Eastern Cape Rock


words by Keith James
pic by Douw Steyn

The first time I really travelled to the dolerite hinterlands of the eastern Cape was with Alwin Wood — we had organised a South African Climbers Club (SACC) national meet at Queenstown’s Hangklip — and the two things that struck me were concerned with the smell of anger that permeated the social landscape (the burning townships; the diesel belching Caspers seemingly omnipresent; the smouldering resentment of the people); and the acrid tang of the stone (high-altitude dolerite) in sunlight, its softer fleshed-out smell after rain.
The headiness of the revolutionary times was paralleled by the heady discovery of seemingly endless high country peppered with dolerite mesas and kilometres of dolerite escarpments.
I remember hanging off a minuscule stance five pitches up the south face of Hangklip and looking out into the western distance and seeing the twin mesas of Mary and Martha near Tarkastad, the sharp scarps of the Bamboesberg disappearing towards Hofmeyer, the elegant saddles of the Hogsback escarpment in the south-west, and realising that every horizon that I sought out contained virgin rock, the dolerite that the farmers and settlers had called ironstone. I swore after that trip to move to this place, an area convoluted in its climatology and geomorphology as well as in its history. Virtually every crag and town had stories to tell of the bloody convoluted wars of the colonial era — wars of dispossession between Xhosa and San, British and Xhosa, Boer and San, and British and Boer.
I moved to Grahamstown in the mid 1980’s and found the quartzite ridges and kloof edges that were the petering out of the fold ranges; I realised that the sea cliffs of Morgan Bay, Coffee Bay, Brazen Head and Port St Johns were all part of the dolerite swathing its way from the eastern Karoo uplands to the Wild Coast, while just north and just as wild the sea cliffs of Lupatana and Mkambati were the sandstone outcroppings which found their most culturated (for the climber) embodiment at Monteseel in Kwa Zulu Natal.

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