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Swinburne Rock Climbing

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23km from Harrismith

-28.3811, 29.2765

10 minutes walk in.

+27 84 516 6820

Moderate, Grade 11-34, Suitable for children


The golden sandstone outcrops of the eastern Free State have long been a popular weekend retreat for Gauteng climbers and, although nearby Mount Everest/Eagle Mountain is better known, the superb crags near Swinburne, just off the N3, are seeing more and more traffic.

The climbing here is on the Appin Farm, where the dominant feature is Rensburgkop, an enormous koppie with walls soaring almost 200 metres high. Surrounding the main mountain are huge boulders, several of which have bolted sport routes up to 20 metres high.

Swinburne has a bit of everything: trad climbing, bouldering and both single-pitch and multi-pitch sport routes ranging from grade 15 to 34. With more than 70 bolted routes, including several around grade 17 and only two routes above 28, it’s a good novice-to-intermediate venue and there’s lots of potential for many more, especially hard routes, to be put up.

The climbing here is very different from the rest of South Africa. The rock is rough, reddish-orange sandstone filled with pockets and small sharp edges, and you’ll be surprised by the small footholds and sloped holds.

The most popular multi-pitch route, the eight-pitch “Long Bolt to Freedom” (17) is about 180 metres high and takes you right to the top of the mountain. The 175-metre-long “A Time to Climb” (21) also takes you to the top. Offering slabs, overhangs, cracks and face, it’s a worthy challenge. Other classics include the long “Lost Arrow” (18), which goes up the highest part of the Spear Head Boulder on pockets and crimps (note that it requires 13 draws), “Curry Muncher” (23), a short but overhanging route that requires a series of big moves, and “Swordfish” (28) a short but very steep line on the Shark Tank boulder that demands both strength and good technique.

The sandstone rock tends to be quite soft and chunks can often break off, so it is wise to use a helmet for belaying, especially on newer routes or when opening routes. There’s an online route directory on

Swinburne is within a few kilometres of the Drakensberg escarpment so it attracts mountain weather. In other words, it can be hot, cold, windy, misty or even snowy all in a day. Plan accordingly, bringing water, sunscreen, warm jackets and beanies!

Climbers staying overnight have a choice between camping, chalets or dormitory accommodation in the barn.

Thabo Mofutsanyana

Free State


The northern and eastern sections of the Free State, commonly referred to as the “eastern Free State”, nudge up against the borders of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Kingdom of Lesotho. Officially the region is called Thabo Mofutsanayana.  Mofutsanyana, born in QwaQwa, was a leading light of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party until his death in 1995.

Geographically, this region bucks a trend. While most of the Free State is flat, the eastern reaches tower up as the Drakensberg and the Malotis come into play. The landscape climbs and soars, leaving impressive cliffs and buttresses of sandstone, and hidden caves in its wake.

Nowhere is the scene more striking that at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park near the village of Clarens. The maze of sculptured rock formations here is almost too much to absorb.  Sunset colours the cliffs in shades of ochre, hence the reference to gold in the name of the park.

These higher altitudes, of course, do wonders for the eastern Free State air, which is crisp, clean and bracing, conducive to a feeling of good health.

Clarens is one of the villages that lie in the foothills of the Malotis. With its mountainous surrounds, it is said to be reminiscent of the Swiss village of Clarens, where President Paul Kruger lived out his exile.

A town of sandstone buildings set amidst farmland, it has undergone something of a reincarnation in recent years as an artists’ colony. Just three hours or so from Gauteng’s big cities, weekenders come down to roam its galleries and craft shops.

The principal town in this region is Bethlehem. Once again sandstone buildings are characteristic of the town, which is the centre of a farming community that produces the lion’s share of South Africa’s wheat crop.

It has both built and natural attractions, including a flat-water slalom course for canoeists on the Ash River. Bethlehem is also the location of an annual national hot-air balloon championship.

Also set against an imposing Maloti backdrop is Ficksburg, renowned for its annual Cherry Festival in summer. A gateway to Lesotho and its Katse Dam, the town’s environs offer much in the way of adventure activity, such as 4x4 trails, quad-biking, abseiling, trout-fishing and game-viewing.

Other Thabo Mofutsanyane towns are Arlington, Clocolan, Fouriesburg, Harrismith, Kestell, Lindley, Marquard, Memel, Paul Roux, Petrus Steyn, Phuthaditjhaba, Reitz, Rosendal, Senekal, Vrede and Warden.

Look out for

Golden Gate Highlands National Park – This park is a theatre of natural, towering sandstone formations, named “golden” for their colour at sunset.  At that time of day, the best place to appreciate the beauty is the highest point in the park, Ribbokkop.  The former QwaQwa National Park was incorporated into Golden Gate in 2005.  Horseriding is a popular outdoor pursuit in the park, which is valued for its plant, animal and bird life.  A number of accommodation options are available.

Basotho Cultural Village –  South Sotho architecture, arts and crafts, herbal medicinal remedies and cuisine can be explored at the Basotho Cultural Village near Phuthaditjhaba.  Song and dance folklore shows can also be enjoyed.

The Sentinel – Also near Phuthaditjhaba, it is the access point for a series of trails that lead hikers to the rear of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre and some of the country’s most magnificent scenery.  Geographical features to view are The Sentinel, Devil’s Tooth, the Eastern Buttress and the Tugela Falls.

Discovering cherries, Ficksburg  - The annual Cherry Festival in Ficksburg takes place in November.  It is a three-day event that attracts thousands and entertains with fun activities such as horse- and camel-rides.  Cherry farm tours, however, take place throughout the cherry season, which is in October and November.  Locally made cherry liqueurs, brandies and schnapps should be tasted to complete the experience.

Clarens – A host of things to do and see in Clarens includes the Artist Amble, a route of galleries open to the public; rock art on Schaapplaats Farm; sandstone formations such as Mushroom Rock and Titanic Rock; dinosaur fossils at Sue’s Zoo; fly-fishing as well as bass- and river-fishing; hiking and horse-riding.

Sterkfontein Dam, Harrismith – The third largest dam in South Africa, the Sterkfontein Dam is a popular venue for water sports and angling.  Predating the Lesotho Highlands project, the water that fills the dam is pumped up from KwaZulu-Natal.  It is then released into the Wilge River, from where it flows into the Vaal Dam.    The Sterkfontein Dam’s banks are surrounded by a nature reserve where strange rock formations are just as interesting to view as buck and raptors.  Camping and chalet accommodation is available, as well as hiking trails.

Salpeterkrans – At Fouriesburg you will find Salpeterkrans, one of the largest sandstone overhangs in the southern hemisphere, shaped by wind erosion.  It not surprising that it is considered a sacred site where ancestral worship and fertility rites take place.

Rosendal – like the town of Clarens, Rosendal is known for its arty vibe. There are numerous art galleries in and around town, as well as quaint shops and restaurants. The Meerkatkolonie Art Gallery is a must. Rosendal is a popular weekend getaway destination for those who live in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

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