Wow, there are a lot of rocks to climb in Hampi. After our first day bouldering there I wrote a feverish email to my climbing buddies back home in the USA, telling them to get on the next flight to Bangalore. Yeah, there are a lot of fantastic climbing destinations in the USA and other, more accessible places around the world, but nowhere else can you live like a king for under $10 a day within walking distance of world-class granite. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted your name in a guidebook there are thousands of first ascents available in the surrounding 300 square kilometers of boulders and cracks.
Recently made a Unesco World Heritage Site, Hampi is a burgeoning tourist destination in southern India for temple-gazing as well as climbing. Split into two main areas by the Tungabhadra River, the Hampi Bazaar side caters to more of the short-term tourists, while the pot-smoking and didgeridoo-playing happens on Hampi Island. Shocker, Hampi Island is also home to most of the developed bouldering. If you’re there for climbing, stay in Hampi Island and watch out for flying dreadlocks.
Everything in Hampi Island is designed for the lazy climber tourist. A dozen small guesthouses are within ten minutes walk of multiple boulder areas, and the heat of the day is spent flopping on cushions around low tables, drinking chai and playing chess or falling off a slackline. It’s common to stumble on a drum circle at sunset among the boulders or catch a Tarantino flick over thali at the restaurant next door.
Fly to Bangalore or Goa from NYC for around $1200 round trip, and hop on an overnight sleeper bus for Rs 800 (about $12) to Hospet or Hampi. No matter your preferred flavor, you can easily append a sleepy beach holiday or hardcore party schedule in Goa to your trip.
When to Go
The coolest weather is in December and January, but most of November and February are just fine for climbing in the morning and evening, and you’ll get better rates on rooms. Don’t think of coming in March and April, when temperatures soar into the 40s celsius. The rainy season is June to September and the area will be deserted. In October most guesthouses will just be opening up for the season, but you could get lucky with the weather and a place to stay.
Places to Flop
We set up camp at Gopi Guesthouse for the duration of our month in Hampi. The staff are wonderful and the rooms are cheap. Bamboo bungalows start at Rs 100 ($1.50) per night, and deluxe rooms with a daybed in the garden run a very reasonable Rs 350 ($5) while we were there in November, though rates increase in December and January. The real highlight here is the food, which is the best in town and comes in massive, shareable portions.
Mowgli Guesthouse is a slightly more comfortable option on the strip in Hampi Island. It’s a professionally run operation where you can count on management to fulfill promises, which is sometimes a rare occurrence in India.
If you’re looking for a very quiet, reflective time and hard bouldering steps from your door, check out Baba’s Cafe Guesthouse. Small and well away from the beaten path on the other side of the main climbing area, you’ll feel more like you’re staying in an Indian village than a tourist town. It’s run by a charming Spanish expat named Hugo, who is more than happy to show you around his side of town and the areas he is developing.
No, You Don’t Need to Take Your Boulder Mat on the Plane
A couple of enterprising young local climbers named Tom & Jerry rent boulder mats, guidebooks, and a few tired pairs of shoes for Rs 80 ($1.50) per day. Cheap as chips, as they say. During busy times they’ve been known to run out of mats, but Thimma at Shiva Guesthouse and a few other spots also have some available. On the other hand, if all the mats are rented out you can be pretty sure there will be some nice folks you can tag along with.
A new guidebook came out the day we left so we didn’t get much time with it, but several copies were floating around town. It was far broader than the previous edition, reaching several kilometers into the surrounding hills with clear topographical maps and lots of pretty color pictures. Strangely, it had both English and German text. It would be hard to survive in India if you only speak German.
Rest Day Activities
Hampi is littered with temples and ruins, but I’d be lying if I said we spent much time sightseeing. This is not your source for that information. There’s a massive reservoir 4km from Hampi Island where you can laze away the afternoon and indulge in a Kingfisher or three, which are selectively prohibited in the more devout areas of Hampi. Or hop on a motorbike (Rs 150/day plus petrol) and buzz through the local villages; they are about as authentic as it gets.
Stuff Your Dad Would Ask About
- Don’t expect to practice your new Hindi here. English is commonly spoken and often preferred by locals. Most of the guesthouses are run by Nepali seasonal workers, so a few words of their native tongue go pretty far.
