Last week my first written and photo print article was published in Grimper Magazine. Unfortunately, it can only be read in French through the actual publication, but I figured I would share images of the article as well as the English version of the text for anyone interested in reading it!
Chimanimani National Park- A Land Before Time
It has been a little over a year since I was standing in the vast green valley surrounded by white quartzite boulders as far as the eye can see; it has been a little over a year since I was living in one of the most remote locations imaginable- Chimanimani National Park, Zimbabwe. Two summers in a row I was blessed to witness the pristine remoteness of this exotic landscape, but this summer I visited the park through photos and the film I helped to create, Uncharted Lines. Of all the locations shot for the film, this one dominated in terms of beauty, quality, adventure, fear, and possibility. A country not often visited or thought of by American travelers, Zimbabwe should be added to the bucket list of anyone desiring to step back in time and step deep in to nature. Most of the country seems untouched by time, with thousands of people living in huts without electricity or running water and safari animals roaming the countryside; it is unlike any place I had ever witnessed.
Zimbabwe is not a country for the faint of heart, even in the largest cities you will not be greeted by 5 star hotels and black tie service, rather, you will be faced with banks that run out of cash even with the limit of $100 in withdrawals per day, fast food as the only dining option on certain nights, and people constantly trying to sell you things or extort money from your pockets. In a country that is predominately poor, unemployed and black, white, decently dressed people have a target on their backs. But for all that is “difficult” about Zimbabwe, it is by far one of the most incredible places I have ever been in my life; full of kind, inquisitive people, exotic, beautiful animals, and heart stopping uninhabited landscapes.
As the primary cinematographer and co-director of Uncharted Lines, I accompanied the two climbers of the Zimbabwe portion of the film, Jimmy Webb and Paul Robinson, to Chimanimani National Park in order to find and establish a variety of new boulders. Our group was accompanied by another videographer, Maxwell Frank, a photographer, Christian Adams, and Derrick Starling, one of the only rock climbers in Zimbabwe whom Paul and I had met during our first trip. Derrick, who was fortunate enough to be introduced to rock climbing by his high school teacher, was the proud owner of the only climbing wall in Zimbabwe. He lived in a multi-house compound with his brother Neville, his mother, and a few dogs in Bulawayo, one of Zimbabwe’s only cities. Derrick helped us to navigate the stressful ins and outs of traveling in a country that has not been touched by tourism- aside from Victoria Falls. “The climbing community in Zimbabwe is really small, up until the beginning of this year (2017) I would have said there were about six dedicated climbers, but we have recently had the formation of a new climbing club bringing the numbers up to nearly fifty.” Derrick tells me.
Paul and I had stumbled upon Chimanimani National Park with pure luck. We had heard through a few different grape vines over a couple of years of a far away land of massive, high quality boulders. As two people who spent a lot of time on climbing adventures, we were intrigued, but not enough to leave the comforts of Rocklands and Capetown each time we visited South Africa. When the idea for Uncharted Lines came up and we began searching for areas worthy of bringing athletes and documenting the adventure of bouldering development, memories of Zimbabwe returned to our minds. We took a huge risk and spent a lot of money in 2015, hoping to discover something worthwhile. After two days of exploring the park, we realized it was not only worthwhile, but extraordinarily magical. It was around this time that we first made contact with Derrick. Derrick had just so happened to think about Chimanimani, or Chims as the locals call it, around the same time as us when he ran across an old camping photo from the park and noticed the infinite boulders in the background. A rope climber at the time, Derrick was interested in learning to boulder and was used to the adventure and hardships of developing his own climbs. When contact was made, our group, along with the group of all six Zimbabwean climbers, arranged to meet and explore together.
