Let it Snow
Words Will Edgcumbe
Skiiing and snowboarding are not sports that are on the average South African’s radar. Although there are a few places the snow falls more or less annually, it’s not the kind of snowfall one associates with an alpine resort; in fact, snow is generally so unusual that large numbers of people will flock from hundreds of kilometres away just to see a half inch of it and build a very small, sad snowman.
But to go skiing you don’t have to board a long haul flight and watch in dismay as your rands are converted to rather fewer Euro that you’d like. In fact, Lesotho and South Africa each have a pretty great ski resort, and if you live in Durban or Joburg, you could find yourself on the slopes in almost the same amount of time it takes to go out and watch a movie.
Over the border
Set in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains, just 80km from the South African border post at Caledonspoort, Afriski Mountain Resort has quickly established itself as Africa’s top skiing destination. At an altitude of 3222m above sea level, Afriski has a real alpine feel and skiers and snowboarders – both powder addicts and first-timers – flock to the slopes every winter season, which runs from June to August.
Afriski operates in a similar way to an alpine resort, with independent operators providing accommodation, food, equipment rentals, instruction and the like, although you can book or purchase all these aspects through a central reservations facility, so that when you arrive all you need to worry about is hitting the slopes.
Even at altitude in Lesotho snow isn’t a guarantee, so the resort employs an extensive snow making system to ensure that the runs are always powdered and ready for action. And before you worry that this affects the quality of the slopes, snow making is standard for ski resorts around the world, and the snow that’s made is as real as the snow that falls from the sky.
Although modest by international standards, Afriski’s 1km main ski run is well maintained and perfect for getting some downhill speed. The run is serviced by a T-bar lift, and there’s a separate beginner’s learning area serviced by three lifts of its own, as well as an intermediate area. This ensures that you’ll generally be surrounded by people of similar experience and ability, and everyone can get on with having a great time. There’s also a snowboard park for skilled riders who want to launch into the air, and Afriski also hosts ski racing competitions.
The on-site ski and snowboard school offers introductory to advanced group instruction for adults and children, and if you want to take your skills to the next level, there are also private coaching lessons on offer by top international ski instructors. If you’re a first timer on a ski slope, bear in mind that it’s compulsory to take a four-hour introductory lesson to ensure your safety and that of those around you.
If you’re not too keen on skiing or snowboarding because you’ve heard way too many stories about broken legs, you can give bumboarding a try. It’s exactly what it sounds like it is; you sit a mini luge and zip down the hill. It can actually be pretty extreme, and once the slopes are closed to skiers and snowboarders at the end of the day you can even bomb the main slope.
Afriski offers a wide range of accommodation options, including chalets for large groups, lodges for couples or small groups, self-catering apartments and there’s a backpackers for those travelling on a tight budget. The on-site Sky Restaurant is the highest restaurant in Africa, and has a bird’s eye view of the ski slopes. Tastefully built from imported Austrian timber, it’s where people come to chat about their experiences and eat great food, from homemade burgers to fresh pizzas. There’s also the Gondola Café and Apre Ski Bar which doubles as a coffee shop during the day, and a bar and nightclub after the sun sets.
Afriski stays open when the snows melt, with their summer season running from September to May. Although you can’t ski or snowboard, there is plenty to do to get your pulse racing, including motorbike trails, mountain biking, hiking trails, gorge jumping, abseiling, 4x4 routes and more. Stargazing at Afriski is also fantastic due to its high altitude and pollution-free air, and if you’re a twitcher, the bird watching is fantastic too.
Ski South Africa’s own snow
South Africa’s only ski resort, Tiffindell, is located 22km from the small town of Rhodes in the Southern Drakensberg on the slopes of Ben McDhui peak – the highest mountain in the Cape – and sitting at an altitude of 2720m, it’s the ideal spot for a ski and alpine resort.
There is over 1km of ski runs – including a beginner’s slope – and a fun snow-park with jumps and rails for snowboarders. Their snowmaking system and grooming machines ensure that the slopes are powdery and perfect for three months of the year during South Africa’s winter, and their skilled instructors will make even the most nervous beginner confident enough to get onto the snow. There is a range of accommodation options available, from private and family chalets to en-suite luxury rooms, and in summer you can camp. The area is also lovely during the summer months, with excellent hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and a whole host of adventure activities.
Get a lesson before you go… in Joburg
At the Ski Deck (011 781 6528 / www.ski.co.za) in Randburg, you can learn the basics on a ski simulator that realistically mimics just about every condition you might face on the slopes, allowing you to get the basics right before you head for the slopes, so you can spend more time skiing during your valuable holiday time!
Skiing in North Africa?
Perhaps surprisingly, Africa is home to other ski resorts, though you have to travel rather a little further to find the snows. The Atlas Mountains is a serious mountain range running through Algeria and Morocco, and over the years there have been a number of popular ski resorts drawing locals and foreigners alike. Unfortunately a number of them don’t operate any more due to political instability, but Morocco is still home to two ski sites ¬– Oukaïmden and Mischliffen. Of the two, Oukaïmden has the most reliable snow and the better facilities for skiing, and it’s also just 70km from Marrakesh, making it reasonably easy to reach.
The snow coverage is best from January to March, and with a summit at 3,265m above sea level, it’s properly frigid and blizzards can move in pretty quickly. There’s a nice beginner’s slope, and it’s worth spending some time there because the main slope is pretty steep. There’s a decent rental shop called Univers Glisse at the bottom of the slope, which you can contact to find out what conditions are like, and you can get all the gear you need from them too.
Hotel Chez Juju in Oukaïmden is a great little hotel, and perfect to use as a base for days on the slopes. It’s pretty basic, but it’s clean and friendly, and the views of the mountains are quite spectacular.
Love the snow? Try the sand
The only downer with skiing and snowboarding is that it’s a particularly seasonal sport, but there’s somewhere you can get that downhill thrill which isn’t reliant on the weather. The best snow for ski runs is usually described as being powdery, so it makes sense that sand of a similar consistency can also be used. Just 40km from Cape Town is the expansive Atlantis dune field, and with its combination of gentle and steep slopes, it’s the perfect spot for beginners and experts to try their hands at a bit of sandboarding.
Sidewinder Adventures runs epic sandboarding tours of the dunes, with equipment provided, so all you need to bring is a sense of adventure. Owned and operated by the current National Sandboarding Champ, Dave Rademeyer, Sidewinder Adventures uses the best gear available, and their top quality instruction will have you carving up the slopes in no time.
Afriski – 0861AFRISKI / www.afriski.net
Tiffindell – 011 781 2620 / www.tiffindell.co.za
Univers Glisse – www.univers-glisse.com
Hotel Chez Juju – www.hotelchezjuju.com
Sidewinder Adventures – 072 177 8620 / www.sidewinderadventures.co.za
Source: Travel Ideas