- There’s no ATM in Hampi Island, so plan your cash carefully. Rent a motorbike and go to Anegundi to visit the ATM. Be aware of daily power cuts that knock out service.
- The Indian visa can be a headache if you’re already outside your home country. The buzz among travelers is Bangkok, Kathmandu, and possibly Columbo, Sri Lanka are your best bets. Of course if you plan ahead and get a visa from the Indian embassy in your home country you don’t have to worry about this. Six month, single entry visas are typical, but unlike other countries they begin on the date of issue, not the date you enter the country. Five and ten year multi-entry visas are available for US citizens, rules change frequently so beware of all published information. This is probably out of date already.
- If you plan to stay for a while, an Indian SIM card will be helpful. After recent terrorist attacks the government has made it more difficult for foreigners to get a SIM, but its not impossible. You’ll need a reference (a hotel will work), a few passport photos, and a sympathetic retailer to get one.
If I had it to do over, I’d only plan to stay longer in Hampi. A month flew by and I was sad to leave. Count on getting knocked out with gut issues for at least a few days, so build some extra time into your schedule. This isn’t a place to squeeze in. Relax, enjoy it, and prepare your fingers to be shredded by small holds and sharp granite.
My sister, Clare, and Zach are both really good rock climbers. I like climbing, but I can’t say I’ve been bitten by the bug. Mostly because climbing scares me and is a frustrating activity. But what I didn’t realize until the past few weeks is how much climbing suits me. It is a good physical and mental exercise and attracts awesome, like minded people.
We spent the past week and a half at Castle Hill, a bouldering site en route to Arthur’s Pass on the South Island. Our initial plan was to stay for a few days, then head to another destination. But we found that Castle Hill provided us endless climbing projects and new friends from all over the world, so why leave?
Going into this trip, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t climbed much since last spring and wasn’t all that excited to be bad at something. I hate that part of cross training. The part where no matter how fit you are, when you switch sports, you start again at square one. My reaction to the rocks on the first day was: There are no hand holds. There are no feet holds. This is impossible. F this sport. I’m out. Most of my experience has been at Brooklyn Boulders, our beloved climbing gym in NYC, so here I was getting used to climbing outdoors and also climbing here at Castle Hill, which is itself unique and very technical. In a nutshell, day one was frustrating.
But we had found some other climbers from the US, from France, from Israel and Italy, and they had all been at Castle Hill for awhile. And they all remembered their first few days. They were great at reminding me that there is a learning curve here and to be patient with myself. A group of about eight of us climbed together for a few days, all of us climbing problems on different levels of difficulty. The beauty in that is that you get to spend quite a bit of time hanging out, spotting other climbers, and staring at the mountains between climbs. You get to see how other people approach bouldering problems and react to not being able to finish a problem. I was able to get out of my own head and shake off some of the “I can’t do this” by hanging out with other climbers.
Regardless of where they are from, climbers tend to be laid back, friendly, supportive people. They tend to be people I like. By the end of the first week, I was climbing problems that I couldn’t do at the beginning, I was trusting myself and I was able to pass on some words of encouragement to people who had just arrived.
I can’t wait to go back Mom and Dad are sending me new climbing shoes and we have rerouted our travels so that we cross through Arthur’s Pass a few times in the next few months. Like anything, it is more fun with practice and cool people.
I started rock climbing about three years ago. Since then, I only ventured outside to real rock a handful of times. I learned to climb in a gym. I took day trips or strung a few days together at the Gunks. I thought I was a climber. I was wrong.
The last ten days spent climbing at Castle Hill on New Zealand’s South Island taught me what climbing really is. It’s not a sweaty gym with dubstep blaring and colored plastic blobs marking routes. At Castle Hill, maybe the Mecca of bouldering, its a religious experience.
The two main areas at Castle Hill, Spittle Hill and Quantum Field, contain more than 3000 problems. You could walk around the perimeter of these two areas in less than an hour, but spend weeks examining its many nooks and crannies. That said, climbing there is a trial by fire. Its slabby limestone style demands intense technical climbing and superior balance. Boulderers accustomed to using power in order to overcome technical faults (like me) will have a hard time adjusting to Castle Hill. Brains are just as important as brawn here.
