Chicks for Free

Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga.  South Africa.

8 – 11 August 2012.

“Careful there,” the friendly Afrikaans-speaking climbers admonished amidst us a complicated series of directions, “Or you’ll find yourselves bundu-bashing.”  On our way to a day of climbing at Hallucinogen Wall in the province of Mpumalanga, we nodded solemnly and thanked them for their time.  Soon we found ourselves off-course, confused by their directions and wandering aimlessly through the thorns and tangles of the South African bushveld, finally understanding what the friendly Afrikaners meant by “bundu-bashing.”  Who knew aloes could be such unfriendly plants?

On a long weekend during August, I joined Gary and Merideth Gaffney – an older couple serving not far from me, affectionately known as “Garideth” – and their 23 year-old son Devon on a trip to explore the cliffs, caves, and gorges around Waterval Boven, where the open plains of the Highveld drop off into the dense bush of the Lowveld.  To those so initiated, the sandstone faces here make for excellent climbing.

While I have a general sense for what rock-climbing sort of is, I would hardly consider myself initiated in the sport.  At Roc’nRope Adventures, the guy renting us the gear asked Devon to rate himself as a climber.  Devon put himself at at “I’m maybe a 5.10 kinda climber.”  When he looked to me, I said as confidently as I could, “Yeah, like 5.8 or so.  Yeah.”  Devon nodded in approval, the gear guy nodded in approval, we got our gear, and we were on our way.

Devon was a great teacher, easy-going and fun to be around.  He set the routes – sandstone problems with wacky names like Smokey the Bear, Chicks for Free, Dead Gecko, and Gravy Train – and I followed.  We had a great day on the rock, trading stories that evening with Garideth over Castle Lagers and cheeseburgers at an Afrikaner dive bar.

The next day we hopped in the car for the Sudwa Caves, reputedly the world’s oldest, spending the afternoon touring the bizarre formations and chuckling at the guide’s canned humor.  Devon and I hung out in the back of the group, grousing about commercialization, making fun of the idiot tourists on our tour (a classification that clearly didn’t apply to us), and devising hare-brained schemes to explore the passages off the beaten track.

Travel Notes

We stayed at Kiepersol Bed & Breakfast, set in a beautiful riverine valley and run by Andre and Engela Boshoff, an exceedingly friendly Afrikaner couple who welcome us into their home for hearty English breakfasts and boer-style dinners.  Look them up at

The good people at Roc’n’Rope adventures gave us great advice, rented us climbing gear at affordable rates (the complete climbing kit came in at something like R150 for the day), and didn’t ask too many questions.  Look them up at

My good traveling companions, Garideth, write about their adventures at


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