Chimanimani National Park is the smallest national park in Zimbabwe and is also the least visited. It is a four hours drive from the nearest grocery store, hospital and ATM, making preparation for the journey a necessity. After a slew of political and economic issues, Zimbabwe transferred their currency to the American dollar but Robinson will admit that despite it being Africa, “It’s not really that cheap of a place to go to.” He learned first hand that it’s vital to get the logistics set up beforehand because, “Once you are there, you have what you have set up for yourself. You don’t have the amenities of a first world country anymore.” Some of these logistics include sorting out a 4X4 rental car (preferably with two gas tanks because gas and cars are rare), bringing a lot of new American dollars, and planning out food, water purification, toiletries, solar charging systems, first aid supplies, cooking supples, as well as being fully prepared for every type of possible weather. There is no option to purchase any camping or climbing supplies within Zimbabwe, so all preparation must be made prior to arrival within the country.
For a variety of the previously mentioned reasons, Chims has not grown as a climbing area aside from the few local climbers and our group. Despite the filming being a huge success and establishing dozens of five start lines, Robinson and Webb both returned to South Africa this year but did not return to Zimbabwe. “It’s a mission to get there,” says Robinson. “It’s not something you can plan spur of the moment like a trip to most climbing areas. You really have to plan 6 months in advance and know that you are going there.” With Rocklands, South Africa being constantly displayed in the media plus its close proximity to a town, nice accommodations and restaurant options, it has remained the go-to option for African bouldering. Additionally, there is a nice printed guidebook which features thousands of bouldering problems, whereas the PDF guide that Derrick made following our Uncharted Lines trip still has less than 200 documented problems.
On the plus side, what Chims offers that Rocklands can no longer provide due to its ever increasing popularity, is a sense of adventure and remoteness. As a group of people setting out to make a film about climbing adventures and first ascents, Chims offered us everything we wanted and more. “Being so far away from everything. Knowing that areas like that exist, the hope that there is so much more out there that hasn’t been discovered yet, that’s my favorite part of Chimanimani,” says Paul. “Just settling for climbing in Rocklands or climbing in Hueco is unnecessary if you want to take that step and find something incredible,” he says. On the other hand, he added with firm confidence that it was not an area for new climbers. “Climbing is dangerous. This adds so many levels to the danger. If you haven’t been to Rocklands, Font, Hueco, etc. wait until you go there, and then go to Zimbabwe.” Zimbabwe is a place for climbers who are looking for what’s next and not necessarily looking to tick off a lot of hard repeats.
Like Rocklands has now become, Zimbabwe already was somewhat expensive. The local people realize what tourists are able to afford and take full advantage of providing different rates to locals vs Americans and Europeans, just as Cape Nature now makes climbers pay for climbing passes and house rental prices have drastically risen in Rocklands. This is certainly a sore point for Paul, along with the other inconveniences. There is a feeling that “you can’t really spend that much time up there because of how difficult it is to get food. You spend all this time planning a trip there but in essence you are only there for a short amount of time because its so demanding on the body.” With added adventure, comes added danger. “It’s extremely remote,” says Robinson. “If something does go wrong, it’s exponentially worse because getting access to medical help would be very very difficult. You are very much in the middle of no where.”
There are two options for accommodation within Chims; camping at the base of the mountain where there is access to electricity, running water, toilets and fire heated showers but the need to hike 1.5 hours up a steep mountain each day to get to the climbing OR sleeping in the mountain hut at the summit with the boulders, but there is not always a working toilet or running water, there is no electricity and and there is no easy access to an escape. The hut sleeps 14 spread out amongst a couple rooms, has a fireplace and two large tables. Our first trip was only 5 days and we spent each day hiking up and down the mountain, camping at the base. While the access to plumbing and electricity was a bonus, when the time came to choose a sleeping location for the film crew the following year, the cabin at the top was a unanimous vote so we could spend more time exploring and climbing and less time hiking the designated trail.
Regardless of sleeping location, all checkins occur at the camping area at the base of the mountain where the head ranger works. Payments are done here, as well as arrangements with porters- local people who will help carry your stuff up the mountain for between $10-20 each. For our group, hiring a large crew of porters was necessary on account of the amount of filming and climbing equipment, food and cooking supplies for 1.5 weeks for a group of eight.