In the gym, foot and handholds are obvious by sight. At Castle Hill, it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk up to a climb well below our grade, drop our stuff and stare at it for a while, flabbergasted. “Huh? This is a V1? Where are the feet?! Are you sure we’re in the right place? There are no feet!” We spent a lot of time rubbing our hands on the rock and mumbling to ourselves, searching for parts of the rock that had more friction than others as a blind person would read braille. Our eyes were useless, we had to read the rock in a different way. Castle Hill makes one’s technical faults obvious.
Of course, any outdoor climbing will be vastly different than indoors. While many gyms (big ups, Brooklyn Boulders) do a great job approximating the outdoor experience with creative features and superior routesetting, nothing can replace the real thing. Footholds that seem tiny in the gym are enormous outside, and instead of being marked by giant stripes of fluorescent tape they’re camouflaged among millions of other tiny bits and blotches. Outside, falls are awkward and less protected; no amount of spotters and crash pads compensate for the huge pads at a gym. Simply topping out on a slabby climb is a skill that you can only get outside. Problems like that just aren’t set in the gym, because most gyms don’t have flat top outs. It’s more dangerous to mantle up on a horizontal slab than just jumping down from a jug, so gyms don’t build those features. Climbing inside can get you in shape physically, but it doesn’t come close to preparing you mentally for climbing outside.
After a few days, we started to trust our feet on tiny dimples and awkward smears. Movement become more efficient as we relied less on power and more on technique. As our time at Castle Hill drew to a close, we were able to send problems at grades harder than we’d ever climbed outside before. It wasn’t easy, but we left Castle Hill more complete climbers. In the end, ten days felt short, and we’re making plans to return soon.
When to go: Like nearly everywhere else, spring and fall have the most consistent temperatures for climbing. We were there in spring and it felt a bit crowded on nice weekend days, but most of the time we had the place to ourselves. It can get busy with families and sightseeing tourists during the summer.
Where to stay: Camp at Craigieburn Forest for $6 per person. Rainwater, a vault toilet, and a picnic shelter are provided. Hot showers are available at Flock Hill Lodge ($5) or a campground in Springfield ($1 for four minutes) Flock Hill Lodge also has backpacker accommodation for $31, or if you’re in a group, rent a house in Castle Hill Village.
Where to eat: The Sheffield Pie Shop has delicious sweet and savory pies. The Supreme (beef, bacon, onion, cracked pepper) and chicken/camembert/spiced apricot were both delicious for around $5. The Darfield Cafe and Bakery has awesome coffee and pastries and is a great place to kick back on a rainy day.
Note: There are no shops within 45 minutes of Castle Hill. Springfield (20 minutes) has a few cafes and gas stations, but you’ll have to go to Darfield for groceries. Load up on peanut butter and broccoli on the way. There’s also a public library in Darfield with a great staff and free wifi.
As Christina mentioned in her last post, we’ve struck a nice balance, both financially and mentally, between jobs and time off to explore New Zealand on our own. Most recently we’ve been in adventure-mode, spending the last week bouncing around the Canterbury region of the South Island. Here’s what we’ve been up to:
October 10: Camped in Little Akaloa, a tiny village on the sea on the Banks Peninsula. The drive along Summit Road at sunset was stunning.
October 11: We had a lazy morning reading and relaxing in Little Akaloa, then rode our borrowed bikes up the hill beside town. We chose our destination because the street at the top had a nice name: Long Lookout Road. It turned out to be very poorly named, but the descent back to town was steep and exhilarating.
October 13: After refusing to pay for the world’s most expensive parking spot again, we camped under a tree on the side of the road. This isn’t explicitly allowed in New Zealand, but there weren’t any “No Camping” signs and there was a public bathroom nearby. We don’t need much else. We paid for our bravado with a sleepless night, fearing our shade tree would collapse under a relentless gale and sheets of rain and awoke to find the windows in the van were stuck in the down position. In the rain. ‘Twas a challenging string of events.
We spent the day resupplying in Geraldine and visiting some very odd tourist attractions: the largest knitted sweater in the world and a handmade reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry with millions of tiny pieces of metal. As we limped up the mountain out of town the pounding rain relented into a gorgeous, peaceful snow.
