It was already pushing 4 p.m. on the cool May afternoon when I arrived for the first time in Waterval Boven, the small South African railway town near the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe” crags. Eager to climb after a four-month hiatus, my partner and I checked into our dorm room at the Chateau d’Escalade and raced up the road to the closest crag for a sundowner.
Despite losing our way on the overgrown trail, we found the crag with less than an hour’s light left in the day and promptly set off on a five-star sport route.
I advanced steadily through the opening moves, focusing on the sequences ahead. As I readied myself to pull through the crux roof, a cacophony erupted to my left.
AT THE BEGINNING of February 2009, I had left behind my family, friends, career, short weekends at the New and long weekends at the Red, and no fewer than seven local climbing gyms to join the U.S. Peace Corps. Although I had been satisfied with the direction my life was taking after finishing graduate school, I felt that I needed to “pay it forward” for all of the opportunities that others had made possible for me—even if it meant giving up climbing for more than two years.
Unfortunately, Marapyane, the training village where I spent my first two months in South Africa, was more reminiscent of the Great Plains than the Appalachians. I cranked pull-ups on tree branches, ran, and carried 25-liter buckets of water to stay fit while hoping for a two-year placement in the mountains.
WITHIN A MONTH, THOSE in my village who knew anything about me besides my skin color were able to tell you three things: my local name, “Malope,” that I volunteered with Fanang Diatla Self-Help Project, and “O rata go namela dithaba.” (He likes to climb mountains.) Alas, knowledge of my interest in climbing did not translate into interest in joining me in my boulder-hunting excursions in the mountains surrounding the village. My requests would be met unfailingly with fear: “But there are snakes. They will bite me.”
For the first three months, we Peace Corps volunteers were expected to travel no further than the nearest town to buy groceries. After five weeks at site, however, I had to find a way to get back on the rock. I had just received a copy of the guidebook for the restaurant at the End of the Universe crags from another Peace Corps volunteer, who was returning to the United States. Within a week, the pages were dog-eared. A few text messages and e-mails later, I had found a fellow volunteer willing to play hooky.
THAT FIRST TASTE of climbing in my new home rekindled my obsession. I did whatever it took to return to the vertical as often as my meager Peace Corps stipend and dwindling savings would allow. Weekends of multi-pitch trad and sport climbing near my shopping town of Polokwane, single-pitch sport and bouldering with friends on official visits to Pretoria, and long weekends at Boven. I even had the luck to be invited as a guest, along with South Africa’s top-ranked sport climbers, to the 2009 Petzl Rock & Road competition in the Eastern Cape Province. The only other international guest climber was Adam Ondra; I was in good company.
I BEGAN TO TAKE solitary late-afternoon walks along the derelict mining roads running into the mountains north of my village. On one such stroll in November, Thanksgiving memories of family and friends brought to mind just how much I’d sacrificed to join the Peace Corps.
Yet just as climbing is more fulfilling when we push beyond our comfort zone, the same is true for volunteerism. Too often, until we have made the effort, we underestimate the incredible satisfaction of making a difference in another person’s life. We owe it to ourselves and as a community to do what we can.
The author, a Peace Corp volunteer working on HIV/AIDs research in South Africa, has spent nine years balancing climbing with volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, river cleanups, and political campaigns.