If you sit quietly before dawn, on any given morning in Rocklands, you will clearly hear – possibly even feel – the rhythmic, sonorous hum of the boulders. If you venture up, beyond civilisation, to the top of Pakhuis Mountain, you can hear them at any time of day. As so many visitors and residents will attest, this is a place of magic and healing; a place where the land is still alive; a place that exposes to us the depth of geological time and ancient human ancestry; a place that is able to communicate its will and its wisdom to those who are prepared to pause and listen.
Ecological intelligence is not speech. It is an act. An act of weaving and unweaving our reflections of ourselves on earth, of scattering our eyes upon it and of scattering Earth upon our eyes. It comes alive between yes and no, between what is and what is not, between science and non-science. And as soon as it become acquisitive, something egoistic…it vanishes. Ian McCallum, Ecological Intelligence
In ancient time, Rocklands could be said to have been created and shaped by the forces of water, and even today, water forms the lifeblood of the land, with veins of moisture between the rocks themselves, feeding an astonishing array of vegetation.
About 500 million years ago, for a period of some 170 million years, the supercontinent Gondwana, which had been centred over the South Pole, started to drift north. As it did so, rifts formed in the ancient rock structures, diverting rivers and ultimately the ocean, until all of the very southern part of Africa became the Agulhas Sea. During this time, up to 8km of sediment was deposited into this shallow sea, creating what is known as the Cape Supergroup, of which the Cederberg and Pakhuis form a part. In the area of Cape Town, these sediments were were deposited directly onto eroded granite pavements and lithified to become the Table Mountain group. Ripples, wave-like lines and the fossil evidence of marine creatures testify to this time of marine deposition. During the same period, about 430 million years ago, the polar ice cap expanded and Gondwana went through a period of intensive glacial movement. The glaciers came from the northwest, from what is now Cameroon (the location of the south pole at the time). It was the movement of these glaciers that caused the tillite deposition of the Pakhuis Formation – a jumbled sandstone with scratchy quartz pebbles. As the glaciers melted and the ice retreated, fine-grained mud was deposited, creating the shale bands of the Cederberg Formation. Above this band is the Nardouw formation, comprising much softer sandstone deposits that, over time, have been eroded by wind to the fantastic shapes for which the central Cederberg is particularly famous.
As climbers, these fantastic stacks, folds and cracks are exactly what has drawn you to the area. Do bear in mind, however, that sandstone does absorb moisture, becoming fragile, particularly after rain. Knowing this can held prevent the breaking off of important holds! The holds are clean – no need to chip or wirebrush, but do please clean off any chalk build-up and tick-marks.
The Cederberg is named in honour of the Clanwilliam Cedar (Widdrongtonia Cedarbergensis). This beautiful tree was once common in these mountains (you can still see them dotted across the Pass), but a combination of frequent fires and more pertinently, overharvesting of the trees for their wood, has rendered them almost extinct. There is a cultivation programme in place, and every year, in May, visitors can participate in the replanting of cultivated cedars in a forest near the Moravian outpost of Heuningvlei.
The naming of Pakhuis, on the other hand, has several stories. Two of the most popular are that the stacked rocks and pillars resemble a “PackHouse” or warehouse – OR that the name is derived from the ancient Khoekhoe word, meaning “Dassie’s Rocky Place”. Certainly, these rocks are the kingdom of the dassies, or rock hyrax (Procavia capensis)!
Despite the nutrient-poor, sandy soil of the area, and the hot, dry conditions which exist for most of the year, the Cederberg boasts an extraordinary diversity of plant life, much of it endemic to the Cape Floristic region. It is a meeting place of three biomes, namely the Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and Nama Karoo. Up on the Pass, one mostly sees Mountain Fynbos, which is characterised by three elements, namely the Restios (the Cape Reeds), the Ericoids (which includes the delicately flowered Ericas or Heath, but also other narrow-leafed plants such as daisies and legumes) and finally, the Proteas. Within this space, you can also expect to see a broad diversity of medicinal plants, ranging from the fairly common and well-known, such as the wound healing Lobostemon Fruticosus (eight day healer bush) and the flu-treating Sand Olive (Dodonaea Angustifolia) to the obscure and almost extinct, such as the Witvergeet (White Forgetting – Asclepias Crispa).
Moving down through the Agter Pakhuis valley, southwards, the fynbos gradually evolves into Renosterveld in one direction, and into Succulent Karoo across the Plateau and down towards Travellers Rest. Within the Renosterveld, you will find a large amount of renosterbos (Elytropappus Rhinocerotis), thought to be good for stomach ache, while the Succulent Karoo tends more toward vygies (Mesembryanthemums) and daisies (Asteraceae) – which make a spectacular show in early Spring. Throughout the area, you will notice the sharp-leafed Muraltia Spinosa, or Tortoise Berry, whose purple blooms make such a beautiful show in Winter (while in summer they give way to delicious berries). In the fynbos, but more commonly on cultivated land, you will also find the world-famous Aspalathus Linearis, or rooibos tea bush.
A plant you may want to look out for, growing from the rocks, is the spiky Berkheya viscosa, often referred to as ‘climbers friend’. Its colloquial name is Karmedik, and it is an extremely important plant for complaints of the liver, or for blood cleansing.
You will also find a wide variety of trees, most of which – due to the Mediterranean climate – are shaped more like shrubs. These include the Breede River Yellowwood (Podocarpus elongatus), which is protected by law, as is the Wild Olive (Olea Europaea subsp Africana). Other species include the wild almond (Brabejum stellatifolium) – whose fruits are poisonous raw, but which can be leached to form a coffee substitute, the Rockwood (Heeria argentea), the Taaibos (Rhus Undulata) and the wild blueberry (Diospyros Glabra), whose fruits appear in December, and are edible. There are many more, too numerous to mention here.