In Lake Tekapo we spent the evening soaking in piping hot thermal pools, with giant Christmas-y snowflakes gently falling around us. The snow continued to fall as we went to sleep – nearly a foot was forecast.
October 15: After an off-road adventure in Nissan Serena Williams, we found a nice secluded camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. We took a very muddy and bumpy bike ride in Ruatawhini Conservation Park and came to the realization that some kind of suspension is pretty much essential for mountain biking to be fun. I spent the afternoon getting my monthly dose of adrenaline, bouldering along the Mt. Cook highway.
Back on the road, our plans were again derailed in Mt. Cook National Park. We’d planned to do a short hike in the morning then go up to Mueller Hut for the night, but our discussion with with the ranger at the visitor center went something like this:
“Mueller?” He looked down at our feet. “In those boots?”
“Do you have skis?”
“Any avalanche training?”
Fully emasculated now: “Nope.”
“You’ll never make it. Come look at this.” We walked to a window of the sparkling visitor’s center and he pointed at a giant icy blue shelf that looked like it was about to tumble down on the mountainside and us below it. “That’s where you’re headed.” We quickly changed our plans and made the prudent choice: relaxing in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe with a glass of whiskey.
October 17: Hey, that’s today! We’re back at the Old Mountaineer’s, caffeinating and writing. Today we’ll head back to the Tekapo hot pools for another soak and a day off from hiking/biking. We’ve both got a knee that’s barking and could use some extended R&R. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it with a hike around Mt. Somers on the way back to our WWOOF hosts.
Traveling like this provides constant freedom, but with that comes a few challenges. We’re always making plans then scrapping them with changes in the weather or our attitude. We’ve learned its useless to have more than a very rough sketch of your next few days, and the best skill you can have is flexibility. The Mueller Hut hike is on my NZ bucket list, so I was bummed to learn that it wasn’t possible this time, but I’m content in telling myself that it’s a reason to return to the area later in our trip.
Despite the challenges of the last few days, I still feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I only need to look out the window at the jagged mountains surrounding us to be reminded that this is a special opportunity.
The gate was unlocked, but it still felt like we were breaking the rules.
“There aren’t any signs saying ‘Private Property’, so I guess we can just let ourselves in?” I said to Christina.
“This is the right spot?”
“I think so.”
It turned out that we were indeed in the right spot, the right spot in many ways. We’d just entered Stony Batter Historic Preserve on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, New Zealand. We felt so privileged to go bouldering in one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen, it seemed illegal.
Boulders dotted the green pasture as if they had rained down from the heavens that afternoon. There were panoramic views to the sea, with waves crashing on rock outcroppings and peninsulas hundreds of feet below. Clouds rolled over jagged volcanic islands in the distance while tiny sailboats bobbed miles away as they drifted from island to island. It was enough to bring even the hairiest of men to tears.
I’ll be honest – the climbing was good, not great. But it didn’t matter. Anyone complaining about sending average problems in this kind of setting needs to reexamine their priorities. That’s not to say the climbing was bad – several problems on the Thumb Boulder and in the Zoo Area were great fun. But they were the exception rather than the norm. Check out this guide for in-depth directions and problem descriptions. Many thanks to the authors of that document.
Access of this kind shouldn’t be taken for granted. In another part of Waiheke Island, what’s said to be the most romantic beach in New Zealand has been shuttered from public overland access. Reasoning depends on who you ask, but some say that a native tree species that had been introduced to the property surrounding the beach was threatened. Stony Batter, where we’re climbing in a field populated by sheep and cows on a site rich with World War II history, could easily suffer a similar fate. And would it be wrong?
If indeed those trees were being threatened then it was right to limit damage. Humans make enough of an impact on the natural world. If we see an opportunity to curb the damage, we should seize it.
The same story can be told at any climbing area. Sections of the Gunks are perpetually closed due to nesting birds. Rumney State Park is home to a rare type of fern, limiting access to a main sport climbing wall. And this is exactly how it should be.
It takes buy-in on every level for access to remain open. City officials must see the benefit, property owners must take pity, and climbers must follow the rules. Oh, and it helps to put your money where your mouth is by donating to the Access Fund.