The hike begins like a stair master, taking us up steep stone steps through a thick shaded forest, before giving way to an environment more similar to a jungle. There are streams to cross and rocks to climb. The path is rarely flat and there is a constant fear of snakes and spiders amongst the tall, thick bush. The sun beats down hard and we all groan and sweat. Each person is still carrying a full load on their backs, regardless of our need to hire multiple porters. The trees become increasingly scare and the quantity and quality of rocks grows endless. As we climb higher and higher up the mountain, the temperatures subside and the wind picks up.
Chims sits at a much higher altitude than many places in Africa, making it much colder than Rocklands, but with a lush, mountainous landscape, also comes a higher uncertainty of weather patterns. With food and supplies already rationed, every day has to be a climbing day no matter what. When it rains, you climb on roof boulders or hike around looking for new boulders in the seemingly endless valleys; when its sunny and hot, you climb in the shade. You constantly feel tired, but at the same time invigorated. With each turn taken or hillside summited, there is potential for new climbs. When you hear unfamiliar sounds, it’s often a tribe of baboons and there is high potential of seeing deadly poisonous snakes- we saw and had a near run in with a Puff Adder, the fastest striking snake that aims for the neck of its prey. Awareness and alertness are vital and everyone needs to maintain a semblance of independence, as well as work together as a collective whole.
But with hardship comes adventure, in fact, throughout my travels I’m starting to think the two go hand in hand. Hardship helps you to appreciate the niceties of the things we often take for granted- clean water, shelter, warmth, food, electricity. Adventures such as these require meals from cans and bags, inconsistent bathing or bathing in freezing cold river water, using nature as a toilet, and uniting together as a family. Our days were simple in hindsight, we walked, climbed, filmed and ate. Meals were a team endeavor and cutting and prep work occurred on the dirty wooden table as resident mice ran around searching for scraps of food. We huddled by the fire as our only source of light, talking about climbing plans for the following day and writing shots lists and scripts.
Each day began cloudy and often rainy, hurting the team’s morale, but just we approached hopelessness, the clouds would clear and the sun would appear. Each day we would uncover boulders better than the previous day and often times Jimmy and Paul would duel for the first ascent. Most boulders were high balls and had to be practiced on ropes before executed with perfection- failure was not an option here. Often times the boulders were only attempted once from the bottom so the film crew had to be ready to capture everything in one try. The desire to explore and conquer was contagious and rather than focusing on difficulty, the focus was on quantity of quality. Robinson and Webb sought out the most inspiring, beautiful lines they could, only picking the very best because of our limited time in the park. It was inspiring to see such a feverish passion in these two guys- there was a genuine love of developing climbs as well as the act of climbing in itself. I would equate Chims to a massive multi-level jungle gym that two 8 year old boys had never played in but were released and left unattended by their parents. They ran around with never-ending energy yelling to the group each time they discovered something worthwhile. The pace was always fast- too much to climb and too little time. But the passion was contagious and I was grateful to be a part of the passion.
When the filming in Chimanimani had concluded, we marched our tired, dirty bodies down the mountain and piled into Derrick’s Land Rover. Unlike our first trip to Zimbabwe, we had reserved enough time on our second trip that we could experience more aspects of the remarkable country including the local climbing and wildlife park of Matopo outside of Bulawayo, Victoria Falls, and Hwange National Park, where we did a self-guided safari.
If adventure is what you seek, then by all means, take a gander. But if you have trouble dealing with bartering, arguments, inconveniences, and potential danger- definitely don't schedule a trip anytime soon. I cannot wait to return here and I constantly think about this magical country and all the included adventure.
Link to topo:
Park Website: http://www.zimparks.org/index.php/parks-overview/national/chimanimani
Outward Bound Website: http://www.outwardbound.net/schools/zimbabwe/
Zimbabwe Climbing Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306994332806470/