In a discussion of plant life for climbers, there are probably three very important things to think about. Firstly, many of the tree species take a long time to grow. If you see a tall tree, it is likely very old. Some trees, like the wild olive, are regarded as sacred. Please do not simply cut away vegetation because it obscures a potential new line. Secondly, the time between April and September is particularly delicate, as this is when the tiny flower buds start to bloom. The process starts literally with carpets of miniscule dots on the floor. These are easily destroyed so it is really best to stick to paths, and definitely not to drag your crashpad or other gear around. The third thought is about reverence. These plants are not merely an expression of extraordinary biodiversity and evolutionary wisdom. They are also secret keepers. Because in this place, where colonialist expansion has virtually wiped any living connection between the ancient cultures of the area and the people who are their descendants, the relationship between people and plants has kept fragments of this history alive. Many people, when they think of the Cederberg, refer to the ancient heritage sites formed by the incredible rock art of the region. These are certainly sacred places; places of power. But the plants offer a connection to living history – because the knowledge of their secrets is still alive in the people today.
The Fynbos vegetation is evolved to burn. In a perfect expression of the circle of life and death, fire is required for the regeneration of the bush, and for the germination of seed. It is a miraculous experience to visit an area, a year or two after natural fire, and witness the greenness, new growth and flowers. However, there is also a natural rhythm to when these fires must occur (20-year cycles) and this is being severely disrupted, both by climatic factors such as drought, but also by the clumsiness of mankind. (Both of the Cederberg’s largest and most devastating fires in the last two years were caused by human mistakes). This is very important to bear in mind – the only place where you should make a fire is at your accommodation. You should also be careful to take any cigarette butts back out with you!
The Cederberg is also home to an amazing diversity of animal life. Take the time to learn some basic track-spotting, and the most amazing theatrical tales will unfold before you, each and every day. In the daytime, animals are shy, but you will certainly spot a diversity of lizards, and potentially dassies, klipspringers, baboons, clawless otters and mongoose. There are more than one hundred bird species – the black eagle, jackal buzzard and rock kestrel are the most important raptors. Look out, also, for the jewel-coloured orange breasted sunbirds. You will often find these feasting on the rocket pincushion species (Leucospernum), or or the wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus). By night, you may spot porcupine, caracal, duiker, African wild cat, bat-eared fox, honey badger or aardvark. Not to mention a diversity of spiders and scorpions! (Be aware when you pick up rocks. The really poisonous parabuthus is yellow in colour, with a fat, segmented tail and small pincers). The Cederberg is also home to the Cape leopard, but they are very shy. The most common poisonous snakes are the black spitting cobra and the puff adder. Both are highly venomous but will leave you alone if you do the same.
As advice for conservation-minded climbers, please bear in mind that as the climbing areas push further into the wild, the shyer of creatures are also pushed out. Try to be mindful of their space. Given that the natural habitat for many are the caves, it is not a good idea to stash your pads in the wild – you may effectively be clogging up someone’s living room, not to mention squashing the plants.
Finally, while it may be tempting to lure an animal with food to see them up close, it effectively signs their death warrant as they lose their natural wariness and eventually become destructive or even aggressive. This is what has happened to the baboons in Cape Town. Here, in the Cederberg, the wildlife tend to maintain their natural distance from mankind, and it is imperative that we respect this.
Mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that the earliest human ancestors, for all mankind, originated from the southern tip of Africa, some 200 000 years ago. The very oldest remaining record of prehistoric artwork was discovered in Blombos cave, on the southern Cape coastline, and is though to be 70 000 years old. The artwork that has survived in the Cederberg is thought to range in age from 8000 years to 200 hundred years. It was created by two groups of people, namely the San, who were hunter gatherers and the Khoi, who were pastoralists, and kept cattle which they later traded with the early Cape settlers. Both groups had deep knowledge of medicinal plants, which they also used ritualistically. Both groups placed great importance on healing, and incorporated dance as a vehicle to direct experience of the Divine, in their healing practice. To the San, in particular, this shamanistic experience was integral to their lives and many of the paintings depict elements of trance and the experience of transforming into animals – therianthropes. Other paintings simply show elements of daily life, and in some instances, historical events.
For visitors to the area, the best guideline would be to approach sites with rock art as you would any sacred site throughout the world. It is worth remembering that the paintings are delicate – they may have survived for thousands of years, but exposure to smoke, sweat, rubbing, water or bright light will damage and ultimately destroy them.
Steer clear of rock art sites when climbing, but do take the time to visit and view some of this incredible work – approached slowly and with meditative attitude, you too might glimpse some form of connection to that which they celebrate
Perhaps, in this discussion of our earliest ancestors, it is appropriate to bring up the topic of the traces we leave of our time here. After thousands of years, the only trace left on the land by the San and Khoi was their artwork. Of course, we’re not advocating any chalk graffiti, but what does it mean, in our context, to leave only beautiful traces behind? The best guideline would be a cleaner space than when you arrived, with only your footprints to tell the story of your visit. Pick up all litter (even if it isn’t yours), and if you need to answer the call of nature, do so in a remote spot and bury the evidence well. Toilet paper should be carried out.
Finally, we leave you with a thought from the opening quote: “Ecological intelligence…as soon as it becomes acquisitive, something egoistic…it vanishes.” As climbing becomes more popular, more competitive, more commercially sponsored, it becomes tempting to slip into the habit of racing between the acquisition of new boulders and lines, simply to catch the moment on social media. In doing so, that bond between you and the rock, between you and that ancient part of you that resides in the Earth herself – slips away like crumbling sand. And that would be a pity.