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The Best Climb in Africa – At The Restaurant At The Edge Of The Universe

 
13 January 2017 by Katy Louise Johnson

How Ed Viestur’s quote about climbing the 14 biggest peaks, “getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory”, just popped into my head at that precise moment I will never know. When it did I was halfway up my own mountain, a 15 m rock climb with a group of strangers I had only met an hour previously and who were at the bottom trying to encourage me on.

Above, 5 m of solid rock face stood between me and being hailed as a hero by the posse below. While this doesn’t sound like much, if you add it to the 10m I had already twitchily climbed under the expert guidance of Thulani perched at the top and the calming voice of Gustav at the bottom, then I was in fact very high up and totally out of my comfort zone.

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

The day had started out so promisingly, with a spectacular sunrise on my way to Emgwenya, formerly Waterval Boven. Travelling from Nelspruit, the town marks the start of Mpumalanga’s Highland Meander, as you leave the oppressive heat of the Lowveld and start the ascent up the Drakensburg escarpment. It’s like venturing into another country, as cool breezes and early morning mists of the Highlands replace the clear skies and sweltering sun of the Lowveld. 

For many Emgwenya is simply a landmark on the road to Gauteng, or worse still bypassed in favour of the Schoemanskloof detour. Today, however, it would be my final destination! My mission: to find out what all the fuss was about and why climbers from all over the world were flocking to this small town.

At 8 am I was outside Roc ‘n Rope Adventures and already feeling a little out of my depth or in this case should I say height? While I’d like to describe myself as “outdoorsy” I might be stretching the truth and my husband’s description of me being a “keyboard ninja” is perhaps more accurate. The rest of my group, as friendly as they seemed, looked decidedly more ‘outdoors inclined’ and flashbacks of school PE lessons started haunting me.

Just as I was about to completely talk myself out of the whole adventure we were greeted by owner, climber and guide, Gustav. 30 minutes of signing indemnities, apparently all places need one nowadays, listening to the safety briefing and getting our rather fetching harnesses, hard hats and awesome shoes (that allow you to better feel the small edges apparently). We were on our way! 

 

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

For the whole journey all I could think was, “how hard can a climb in an area called ‘the Crèche’ be?” Now, stuck halfway up it, I would like to say “perched” but that somehow implies the position I had got myself in was elegant and it wasn’t! I had the choice: head up and be a hero, or go back down and be in the 0.1% that doesn’t manage the climb.

Then, just as I was about to head down, I saw it, and it took my breath away. Until this point I had been so fixated on the rocks in front of me that I failed to look around and take in the utterly spectacular view that seemed to stretch out endlessly around me. The hard rock face of the escarpment, softened by a sea of greens made up of indigenous forests and riverine gullies, which flooded the landscape with life.

 

Image credits: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

 “If you think the view from there is great”, Gustav called from below, “you should see it from the top”. That was all the encouragement I needed and two minutes later, to the sound of cheers from below, I had surmounted in triumph at the Creche to find Gustav’s words were actually an understatement. The view was “wow, just WOW!”

Now I had to come down and while the idea of descending was terrifying, the actual experience was totally the opposite. You are held so firmly in the harness that it feels like you are just being lowered and there is actually something rewarding about the chance to take in more of the scenery while appreciating how far you’d climbed. With a rapturous applause waiting for me at the bottom, it was fair to say I was hooked and couldn’t wait for the rest of my crew to have their turn so we could attack the Hallucinogen Wall. Whoever came up with these names deserves a Bells!

 

Image credits: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

Hallucinogen Wall was slightly longer and more challenging and I couldn’t wait to scramble my way to the top. That was until I found out that this time we would be belaying each other. My heart plummeted at the news and I wanted to scream, “are you nuts!” We were all novice rock climbers and I wanted an expert with years of training to be my safety net, but somehow I only managed, “cool”.

