Big Wall Adventure at Blouberg, Limpopo Province, South Africa

The background to the trip was along similar lines to our previous Spitzkoppe trip. FREE climbing trip!!!!!!!!!!

So where were we going? This time we headed north east as far as Spitskoppe to the Limpopo Province to climb the biggest wall in those parts and in general a very big wall indeed: Blouberg. Blouberg is a 350m wall situated north of Plokwane (the old Petersburg) fairly close to the Botswanan border and to the west of the Soutpansberg. We left early Wednesday morning (4.15 was when the bus stopped at my house and it wasn’t late as I hoped it might be). We arrived in jo’burg in 15 hours later. We had supper and I repacked (I had packed like a girl – temporary loss of general comprehension when packing had lead me to forget that my reason for going was that I was a porter and needed to have S-P-A-C-E in my bag).

Then we picked up the climbers etc….So off to Blouberg it was.

After a million toilet and food and repacking stops we arrived at the little village below the Doujons and Blouberg and we parked in Frans’s Kraal. Immediately there were loads of kids all around us as well as older boys from the village. The custom is to park the car next to Frans’s house – he looks after the cars and makes sure nothing happens to them for a certain fee. The kids shyly looked on and some braved a question or too. Everybody thought I was 16 and weren’t particularly convinced when I told them I was 21. I also immediately had a following of handsome young men to choose from…hmmmm!

We put on our rather massive packs – mine was literally almost the size of me and walked off with the setting sun.. The older boys followed us in the hopes of getting some work as porters. We chatted and walked for some time – it was great to start the walk off with a distraction from our heavy packs. It was soon very dark though, and out came the headlamps. The young men followed us for quite some time, but eventually turned back. In fact mike had organised to walk in the dark so that we would not be followed all the way… the worry was that all our stuff would be stolen, which is a valid concern in a poor African village, but a bit of a shallow solution, unlike if the climbers that came to Blouberg spent some time building a healthy relationship with the village members. Anyway our fearless leader lead us on, at times getting a bit lost. But it was all good in the end – we made it to base camp… a well overhung rock floor next to the river. We promptly made a fire – we collected the wood, so that we could quickly get back to our game of cards. After food and hot drinks we fell asleep to the sounds of snoring men.

And thus the epic began. We woke up not particularly early, and fairly lazily packed and made breakfast. All along the way I had got the impression that the route we had chosen to do was fairly easy and the atmosphere was a rather relaxed nonchalant one in the camp. For our other big wall climbs, with the exception of INXS at Spitskoppe, we had always made fairly good mental and practical preparations before a big wall. This time however, we didn’t get it somehow. I’d obviously heard how big Blouberg was, but Snort has a way of always over-exaggerating, and my reflexive rebelliousness obviously took over. Also, on the walk-in to the wall from our camp in the morning, it was misty and we didn’t get an impression of the size of the wall at all. To top it all off we made the mistake of reading the route description as 9 pitches instead of 11. We were destined to epic.

I lead the first pitch… an excellent pitch on good quality rock, with a committing little traverse on tiny grips (Already off route as it should have been grade 16 but was more like 20). It was an almost 50m pitch. As we climbed we would hear the surreal tinkling of cowbells from the mist beneath us. Mike lead the next pitch – finishing on a small grass band. At this point we thought we were ahead of schedule because the grass band was at the end of pitch 3. Rad. I tried to follow the route description for the next pitch, but nothing made sense so I just kept motoring along in the general direction. Then I hit the Grass Band at the end of pitch 3 – another full 50m of rope.

This I think was our first indication of the size of Blouberg – this was the end of pitch 3 and this was the Grass Band. It had a full on walled out bivy space and stretched many metres across. At this point we realised that we were not remotely ahead of time, but that we had indeed better get our behinds into gear. The next pitch was an awesome one following all the features I couldn’t find on pitch ‘4’.

The pitch after that was one of the crux pitches – my lead. I discovered that the fact that I was starting to learn how to jam effectively was definitely a good thing, but that I still have a ways to go. The next couple pitches went down fine…another crux pitch with rad jams…the rock was clearly getting me to work my weaknesses.

At that point the sun was moving swiftly right along and Alex announced that the climb was 11 pitches long. Oh my hat!!! He ran up a crack pitch with jams widening to an off-width….so glad that was his lead… and then widening some more to a chimney….soooo glad that was his lead! By then it was clear that the sun was going to set before we had made it to the top – further up north and moving into the winter months the sun sets at 6. The next pitch involved tree climbing and no gear as the angle of the rock decreased and forested gullies appeared. I set an anchor with the last light. Alex came up to me and went off to lead what we hoped to be the last pitch. But alas, another full 50m later we still had at least another pitch to go. I grabbed some gear – and off I went. Because it was dark I couldn’t get perspective over where I was going. I took the least bushy path which lead me to my favourite…the off width. Eventually I decided that that was a terrible idea, so I tried to go the other way. I got very stuck in some trees and set an anchor in a huff. Alex came up to me and carried on. At that point it had started to drizzle. Alex finally topped out at the end of the gully.

As we had been lulled or lulled ourselves into a false sense of security about our climb, we had been scared silly about the walk down. ‘If you top out in the dark, don’t bother’ had been the verdict. This was mainly because of ‘the maze’ – a section of overgrown and rocky land in which you can easily get lost. At this point we were out of water, although it was raining on our heads, so we missioned off to at least find a good puddle and a dry place to sort ourselves out. We walked in the direction we had been told, following the features of the land. Eventually we came to a big gully that divides the wall of Blouberg. It seemed like there was a big drop and we couldn’t pass that way. So we walked back a little way, drank and found a dryish cave where we could try to get some sleep. We re-racked the gear for convenience, ate our last packet of tuna and unpacked the emergency blanket. We then found out that these ultra light blankets have a shelf life, beyond which they become one cellophane conglomerate which shreds when you try to open it. Ours clearly belonged in this category. So we lay down  nicely washed ropes as a ground mat and tried to get some sleep. It lasted for just over an hour and a half, when we decided we were soon to become icicles. We packed and moved off, warming up with the effort of bouldering in the rain and darkness. We again tried our insurmountable drop and managed to drop into it just fine. We popped out the other side of the gully and headed for the big radio tower. There we found a big generator house and lo and behold, emergency shelters with cots in them. As we walked into the one that was unlocked it seemed like the aluminium was radiating heat (of course it wasn’t – we were just extremely cold). At this point we had gotten into the groove of walking and it was difficult to decide whether to stay here or to keep moving. But it seemed stupid to let this present from the gods pass us by. So we got ‘comfortable’. About half and hour later the sky unleashed its wrath – howling winds and torrents of rain. All through the night this came in waves. We had to get up halfway through the night to jump around to keep warm. At 6 we got up and left.

We found the descent gully to the site of a sunrise I have never seen before. The sky was grey and stormy, but where the sun rose there was a gap. It rose neon red – the colour of red traffic lights at night – amidst a grey sky. We found our way easily through the maze and picked up our packs which we had hid up river so as not to leave anything in the camp the day before. When we entered the camp we met a bunch of hung-over climbers who were disappointed with our epic – we had slept on beds, while they had slept on the floor! Apparently we looked too ‘fresh’ as well… well in comparison to a bunch of hung-over old-timers maybe!!!