Rock revolution a way out of poverty

Children in the Cederberg have decided to try their hands at bouldering.

Pakhuys valley local Ashley 'Jockey' Jantjies (12) reaches up under the watchful eye of instructor Chris Kelk at Rocklands. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

It's attracting more climbers from all corners of the world every year, but children in the Cederberg have decided they want to try their hands at the sport happening in their own back yard. Bouldering is presenting them with an opportunity to clamber out of their circumstances.

A weekend retreat is what Thys Kruger and his family had in mind when they bought a plot of land near Clanwilliam.

With little but rocks and shrubs dotting the hot and dusty Cederberg landscape, there was no ambitious farming plan in the pipeline.

Little did they know they were moving onto something of a gold mine.

It wasn't long before strange visitors started appearing at the gate, asking permission to explore the property. Kruger had no way of anticipating what was about to happen next.

"When we initially purchased the farm in 2004 we essentially bought a pile of rocks, [we] had no idea what we were going to do with it… And then the climbers arrived and changed my life," he shrugs.

To the untrained eye the strange sandstone formations which dot the landscape present nothing more than interesting photographic subjects.

To seasoned rock climbers, however, it was a discovery which became the stuff of legends. In the last 15 years 'Rocklands', as it is known in climbing circles, has become regarded as one of the top bouldering destinations in the world.

But the winds of change that came with the arrival of the climbers not only impacted the lives of land owners such as Kruger.

Curious local children could not fail to notice the strangers who would spend hours on the boulders, hauling their bizarre 'mattresses' around and staying glued to the area for months at a time, come wind, rain or snow.

The climbers, in turn, started seeing inquisitive youngsters hiding among the rocks, watching their every move. It was not long before they invited some of them to try out the sport.

An informal, occasional climbing school was born, which benefitted children during the few months of the climbing season.

As it turned out, the children took to climbing as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the children, De Pakhuys farm decided that the limitations of the informal school could no longer be ignored.


Chris Kelk first visited Rocklands as an 18-year-old school leaver. The tall British climber spent months on De Pakhuys farm exploring the exciting routes the sandstone formations had to offer.

Along with other migratory climbers he would keep coming back every season.

Familiar with the farm, the family, the valley and it's social dynamics, the soft-eyed, gentle 23-year-old immediately stood out as the perfect candidate for what Kruger had in mind.

And like the spirited Afrikaans farmer, he can't help but smile when remembering the childlike inquisitiveness that started it all.

"They would hop on boulders and peek out and watch you and be a little intrigued about what these guys are doing, climbing boulders with crash pads and chalk - it seems a bit odd from the outside.

"It's hard not to want to get involved when you see that curiosity and when you remind yourself of what it was like to start climbing, and be curious and motivated and inspired by others," he explains.

Both continue to be astonished by the motivation and natural ability of the children, many who come from broken, impoverished homes, often affected by rampant alcohol abuse that is common in the remote valley.

Through climbing, however, the little ones have found common ground with sophisticated sportsmen and women through what Kruger describes as an 'equalising' activity, opening their minds as well as training their bodies.

"What makes this climbing school so unique is that you have a community which was essentially so isolated form the world.

"And now you have people from absolutely all over the world - qualified people, nature lovers - coming here, climbing with the kids, sharing their worldly experiences with the children and just broadening the horizons of these kids like you can't believe," he says.

The climbers have not only stolen the Kruger family's hearts, but those of the entire Clanwilliam. When

Kruger visits town at the start of the climbing season, he is bombarded with townsfolk eagerly wanting to know: 'Are they here yet?'

"It's incredible what it did to the community and what it does for the community of Clanwilliam," he says.

"The economic injection is immeasurable. The difference it makes to the lives of the children on this farm already, only after six years of it being an established sport… it's incredible where this will go eventually..."

The sun lights up some of the rock formations the Rocklands area is famous for. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN

Ten-year-old Damien struggles to express what climbing means to him, except to say in Afrikaans that he loves the climbers, and they love him. The rural setting presents a childhood filled with outdoor activities such as chasing baboons and making tin cars but most could not hope for much more than jobs as farm labourers.

Thys now has high hopes for children like Damien - he wants to see a child from Rocklands escape their circumstances and make it on the international climbing scene.

The sport, he argues, has become much more than a way for bored children to kill time. It also offers them a glimpse of a different future and a foothold to reach it.