Africa Amphitheatre is that big wall on Table Mountain overlooking the city centre of Cape Town, a few hundred metres east of the upper cableway station. It is the royal wall on a regal mountain.
The mighty bowl of steep rock derives its name from the ravine below it. Seen from the city centre the ravine produces an outline the shape of Africa. This is the origin of the ‘Africa’ route names.
Early Rock Climbing History of Africa Amphitheatre
The first rock climbs on Table Mountain were made in the mid-1890s – routes such as Arrow Face and Right Face. In 1914, the first year of World War I, the standard of climbing got a big leg-up when Bill Cobern, Florence Humphries, Frank Humphries and AP Stanford made the first ascent of Africa Face on the right side of Africa Amphitheatre. Florence Humphries was a talented swimmer and gymnast and was to have a decades-long career of excellent climbs and first ascents (First ascent of Postern Frontal, first woman to climb Nefdt’s route on Toverkop etc). Stanford was emerging as a leading climber (first ascent of Africa Corner, Wormhole etc), but his life was to end soon in the trenches of Flanders in the dying days of the war in 1918.
The next new-route action around Africa Amphitheatre took place in 1925 when the pocket rocket George Londt, with his party, climbed Gardener Crag on the left side of the amphitheatre. In the 1920s Londt took local climbing to a new level. Amongst others, he established the world class Klein Winterhoek Frontal and climbed Kilimanjaro in 1925 when he spent a night in the summit crater. Londt took a leader fall on Rainbow Crag, Table Mountain, when he was killed. The year was 1927 and he was 37 years old.
It was another twenty years before Ship Shipley, Les Schaff, Peggy O’Neill and party made a route in 1945 called Gardener Wall. The route combined the left and the right sides by a very long walking traverse on a ledge. Les Schaff was a phenomenal climber and established many great routes including the ground-breaking, hard Valken Frontal.
In 1959 Paul White and Jannie Graaf established the wiggly Avernus on the left. Paul was a standout climber (First ascents of Fingertip Face, Vertigo, Fernwood Precipice, Touch and Go) but was to die at just 44 years old in an abseiling accident on Klaasen’s Buttress, above Orange Kloof, Hout Bay in 1967.
In 50 years of development all the routes had avoided the steep and daunting centre of Africa Amphitheatre. But this changed in 1967 when the immensely talented 25 year old Keith Fletcher turned his attention to the steep stuff. On the third outing Keith, with Don Hartley (20) and Rick Williams (30), made the first direct ascent of this wall. They named their 18 pitch route Africa Amphitheatre. It is brilliant and it commands respect to this day.
Keith Fletcher has had two fantastic adventure careers – in climbing and sailing. In Cape climbing he is known for his routes Exposure in F Major, Du Toit’s Peak Column, Africa Amphitheatre, Oscillation and North by North West. These routes are fantastic! Keith’s brother Barry is equally legendary in Cape climbing circles (Touch and Go etc). Don Hartley has been a leading light in Cape climbing (First ascents of Magnetic Wall, Roulette etc), alpinism and he has been a top, top, top marathon runner (won the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon twice!). Rick Williams has had a phenomenal Cape climbing career (First ascents of Champs Elysees, Fernwood Precipice Direct, Krakadouw Amphitheatre, Touch and Go, Hot Dogger, etc)
In 1970 the legendary Mike Scott (First ascent of the East Face of the Central Tower of Paine, Apollo, Roulette, Magnetic Wall etc) and Gabriel Athiros opened Africa Sideburn. The route starts a bit left and goes up and right.
In 2014 the visionary Tinie Versfeld set about a bold, direct line to the left of Africa Amphitheatre. He invested a huge amount of effort, largely on his own, in working out a clean, straight route and in scrubbing off lichen. In 2014 Tinie and his great friend Dave Birkett, a stone mason from the Lake District in England and one of the top trad climbers in the world for the last 25 years, opened Africa Safari. The route is incredible. It is straight and hard with some crazy climbing, but onsightable for good weekend warriors. Tinie had added a pearl to his wonderful collection of first ascents including Automatic for the People, Africa Arete, No Longer at Ease, Synapse and Australopithecus.
Roof of Africa
In 2016 Tinie and I set about work on a next-level line in Africa Amphitheatre… if it could work. Twenty-three working trips on that wall followed, with many wild experiences along the way. We dislodged a boulder that almost made it to the contour path. Tinie dropped a rock onto my barefoot that split my big toe open. We took some wild falls into space. We had many visits by Tahrs and birds of prey, and a wonderful close encounter with a caracal on the big traverse ledge.
After two years of working the route we grabbed Dave Birkett on one of his holidays to Cape Town and we abseiled in with big packs. At a halfway ledge we off-loaded our kit that included sleeping bags, food, stove etc, then continued to the bottom.
In perfect conditions I led the first pitch which gives a nice warmup at 21. Tinie sent the second thin-and-technical pitch which gives a nice spicy lead at 23. Dave took the third pitch which is a really hard and fearsome 26. Then it was Tinie on the Postbox Pitch, a lovely clean wall with sparse gear that goes at 24, then me on the Hanging Corners Pitch that involves a lot of overhanging pulling going at anywhere between 23 and 26 depending on how you do it. Next, Dave was deployed on the Synapsy Face. This big pitch starts with a big roof that is really hard at the lip, then for 30m it does leftwards, thin railing and pulling through small roofs. It is brutally hard but Dave sent it in about an hour. It goes at British E7 6C or 28+. Tinie and I couldn’t pull it all off, but I achieved my best, with about three metres where I French-freed.
Above the Synapsy Face we were onto our grassy bivvy ledge where we spent a warm and still summer’s night that was magical.
In the morning we were up and going before the sun landed on us. I had to stretch the fatigued muscles up the steep take-off but at only 22 or so it wasn’t too bad for sore bodies. Next Tinie took the Big Roof which entails some wild gymnastics to climb the horizontal roof crack and then get around a tough lip. Tinie was cool and groovy and despatched his 23 pitch. Then Dave had to confront the beast. He had to lead a pitch that hadn’t been led before. It begins upside down through a big roof then starts with great difficulty up a tough wall. We split the belay with a rope on each side of the nose-like roof and Dave worked the upside-down part for an hour before he went off and didn’t return. To avoid a long fall he had to run out the difficult top 10m without gear to get to the stance. It was a great relief that he pulled it off – and especially since it was by this time a furnace on the wall. The Boulder Pitch is a bouldery grade E7 6C / 28. Tinie and I used what trickery we could to quickly get past the bottom desperate part. All that was left was for me to finish off the top wall at around 20 or 21.
We hauled packs, coiled ropes, took a wee dram of the remaining Tullamore Dew and went home happy.
There is more to come. I’m working a new line on the right with Tinie and a new line on the left with Richard Halsey.