Thankfully, I wasn’t picked to go first this time and could sit back and watch as the particularly outdoorsy Joe started his ascent of Hallucinogen Wall, while his mate Rob took over controls of the belay system. While there was the obvious banter about dropping him, with every moment that passed my confidence grew. Gustav was never a few inches away from the controls and the system is so safe and simple, it probably could be mastered by a toddler.

 

Image credits: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

Confidence restored, I conquered climbs at the Hallucinogen Wall, Flying is Fun and the Last Crag of the Century before lunch. Yet it was the belaying that I probably enjoyed the most, not because I am a wimp and it was a way to keep my feet on the ground, but because it gives you a real sense of camaraderie. The team spirit that is built s you help someone else make their journey up the rock face, pointing out potential holds and shouting encouraging words from below, is incredible. 

The morning was over too quickly, making me even more thankful that I had booked an abseil adventure in the afternoon. With some time to kill and my journalistic instincts sparked, Gustav took me to see some of his other clients enjoying the escarpment.

 

Image credits: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

Nicknamed ‘The Restaurant (at the edge of the universe)’ for obvious reasons, the climbing menu at Emgwenya seems never ending. With an incredible 850 different climbs, it is little wonder that it is considered the most prolific place to climb in Africa. You can do a different climb every day for two years and still not do them all! 

The real beauty of this climbers’ paradise is that novice climbs can be found next to ‘pro-only’ ascents, making it the ideal playground for climbing groups of differing abilities and looking for different challenges.

 

Image credits: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

That morning Gustav had six groups of experienced climbers on the escarpment, taking on far more impressive climbs than my little group. Two international parties of pro’s were doing what appeared to be impossible climbs. The first had combined a week of climbing with a week of sightseeing, while the other hard-core bunch had flown in, come straight to the site and would remain here for the full three weeks before they flew back home! In addition, there were three sets of South Africans who had journeyed from Durban, the North West and Cape Town, and another group of experienced Mpumalanga regulars who had gathered to do these climbs. It all made me realise just what an amazing natural gift we have on our doorstep. 

For these groups the joy of climbing at the escarpment is that it’s so big and diverse. Fifty groups could be climbing at any given time and there wouldn’t be delays - you probably wouldn’t even see each other. Plus it has some of the most challenging climbs in the world, including the aptly named ‘Mind Games Project’, ‘The Heavens Above Project’ and the sinister sounding ‘Life In Orange’  which looks flatter than a sheet of glass and totally un-climbable, yet some human spiders have made it to the top!

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

Tour over, we headed back to Roc ‘n Rope to meet up with my next group of intrepid explorers and this time, rather than being held back by nerves, I was raring to go! Our challenge: to abseil alongside one of Mpumalanga’s biggest waterfalls into the Escarpment, a 60 m descent certain to test our nerves and get our adrenaline pumping.

For this adventure there were only three in our group and thankfully no one had abseiled before, so the look of horror mixed with amazement was present on all our faces as we got our first look at where we would be abseiling. The views from the top were spectacular, easily on par with the world famous vistas of God’s Window or Blyde River Canyon. The escarpment seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of us, with the sound and sight of the Elands Valley Waterfall adding to the stunning drama of the scenery.

 

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

I have never been so thankful for a chance to practice, especially as it only involved a 6 m decent to the ground. Again, Gustav and Thulani expertly and reassuringly guided us through the experience. When they said ‘letting go is the hardest part’, they meant it. Once you go from standing vertically at the top, which is scary enough, to being horizontal as you lean backwards over the cliff’s edge, even a 6 m practice go feels like a leap of faith. Your heart goes into your mouth and you close your eyes and hope that everything will be alright.

There wasn’t much time to take in the views on the 6 m decent, but it filled us with confidence as we realised how much we were in control of the situation. With their two safety rope systems one controlled by Gustav at the top and the other by Thulani at the bottom, you could even pass out halfway down and they would get you to the ground safely. That being said, needing them wasn’t something I was keen on trying!

So, as the time arrived we drew straws to see who would go first and I got lucky! Strapped up and ready, but perhaps no longer raring to go, I made my way to the edge, took a moment to compose myself and drew in a big breath before leaning back as I had been shown. This time my heart left my mouth, not through fear but rather sheer exhilaration!  

