little as 300 rand, about $16, per night), but not necessarily basic. 

“It's like luxury camping almost, right?” says Woods. “But it's cool—you got a bed, shower, you got a fire pit where you can braai up a lot of meat.”

A Community of Rock Climbers Is What I’m Craving After Quarantine

There is one luxurious alternative: Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, a sprawling five-star resort right outside Rocklands where I’d certainly spend at least a few nights in the two-bedroom Cederburg House villa (22,000 rand per night). It’s not just because I like heated pools and four-poster beds, or that I want to tour the nearby 1,000-year-old Khoisan rock paintings under the guidance of an esteemed University of Cape Town archaeologist, or that I want to delve deep into the villa’s wine cellar. It’s that Bushman’s Kloof has boulders you can climb only if you’re a guest.

“It's like superplush rooms and really nice food and all that kind of stuff—and then you have boulders in your backyard,” says Woods, who once checked in there with a friend. “We only survived there one night.”

Which makes sense: The plush isolation of an all-inclusive like Bushman’s can be attractive, but climbing is about community. Rocklands is the kind of place where, when a world-class climber like Nina Williams sends a particularly tough route, she’s more apt to gather a dozen friends at Muisbosskerm, a restaurant on the coast about 90 minutes west. 

“They catch seafood fresh that day,” she says, “and they just make this huge buffet like this big feast for everyone.” Think oysters and crayfish, snoek, yellowtail, and swordfish—baked, fried, boiled, and served al fresco. “And it's not even that splurgy! It probably ends up being $15 per person.”

Wait, how many friends can I squeeze into my Cobra?

Non-Climbing Days

Even pro climbers need a day off now and then—and I’m hardly a pro. Two days of bouldering, and my tendons would be screaming. 

Hiking is an obvious antidote, and it’s easy to theme the excursions: One trip could take me past the hundreds of those Khoisan rock paintings, ancient ochre images of people and elephants. Another, in August after the July rains, could have me traipsing through fields of wildflowers at the Ramskop Nature Garden, in Clanwilliam, the closest town to Rocklands, about 30 minutes away by car.

And while I’m in Clanwilliam, I might as well make a restorative visit to the House of Rooibos, whose namesake tea is grown only in the Cederberg Mountains, and to the Velskoendraai farmers’ market, where I’d shop for local produce and a takeout venison pie.

All that exertion, of course, deserves a reward, which I’d find at Cederberg Wines

“It’s an area where there’s a lot of interesting exploration going on [by vintners], because it’s higher elevation,” says Jim Clarke, whose book The Wines of South Africa is due this July. At 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level, Cederberg Wines is well prepared for climate change; as things get warmer in some areas, planting vines here is a way to maintain freshness in their wines, says Clarke (who’s also a marketing manager for Wines of South Africa USA). On what to drink, he likes their chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, as well as the aromatic but structured cabernet sauvignon, but says the one to seek out is the 2017 Teen die Hoog Shiraz, which comes from a one-acre vineyard. “It’s just a really beautiful, concentrated spicy floral shiraz.”

Just south of the Cederberg Mountains lies Piekenierskloof Mountain and a winery called Tierhoek, which means “beast corner”—“I guess they encounter a lot of leopards,” says Clarke—and whose chenin blancs and grenaches are totally different from Cederberg’s. “Stylistically, they’re kind of a lighter, less extracted style,” says Clarke. “They’re almost a natural-wine sort of approach.”

Having come this far, I’d certainly press on south another 30 minutes to Citrusdal, home to the Baths, a 281-year-old resort centering on—surprise—hot springs, which I adore on the same level as good wine, good food, and intense outdoor activities. (Check out my winter adventures in Idaho for just how much.) The pools here are apparently 109F, which I happen to know from experience is my exact favorite temperature. 

Soaked, softened, and sated, I imagine driving back up to Rocklands, to stay amid my fellow climbers for as long as I can, living on Ashima Shiraishi’s fabulous other planet—and never returning to this one we’re all stuck in.

For tackling metaphorical mountains, I applaud, and suggest supporting, the donation-worthy mission of the American Civil Liberties Union. Because at a time like this, when we’re dealing with basic survival, it’s good to remember what we’re surviving for.

Have a daydream of your own? Let us know, and it may feature in a future column. 

For more daydreaming about South Africa, check out:

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