Driving up a pot-holed dirt track in the middle of the night, eyes out on stalks, wondering if we've taken a wrong turn and with the rest of the team tense and silent in the back of a Fiat Punto - accessing African crags can be quite a challenge! It's a very bumpy final 7km to the clearing and a welcome sign saying Tranquilitas Farm. Congratulations, you've made it to South Africa's climbing Mecca – Waterval Boven!
Waterval Boven, aka 'The Restaurant at the end of the Universe', is South Africa's premier sport climbing destination and one of the best climbing venues on the whole of the African continent.
I first heard about the place in 2011, on a rest day at the Ceuse campsite in Southern France. We had bumped into a group of top South African climbers who were raving about this relatively unknown climbing destination in their homeland. I was intrigued at once. They had a copy of the latest issue of a South African climbing magazine and inside there were several striking shots of orange sandstone walls surrounded by African bush. It looked totally stunning and I knew right then that I had to visit Boven. Four years later, I was out there experiencing it myself and can confidently say that it's one of the best places I've ever climbed at.
The cliffs form the crest of a major escarpment, 220km east of Johannesburg towards the Mozambique border and close to the settlement of Waterval Boven (Emgwenya). The town lies at the edge of the interior plateau where the Elands River plunges over a spectacular waterfall. The name means 'Above the Waterfall' and the town is a stopping point on the main road and rail links between Maputo and the Rand gold mines.
The rock type is a bullet hard, orange quartzite of impeccable quality, stretching for several kilometres along the escarpment. With over 700 bolted routes and grades ranging from 4 to 8c, there's something for everyone. The climbing style is unique to the area, varying from vertical routes following striking lines up to 30m in length, to mega-steep, pump fests where good technique, steely fingers and the urge not to let go will get you far.
Must visit sectors:
Tranquilitas: Right below the campsite so really easy access. Top routes: Who's line is it anyway 6c+, Eldorado 7b+, Pit fighter 8a+.
Baboon Buttress: Shorter, bouldery sector. Tope routes: Jenga 6a, Dreamers 6c+, Sweet plumb 7a+, Condor 7b+, The Bovenator 7c, Rolihlahla 8b.
'God No' Wall: The steepest wall in Boven, with the hardest routes and some of the most sensational climbing in SA. Top Routes: Freak On 7a, Dungeons and dragons 7b, Hell yeah! 7b+, Monster 7c+, Jack of all trades 8a, The Beast 8a+, Godzilla 8b.
The Superbowl: Steep, athletic lines up impeccable rock with two of South Africa's most famous routes! Top routes: Snap Dragon 7c+ and Lotter's Desire 7b+, also Rude Bushman 7a and Hypertension 8a.
Waterfall Crag: Spectacular climbing right next to a huge waterfall. Top routes: Urbisk the rustic brownie 6c+, Satan's temple 8a+, Unlimited power 7c, Something esoteric 6c+
When to go? South Africa's seasons are opposite to the northern hemisphere, so their winter is in our summer. African winters are usually dry and cool, whereas the summers can be wet and much hotter. We spent 2 weeks there in July and didn't see a single wisp of cloud, let alone a spot of rain! Daily temps were a pleasant 10-20 degrees - perfect climbing temperatures - but the nights can get cold and temperatures drop below zero, so pack your down jacket! Remember that the crest of the plateau is at 1,800m. The summer temperatures rarely get above 30°C and there's plenty of shade to be found at the foot of the crags.
Who flies where? You can fly direct to Johannesburg from London with a number of major airline companies but expect to pay top dollar. Cheaper options are available via Dubai or Cairo. Price wise, anything from £700 and upwards is standard although you might be lucky if you book well in advance. Car hire is essential from Oliver Tambo Airport and if you can afford it, get something with bigger wheels as the road up to the campsite and to most of the climbing areas are poorly maintained! We had a Fiat Punto, so you can imagine what that was like on a dirt track full of huge pot holes.
Where to stay? You're spoilt for choice! You can either stay in town at the fully equipped Climbers' Lodge in Waterval Boven run by Gustav www.rocrope.com or if you don't fancy the drive each morning, Tranquilitas Adventure Farm has cottages, safari tents and of course camping facilities for budget travellers (like us!) www.tranquilitas.com
What's the scoff like? South Africans love their red meat! It's incredibly cheap and can be bought in large quantities. Head to the local butcher and stock up on boerewors (sausages) and T-bones and then get the braai (bbq) on back at the campground! Wash it down with rooibos. Also biltong is a delicacy (dried meat) and great crag food.
Where can I buy a guide and supplies? A brilliant guide can be downloaded here: www.climbing.co.za with all the relevant information plus every route and description. There is a well-stocked climbing shop in the town run by Gustav and a basic supermarket which has all you'll need for your stay. There are cash machines and even a few restaurants too.
What else is there? This is the best bit! Boven can boast having the best rest day activity on the planet - going on safari! Waterval Boven is a mere 2 hour drive from South Africa's largest and one of the world's greatest Game Parks where you can see all the wild African animals and birds you've only ever seen on TV.
It's simply superb, reasonably priced and you can drive your own car into the Park and stay overnight at one of several safari camps. Go and spot the 'Big Five'.
Other things to do include excellent mountain biking around the Tranquilitas Farm on prepared bush tracks or just sit back and relax by the pool and take in one of the best climbers' camping grounds in the world! As South Africans say - 'it's lekker bru'!