Climbing Botswana: The Edge of the Kalahari

The history of rock climbing in Botswana centers around the granite crags of Kgale Hill

My new climbing friend from Botswana, Wame Chiepe, was robbed last week. He was out when a guy broke into his room and took all of his blankets, a jacket, a pair of jeans and his tent. Wame was really sorry to lose his tent, as a minimum he could understand why somebody wanted it.

“But what kind of thief steals a brother’s blanket,” he asked in a painfully rhetorical voice. “My blankets.”

Winter in Botswana is no joke: a flat expanse of emptiness known as the Kalahari Desert—Africa’s second most famous desert—here the wild animals outnumber the humans and live according to the whims of mother nature. Nighttime winter temperatures in the desert can drop below zero, and sudden desert storms are capable of unleashing brash, destructive hail and wind, short yet intense. The winter comes and goes quickly. Most of the year, the desert and the surrounding semi-arid rangelands are born of heat and die of heat.

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The Red Rocks, orange granite cracks.

Wame and I met rocKMCLogok climbing on a granite cliff band halfway up Kgale Hill, Gaborone’s most famous hill, which stands 300 meters tall on the south side of town next to the Game City mall. The kjopie, as hills are sometimes called in these parts, is hiked by visitors often at dawn after exhausting their curiosity for game drives, the big five and air-conditioned malls. From the cell phone towered top an eagle’s eye view presents Botswana’s largest city, stretched out pretty thin over 30 plus kilometers into the dry savannah, a sea of acacia.

Kgale’s granite offers cracks, face and friction climbs on a large variety of textures and rock for such a small area. I was surprised to find a polished hold 15 meters up, in the middle of the cliff. The baboons use these cracks systems every day to get up and down the mountain. The word Kgale means ‘a long time ago’ and the large quantity of rock polished by generations of baboons gives you an idea of just how long ago Kgale goes.

Kgale Hill is the pivot point where a handful of members from Botswana’s rock climbing crew, the Kalahari Mountain Club, come again and again to scale walls for fun. The crew, which has seen dozens of members come and go, also collects donations of shoes, harnesses and ropes and sponsors climbing clinics to introduce the sport to beginners. Wame discovered rock climbing when a Canadian missionary/climber added rock climbing to a church outing for a Botswana youth group in 2014. Climbing was a thoroughly spiritual experience on a whole new level.

Wame at Kgale

Wame at Kgale.

Wame grew up with his mother, who supported him by sewing wedding dresses and teddy bears for Valentine’s Day. She passed away when he was 16. His childhood was nomadic, and he spent an inordinate amount of time with his uncle out at the ‘cattle post’, bush settlements that put cattle ranchers closer to their animals.

“I never had a real home, the outdoors was always my world,” says Wame. “When I was a kid, I saw Sylvester Stallone climbing in a movie, and I wanted to be Stallone.” Well, who doesn’t?

Kgale History of Climbing

Before the dawn of bolting and anchor chains, first ascents in Botswana go back to the 70s and 80s, in part thanks to its proximity to South Africa. A 1979 issue of the UK-based Alpine Journal says “the greatest concentration of routes so far is on Kgale Mountain where the rock is excellent granite with many wide cracks and narrow chimneys.” The author, Tony Mills, went on to describe a first ascent on another kjopie not far from Gaborone in 1977 saying “I reached an impasse underneath the last overhang by some nests of horrible hornets which attacked me, causing instant retreat in disarray abandoning equipment wholesale.” The author then assures readers of his return with a “can of insecticide”, an essential tool for aid climbers in Botswana.

Thirty years later, Robert Daffe worked as a PE teacher at the Westwood private school in Gaborone when he and his circle of climbers starting bolting the Kgale Hill climbs between 2003 and 2006 in three distinct sectors: Black Rocks, Red Rocks, Upper Tier. One friend, Carl Bauer, made first ascents on some of the face climbs, using thin protection, and remembers when Daffe first started adding bolts.

“I quite liked the traditional climbing style so I was reluctant to bolt. I also thought we should ask first, but Robert quite rightly pointed out that would never work since practically no one knew what climbing was. The land on Kgale is actually owned by the Catholic church so we should have asked them although I think in practice it has a much wider ownership of the people who use it and enjoy it,” explains Bauer.

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The Black Rocks, home to several bolted local classics.

Indeed, beyond the Kalahari Mountain Club, every Sunday an outdoor congregation wearing white gowns and advocating unconditional love meets to pray to the skies. And then there are the baboons, of course.

Daffe convinced the school to cover the costs of bolts and anchors. He also helped the school acquire a climbing wall from local legend and creator of Botswana Craft, Oliver Groth, cementing his reputation as the “climbing guy” of Gabs (Gaborone) for several years.

Daffe, Bauer and their small group of rebel rousers put up anchors on more than 45 climbs at Kgale Hill. The longest climbs are no more than 25 meters, and since all the easiest faces and cracks have been developed, strong men like South African Andrew Pedley, then came into town to bolt additional hard, tricky climbs on the orange granite. That short period of climbing development in this torturously flat country is rife with stories about hornets, bats, owls, snakes and barking baboons.

Botswana will likely never be a destination in itself. Still Kgale Hill remains a hometown crag where an ongoing group of climbers can get vertical above Gab’s many malls. Daffe, who later passed away after a battle with cancer, left a small but important legacy for the climbers who end up living in Gaborone. Today, the Kalahari Mountain Club carries the torch and regularly meets up for dawn patrol to climb while the rest of the city sleeps.

As I walked off Kgale Hill for the last time on this trip, my friend Wame turned to me and said “every day after climbing I feel like I’ve been on a long journey”. For many of us, climbing is just that, a journey.

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Afternoon sun in Botswana’s winter.

 

Guy Williams on Plumbline

Guy Williams on Plumbline.

 

Motswana climber, Monica, on her first lead climb after just three months of climbing.

Motswana climber, Monica, on her first lead climb after just three months of climbing.