 

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

It’s hard to describe the thrill of being suspended so far up and watching the world pan out beneath you. It was like everything became HD and I was suddenly more aware of my surroundings: the sounds within the noise of the waterfall crashing beneath me; the vividness and contrast of the colours in the valley; and the majestic beauty of a bald ibis taking off from its cliff side roost below me. It might only have taken a few moments, but memories of that descent will last a lifetime and it didn’t end at the bottom. There is a reason Gustav suggests that you bring a camera - the valley’s floor is rich in wildlife and amazing views. The biggest challenge is often where to point your camera, especially on the gentle walk back up through an enchanting indigenous forest just teeming with life.

 

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

There is one more surprise, right at end, which I won’t spoil here. You will just have to go and find out what it is for yourself, but I can tell you that it was the perfect way to wrap up an adventure filled day.

Would I do it again?

I have already booked and this time for the two-day course that will give me the right skill sets to be able to climb in a group without an instructor! To say I am hooked would be an understatement. What’s really nice is that I feel I have found more than just a new hobby. In Emgwenya I have also uncovered a new destination, which at times today truly did feel like the end of the universe. It is far more than a landmark along the route - it is a small town cram packed with big surprises.

Gustav’s Bucket List Climbs Going Up the Levels!:

13 Rocky’s – A simple yet fun climb!

14 Feel Good - The climb predominantly is a layback crack although it changes from a crack to cliff face climbing about half way up.

15 Caffeine Jitters - It used to be a traditional climb until it was re-bolted. Now with some amazing fist size crack work this is a really awesome climb. 

16 Angel of Mercy – Perfectly suited climb for its difficulty, giving the climber a taste of both crack work and layback skills.

17 Lucy - An awesome climb that finishes below a huge bushy tree!

18 Jenga – Same start as the Toolbox, it is a really great ‘pump-fest’ for this grade and great fun to do!

19 Madiba M – This is an awesome crag and this climb is no different.

20 Bonar – This long and “pumpy” climb requires some fine moves, making it an awesome challenge for this difficulty grading.

21 Toolbox – A wonderful climb that is often overlooked!

22 Endless Summer – Face climbing doesn’t get better than this, long and technical it is a must for any passionate face climber.

23 Jump in the Fire – This is one wild route with monster holds, enjoy!

24 Atomic Aardvark – A hallow classic, feel free to skip some of the bolts at the start to reduce drag.

25 Jambo – All you need to say about this one is that it is considered one of the best routes in Waterval Boven!

26 As the World Disappears – 30m plus route, steep and sustained providing great photo opportunities, what more could you want?

27 Bikini Red – Stunning, simply stunning and again one for the best climbs in Waterval Boven. 

28 Eraserhead – This has some crushing holds so be prepared to be challenged!

29 Snapdragon – SA’s most famous sport climb offering superb endurance and requiring plenty of fitness, it is on every serious climber’s tick list!

30 Jack of all trades – The original God No!, this crackline is a great challenge for any climber.

31 The Beast – When you start on the Monster and then move right you know you are going to be challenged. You will need a few funky moves and make sure you make the most of the rest in ‘man trap’ you will need it.

32 Godzilla – Considered Boven’s ‘King Line’ this has it all bolder problems, ledges and smooth rocks with good holds. One of the greatest climbs you will ever do but make sure you pack a 70m rope.

33 Rodan – Make sure you take a look out over the forest at the ledge 8m up and take a big breath before immersing yourself in 25m of pumping orange rock-karate!

34 Shear Force – This is our hardest line and worthy of its crown. Long, steep and continually interesting, if you do this you are a climbing legend.

 

CONTACT INFORMATION:

Rock ‘n Rope Adventures – 53 Third Avenue, Waterval Boven, 1195 | climb@rocrope.com | www.rocrope.com | 013 257 0363 or 082 753 3695 | GPS: S25 38’ 33.9” E30 19’ 48.7”