This story was updated on 30 July 2019.
When South Africans pack their bags to go on a local holiday, they usually grab their hiking boots and binoculars or dust off their boogie boards and beach umbrellas. But there are some who leave with gloves, beanies and thermal underwear, not because they have poor circulation, but because they’re going skiing in Lesotho.
Skiing in South Africa
For approximately 13 weeks every winter a tiny skiing resort in the north-eastern corner of Lesotho opens its doors to holidaymakers, not only from neighbouring South Africa, but from all over the world. Apparently tackling ski slopes in Africa is on the bucket list of many international skiers and snowboarders. A good friend of mine, Kerneels Venter, was fortunate enough to win a three-day trip to Afriski, so we too packed our thermal undies, and every other warm piece of clothing we could squeeze into our bags, and headed for the highlands of Lesotho. It was the first week of the skiing season at Afriski and, although it was bitterly cold, no snow had yet fallen in the region. Conditions at the resort had, however, allowed them to make some snow.
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Let it snow
Afriski uses something known as the wet bulb index to monitor snowmaking conditions. The lower the temperature and the humidity, the better the conditions for making snow, which is apparently exactly the same as real snow, except for the fact that here it is spewed out by machines. These machines get water from a series of dams located within the resort which is first transformed into enormous heaps of snow and then flattened by snow ploughs to form ski slopes. During a ‘warm’ season, the snowmakers run for as many as 270 hours, but when there is a lot of natural snowfall, like in 2011, as little as 33 hours of snowmaking may be necessary.
As we stood looking down at the resort on our way in, expecting something akin to the dazzling slopes of the Austrian Alps, we couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Only a thin line of man-made snow lay like a giant hadeda dropping on the side of the mountain, bringing only one word to mind, ‘wannabe’. Fortunately, it turned out we’d been too quick to judge. Over the next 24 hours the temperature plummeted to below zero (and all the way down to minus nine), forcing us into our thermals and resulting in a fresh, 30cm coat of natural snow. Virtually overnight, Afriski was transformed from a trying-too-hard resort into the real deal. The fact that every inch around the slopes was now also covered in snow lifted our spirits considerably.
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Like most ski resorts in Europe, Afriski is run by an eccentric group of youths who wait on tables, pour beers and teach novices like me to stay upright on skis and snowboards. Ski instructors, I realised, are basically surfers at high altitudes. They use words like ‘dude’ and ‘rad’, wax their boards and have red faces, albeit from the icy air and not the sun. The only difference is their equipment and the surface they use it on. And, of course, they have thicker underwear.
Before you are allowed on the main slope, which may stretch as much as 1.1 kilometres down the mountain, you first have to prove to your instructor that you are not a danger to the rest of the skiers and snowboarders around you. For those who try snowboarding, like Kerneels and I did, it means zig-zagging your way down the slippery slope, doing multiple turns without planting your face in the snow.
Kerneels learnt fast and got permission to take off from the top only halfway through our second lesson. I, on the other hand, proved to be more of a challenge to our instructor, Wynand, who was clearly growing more and more impatient with me each time I fell.
“I can’t help you if you don’t do what I tell you to do!” he would shout over the icy gusts of wind that made staying upright even harder. For me the most difficult part was to lift my feet when facing down the slope, and in the process, keeping the back edge of the snowboard scraping against the snow.
I blamed it on my short hamstrings, but Wynand was convinced that I was too stubborn to do as I was told. Eventually, I ended going down like a falling leaf, never making turns and facing up-slope all the way. At least this way, to the relief of my hamstrings, I only had to stand on my toes. It became obvious that someone like me, who had never set foot on a skate-, surf- or wakeboard, wouldn’t become a snowboarder or skier overnight. That makes Afriski the perfect place to hone your skills if you plan to spend your savings on visiting much larger ski resorts in Austria or Switzerland. Afriski is by no means cheap, but the drive there (it’s a mere five hours from Johannesburg) will probably cost you ten times less than a one-way ticket to Europe.
