History of Climbing at White Umfolozi

Copyright: MCSA-KZN 1998 ©

For those who might be interested, the early days of climbing at the White Umfolozi are described below. This information has been obtained mainly from Neil McQueen and Craig Pearman with contributions from Ron Uken, Gerald Camp and Stewart Middlemiss.

The earliest account of climbing at the White Umfolozi is that of Stewart Middlemiss. He visited the site as a student on a geology field trip in 1986. A few months later he and his friends, Steve Kelsey and Bill Slater travelled down from Johannesburg to go climbing at Monteseel. On the way they stopped in for a day's climbing at the White Umfolozi where they climbed a couple of the most obvious lines on the Warrior Wall. After inspecting photos of the venue, Stewart thinks that the lines they climbed included 'Sands of Time' and 'Batman'. After this single visit, Stewart never went back - mainly because of the distance from Jo'burg and because he became involved with the development of Blouberg to the north. After this initial trip, the venue saw no further climbing activity until 1992 when Craig Robertson got the ball rolling again.

Craig Pearman writes that, "In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Mountain Club at the University of Natal in Durban was particularly active and sport climbing was taking off with many new venues to explore. Places like Shongweni were not accessible due to political troubles and we were looking further afield for new crags. Around the country the Capey's had just started developing Montague and the Vaalies had found Waterval Boven, so there was a magic atmosphere of 'go forth and bolt'. The main motivator for exploring the White Umfolozi was Craig Robertson who was studying chemical engineering at Durban Varsity."

Craig lived at Vryheid in northern Natal and regularly drove between Vryheid and Durban via Eshowe, along the R34. During these trips he noticed the crags on the White Umfolozi that are clearly visible on either side of the bridge. Neil McQueen had also seen these crags on trips to Nelspruit and the two of them decided to organise an exploratory trip. 'Murphy' intervened and Neil was unable to attend this outing but Craig and a few friends went and camped at the Matatane campsite upstream of the main bridge (the present riverside hut had not yet been built). This camp is on the banks of a small tributary that joins the White Umfolozi just above the bridge. They explored the tributary and found a superb plunge-pool in a deep bowl of orange rock just upstream of the junction with the main river. Here they spent some time making long leaps into deep water and doing some bouldering.

On a subsequent trip, Andrew Russell-Boulton bolted a route (The Plunge - 24) on the wall next to the waterfall - see pg 193 in Roger Nattrass' guide 'Natal Rock'. Gerald Camp relates that on this trip, "We liked the place - impressive and full of adventure. We opened a 22 (whose name escapes me) - a bolted line next to the pool [Actually 'The Plunge', 24]. We sunbathed and did a really good, moderately high jump from a cliff into the pool. Had some other fun too. Dug a hole about 20 cm deep in the river bed, inserted a 'Gaz' cooker, fired it up and stuck a new one on top. Kaboom - but we saw nothing. Next morning we found the cylinder with its bottom blasted out about 50 m behind where we had been watching."

Meanwhile, Neil McQueen and Craig Robertson agreed that the real potential of the area lay in the higher crags that were visible downstream of the bridge and the two of them organised a trip to explore this area. This time it was Craig who was unable to go, but word had started to spread and Neil was easily able to recruit Gerald Camp to join him. They stayed at the Matatane camp site - the only option in those days - and accessed the crags by driving along the farm roads and then along the railway line until they estimated they were in the vicinity of the crags. At this point they parked their car, walked down the hill, reached the top of the Friction Wall and saw the Warrior Wall on the far side of the river in all its morning splendour. This set the tone for an exciting weekend.

Neil McQueen writes, "We were stoked! We attacked the Warrior Wall since it looked sooooo good and Gerald opened 'Batman' (17) and 'Mfecane' (23) as the first routes. I opened 'Dingane's Manoeuvres' (18) on the same day. The river was low and clear. We swam, climbed, swam, lunched at the 'Lunch Blocks' and then climbed again." Later that Saturday Neil spotted and attempted 'Shaka' (23) but was unable to lead it at first. The next day (Sunday) they turned their attention to the Frab and Sliction Wall (* - see footnote) where Neil opened the impressive line 'Psychobabble Rap' (20). Neil continues, "Richard Knott pitched up for the day and promptly opened the classic 'Sands of Time' (16). We also tackled the huge, left-tending roof on the Warrior Wall but ended in abbing off a hex since it was way too hard for us mortals. To lead 'Shaka' was the weekend's crowing hope, but seemed to elude me. The thought of another three hour trip each way, with exams looming, provided renewed motivation and the route went at last, ending a two day spree of exploring and route opening on a high! Further trips were limited due to student budgets and study commitments, however, about a year later we managed two trips with bigger groups and so Dairy Dilemma; Hunted Child; The Works; Peaceful Protest and Purple People Eater, amongst others, went up. We all loved how hard, beautiful and clean the rock is. Amazing that the place had not been seen and climbed before."

After this initial developmental phase climbing at the White Umfolozi came to a virtual standstill. The reasons are not clear. Craig Pearman recalls that the farm changed hands and that the new owner was less 'climber friendly' than the original owner. He also noted that another factor that possibly contributed to the slump was the fact that that the pioneer route openers were students who all graduated and moved away from the area at more or less the same time. Anyway, after 3 or 4 years in the doldrums the venue was 're-discovered' in the later part of the 1990s. Since then there has been a slow but steady increase both in the number of new routes and in the number of climbers visiting this really magical venue - long may this last.


(*) Foot notes:

1. Craig Pearman mentions that he has dim recollections of finding some old pegs in the rock above the bridge during their earliest visits. If anyone can throw more light on this I'd be glad to hear from you. Later -16 Sept 2003: Daniel Ryding says that the pegs were in the face adjacent to the plunge pool but has no idea about their origin.

2. It will be noticed that Roger Nattrass' definitive book 'A Climber's Guide to Natal Rock' refers to the 'Kua Wall'. This meaningless name, of uncertain pronunciation, was apparently due to the illegible handwriting of a well-known Natal climber (GC!). I later discovered that the original name was apparently the KVA Wall, where KVA stands for kilovolt amp. This unit of electrical power is equivalent to the kilowatt and presumably derives from the power lines which cross the river directly over this wall. Nowadays, most climbers refer to this wall as the Power Wall. The Frab and Sliction Wall also suffered a name change. It would appear that the original spoonerism proved too much of a tongue twister and the wall is now generally known simply as the Friction Wall - at least the essence of the original names has been preserved.

3. Finally, as a matter of interest, the 'old' low-level bridge near the present riverside hut carried the main Eshowe - Vryheid road (R34) until the present road and bridge was built in about 1950. The last 2 km of the road down to the hut and old bridge were also a part of the old R34 - imagine trying to get up that in the cars of the day, especially after rain !