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Southern Africa’s most iconic peaks

Published Jul 21, 2014


AFTER driving north from Windhoek,

we turned west at

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Okahandja, proceeding across the

plain in fits and starts. Fiona

McIntosh was writing a guidebook

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to Namibia and insisted on stopping

to photograph road signs

cautioning of everyday hazards,

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like sand drifts and warthogs. Just

outside Usakos, we caught sight of

the Spitzkoppe, impressive in a

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shocking sort of way: 700m of

granite bursting out of the desert.

To IC Smith, visiting in 1940,

the peak looked like a giant elephant

tusk and had an unmistakably

hostile demeanour. “Some

mountains are friendly,” he wrote,

“this one was not.” Smith had

driven up from Cape Town with

three companions to conquer the

Matterhorn of southern Africa,

which was unclimbed and possibly

unclimbable. According to

local lore, a German soldier had

made a solo attempt in 1904, but

although there were rumours of a

bonfire being seen from the summit,

nothing was ever seen of the

trooper again. Smith’s expedition

ended in less dramatic fashion,

with one member jiggering his

knee, another getting distracted

chasing wildlife and the remaining

pair unable to surmount a

large, smooth boulder, nicknamed

the “Gendarme”. An attempt by a

German party, a few years later,

also failed there.

Progress is a mixed blessing

and on reaching the Spitzkoppe,

we were greeted by a boom gate,

curios shack, small bar and warden

demanding entrance fees.

After pitching our tent amid giant

boulders, we sat contemplating the

stillness, till the blood-red sun

dropped below the horizon and

darkness descended like a stage


The next morning, just after 4,

we drove towards the looming

silhouette of the peak, a few kilometres

away. Ploughing through

head-high grass, we ground to a

halt beneath a gnarled camelthorn

tree, where we surprisingly

found a cairn. As we started up

the granite slabs, the sky lightened,

bathing the mountain in a

warm, honey glow. Then the sun

came up, and it was instantly too

hot and bright. A trail of cairns

led us into a labyrinth of dark

caves and narrow passages, which

got progressively steeper and

tighter. It was like being in Dante’s

Purgatory, working our way up

towards salvation, each chamber

more punishing than the last.

We were following in the footsteps

of an intrepid South African

trio – Les Schaff, Shippy Shipley

and Peggy O’Neill, who came here

in 1946, lured by the prospect of

claiming the first ascent. After

their initial attempt on the south

ridge was rebuffed by the unyielding

Gendarme, they explored the

north end of the peak instead. In a

feat of inspired navigation, they

discovered a route through the

maze of gullies, ramps and grottoes

to emerge two-thirds of the

way up, in a cleft above a broad

ledge. Abseiling down to investigate,

they now found their way

blocked by a 10m belt of featureless

granite. After a quick shopping

trip to Usakos, they returned

with extra provisions, a hammer

and chisel.

The mountain gods though

were unimpressed – their rope

snapped as they abseiled back

down to the ledge and Shipley was

fortunate to survive the 10m plummet.

Undeterred, Schaff and

O’Neill got to work, chipping away

at the armour-plated rock, spurred

on by the injured Shipley. By the

end of the first day, they’d cut four

steps into the face and were confident

another shift would see them

through. That evening, however, a

storm blew in and, after a torrid

night on the ledge, they retreated.

“We shall return to place our

names on the summit beacon of

one of Africa’s strangest peaks,”

wrote O’Neill. But they didn’t.

Abseiling down to the ledge, we

followed it round till it petered out

and we were facing a band of

brown, speckled rock, as smooth

as fine sandpaper. Above us, we

could make out the historic steps.

Whatever you might think of their

climbing ethics, you have to

admire their masonry. The

painstakingly chiselled steps are

more like bucket seats, easily

accommodating both feet. My only

criticism of their handiwork is

that the first step is well over a

metre off the ground, and the next

one, almost out of sight. They

must have been giants. Balancing

on crystal nodules, I gingerly

tiptoed up, grateful for the protective

bolts that had been added.

While O’Neill had assumed it

would be plain sailing above here,

there was still 200m of climbing to

go. The second pitch meandered

up a friable crack, while the third

scampered up a slanting ramp.

The fourth pitch was the crux,

requiring a delicate traverse

across a bare black slab. With

confidence and friction fading, I

swallow-dived for the belay station.

The final pitch, according to

the route description, was so easy

it was off the bottom end of the

technical scale and suitable for

most grandmothers. I can only

assume it was not suited to my

physique. Pack dangling from a

sling between my legs, I managed

to squeeze one shoulder and buttock

into the tight fissure and

wriggle up like a worm. Fortunately,

once I escaped this ghastly

vice, it was a short scramble to the

top. We sat at the summit beacon

and signed our names in the logbook.

We weren’t the first to do so,

of course. In fact, we weren’t even

the first in our family.

Later in 1946, another trio from

South Africa pitched up at the

Spitzkoppe, Mr and Mrs

Wongtschowski (the Wongs) and

an 18-year-old aristocrat,

Johannes de Villiers Graaff. They

were three of South Africa’s finest

climbers, with the Wongs having

already bagged several

“unclimbable” Drakensberg peaks

and Graaff going on to pioneer

routes in East Africa and the

Himalayas. On reaching the granite

rock band that defeated

O’Neill’s team, they used a piton

to etch another step, before the

leader stood on the second’s shoulders

and smeared nimbly up. Once

above this, they made short shrift

of the other obstacles I’d found

life-threatening. “We reached the

summit at noon, the final 400 feet

(122m) having taken three hours.

After a short rest, we started the

descent,” wrote Graaff, quite succinctly.

While bolted anchors and belay

devices have made descending

much safer, getting off the

Spitzkoppe was still exciting. Each

of the five abseils had memorable

idiosyncrasies, with the first

requiring a pendulum swing to

reach a hanging belay. Inevitably,

it was while dangling from here

that we were attacked by hornets

and then managed to lasso a bush

with our rope, necessitating an

awkward traverse to retrieve it. It

was 2pm when we stumbled down

to the camel-thorn tree.

Back in Cape Town, we drive to

Kenilworth for lunch with Mr and

Mrs Graaff. Confounding their

aristocratic lineage, it just so happens,

Johannes Graaff is Fiona’s

step cousin-in-law several times

removed. Admittedly, it’s quite a

tenuous tie, but once we discovered

they owned a ski-chalet, we treated

them as close family.

Now an octogenarian, old age

and hip operations have stooped

Jannie’s once towering, athletic

frame, but he’s still a commanding

presence. “Decrepit,” he snorts,

when I ask how he is. Over lunch,

we quizz him about his Spitzkoppe

climb, since his account in the 1946

Mountain Club Journal is characteristically

economic. “Ah,” he

smiles, fixing me with sharp, twinkling

eyes, “that was so long ago, I

couldn’t possibly remember.”

. For more extreme adventures

in southern Africa, see www.night

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