A Day in the Life
Despite spending more time off the snowboard than on it, I enjoyed every second at Afriski. There’s so much more to do than just skiing. Since the slopes usually only open around 09h00 you can have a hearty breakfast at the Sky Restaurant (at 3 222 metres above sea level it’s the highest in Africa) while enjoying the breathtaking view through its massive windows. After the morning skiing session you can recuperate at the The Cooler Box, a small open-air bar next to the slopes that sells boerewors rolls and plays Édith Piaf over the loudspeakers. Talk about a nice mix of local and foreign.
Of course there’s nothing to stop you from taking a stroll through the resort’s scenic surroundings. Hear the fresh snow crunch under your shoes, build a snowman, or take some landscape photos of the majestic snow-capped mountains. Who knows when you’ll see snow again? Just make sure you stay clear of the iced-over dams. No matter how thick the crust looks, it won’t support your weight. And chances of getting out of the freezing water alive are slim.
At around 16h00, skis and snowboards are briefly swopped for bumboards, which are basically plastic shields, each with a handle to hold onto. As the name suggests, you go down the slope on your bum, feet facing forward, at speeds that make even grown men scream like little girls. Most visitors bumboard at least once in the afternoon before retiring to the Gondola Café, Afriski’s pub, around sunset.
What I like about the Gondola Café is that it’s nothing like a typical South African sports bar. Although they’ll broadcast a test match between the Springboks and England, you’re more likely to see death-defying snowboarding stunts on the television overhead while you warm yourself up next to an impressively large fireplace. It’s also a great place to make some new friends. Join the ski-instructors for a round of foosball or beerpong (the better you can aim, the less you have to drink), or beat the standing record for downing two local Maluti beers. Kyle de-Zub held the record of 5.36 seconds when we were there!
Despite the initial anticlimax, Afriski won us over in just three days – completely! Maybe it was the 15 decadent hot chocolates I drank next to the roaring fireplace, or the fact that I saw my Hilux bakkie covered in snow for the first time. Or perhaps it was the surreal feeling of getting a piece of Europe under the African sun?
- You need a passport for Lesotho.
- For an accurate Afriski weather forecast, visit Snow-Forecast.com
- Pour antifreeze in your car’s radiator before you go and start the engine every morning when you wake up and every evening before you go to bed once you’re there.
- Bring a good pair of polarised sunglasses and a buff to cover your face while skiing or snowboarding.
- Remember to wear sunscreen, even if it seems ridiculous to do so in the cold conditions. The snow reflects a huge amount of sunlight onto your face.
- Borrow a pair of waterproof ski pants from a friend or family member, or invest in one if you plan on returning often. Don’t ski in jeans or normal tracksuit pants.
- Bring a hip flask with some Old Brown Sherry to keep you warm on the slopes.
If you go skiing at Afriski…
When to go
The ski season is from about the first week in June until the first week of September. The best time to go is mid-week after the winter school holidays, when the snow is thick and the slopes relatively quiet. Day visitors are welcome, but if you plan to stay overnight, you should book at least eight months in advance.
How to get there
Afriski in Lesotho is about 470km or 5 hours from Johannesburg and if you drive the ‘easy’ route from Durban on the N3, it’s approximately 484km. You can easily get to Afriski in a sedan when the road is clear, but after heavy snowfall the passes near the resort can become temporarily inaccessible. A 4×4 is recommended when the pass is covered with melting snow. But be warned: even after most of the snow has melted, the road can still be extremely slippery, making it deadly on both the ascent and decent.
Afriski offers a selection of accommodation, including self-catering chalets and apartments, lodges and a backpackers.
The Sky Restaurant is within walking distance from all accommodation and serves a great selection of dishes in a comfortable and cosy setting.
086 123 747 54; [email protected]
Words and Photography Villiers Steyn