Rock climbing: Laws of the wild

New regulations for South Africa’s protected areas are on the way. Could they spell the end of our freedom to pursue popular activities in parks and reserves?

‘Potential nationwide climbing ban’ read the topic on the forum at Climb ZA, a major on-line resource for rock climbers. A debate raged over the draft regulations for Proper Administration of Nature Reserves, signed by the Minister of Environmental Affairs in August 2009. Section 47 states:

‘No person may, except with the prior written authorisation of a management authority
(1) engage in the sport of climbing rock faces;
(2) engage in the sport of parachuting or abseiling;’

The section also includes hang-gliding, hot air balloons, model planes, board sports and recreational vehicles.

Most of the country’s world-class climbing spots are in national parks or reserves and climbers are concerned the new regulations could prevent them practising their sport legally. Many forum members said they would ignore or oppose a law that impinged on their access to rock faces. Climbers argued that permits would be difficult to obtain and that they could just be a way to make money. Some said that, without the ability to explore freely, new crags and routes wouldn’t be opened and the sport would become boring and repetitive.

Leighan Mossop, senior section ranger at Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), pointed out that there have been regulations against climbing in some protected areas since 1976. In TMNP a permit system was found necessary because uncontrolled activities were causing damage. ‘We’ve noticed a lot of impacts from climbing and bouldering, especially trampling of vegetation, which is a problem in areas with endangered species,’ she said. The permit fees generate just enough income to pay for the permitting system and some policing of it said Mossop.

Permits for activities such as rock climbing are already available or included in entry fees of most protected areas. ‘However, even written access permission doesn’t give carte blanche to engage in any activity or even give access to all areas,’ observed Dave Jones, president of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA). ‘If there’s potential for damage to sensitive flora or fauna, or the introduction of visually intrusive elements, such as bolts and chalk, it’s not unreasonable for management authorities to set aside certain areas for such activities and to prohibit them in others.’

According to Dr Geoffrey Cowan, deputy director at the Department of Environmental Affairs, the new regulations will tie in with updated management plans, a requirement of the Protected Areas Act. Activities have to be zoned for conservation reasons. ‘The regulations will enable management authorities to tie things down if necessary,’ he said, ‘but it’s not going to be a blanket approach.’ He admitted there could be some areas to which people might no longer have access.

Dr Kas Hamman, executive director of biodiversity at CapeNature, said an activity was unlikely to be affected ‘provided the impact is acceptable and that it’s properly controlled and managed.’ He acknowledged that conservation management is under-resourced in South Africa. ‘It may be a challenge to implement the regulations effectively in all areas, so priority areas will receive more focus.’

Another challenge is communication of the regulations. Brent Jennings of the MCSA says existing rules are mostly discovered by word of mouth. ‘Regulations should be accessible and authorities should make them more available,’ he said. According to Mossop, the onus is currently on climbers to get hold of them.

The new management plans will go through a public participation process and user groups, including climbers – described by Jennings as ‘a cheerfully anarchic group of individuals’ – will need to come together to voice their concerns. The MCSA says it’s monitoring the situation, but doesn’t consider any action necessary at this stage. ‘There’s a feeling that taking the department to task would do more damage than letting the clause go through,’ said Tony Lourens, editor of SA Mountain Sport. ‘It could be a storm in a teacup, but I remain slightly nervous that they could make life hard for us in years to come.’

Quick climbers’ guidelines

A Level 2 permit with a relevant Wild Card gives access to established sport climbing sites in most parks and reserves. It costs R130 a year.

Specific regulations may vary, but these are the rules all climbers and boulderers should stick to in protected areas:

  • Only use existing paths.
  • Don’t damage or remove any vegetation.
  • Don’t litter or leave anything behind.
  • Avoid defecating. Otherwise, bury it at least 50 metres from venues, paths and streams.
  • Comply with crag closures and don’t disturb nesting or endangered birds.
  • Don’t disturb archaeological sites.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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