Words and photos by Villiers Steyn
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 that leave with gloves, beanies and thermal underwear, not because they have poor circulation, but because they’re going skiing. A few years ago I was fortunate to visit Afriski with good friend, Kerneels Venter. Early in June we packed our thermal undies and headed for the highlands of Lesotho.
Ready, steady, snow!
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. 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 it is spewed out by machines.
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 manmade 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 twenty-four hours the temperature plummeted to -9°C, forcing us into our thermals and resulting in a fresh, thirty-centimetre coat of natural snow. Virtually overnight, Afriski was transformed from a trying-too-hard resort into the real deal.
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 myself 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 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 take off from the top only halfway through our second lesson. I, on the other hand, never passed the test. It became obvious that someone like me, who has 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, more expensive ski resorts in Austria or Switzerland.
Despite spending more time off the snowboard than on it, I enjoyed every second at the resort. I filled my belly at Sky Restaurant (at 3222m above sea level it’s the highest in Africa) and enjoyed a round or two of beerpong at the Gondola Café. Despite the initial anticlimax, Afriski won me over in just three days…completely! Maybe it was the fifteen 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.
When should I 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 do I get there?
From Pretoria: Take the N1 south and turn onto the N3 towards Durban. At Villiers take the Frankfort turn-off and drive to the Caledonspoort Border Post via Frankfort, Reitz, Bethlehem and Fouriesburg. Once in Lesotho, follow the road to Butha-Buthe and then turn left on the A1 tar road. Follow it up the Moteng and Mahlasela passes until you see the Afriski entrance on your right. It’s approximately 80 km from Calendonspoort Border Post to Afriski.
What should I drive?
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. 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.
Where can I sleep?
Afriski offers a selection of accommodation types, including self-catering chalets and apartments (sleeping between 6 and 12 people per unit), lodges (sleeping between 2 and 5 people per unit) and a backpacker’s (that accommodates 50 people).
Who must I contact?
- Don’t forget to pack your passport.
- Follow the link for an accurate Afriski weather forecast.
- 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 your skiing or snowboarding.
- Remember to wear sunscreen, even if it feels 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 it if you plan on returning often. Don’t ski in jeans or normal tracksuit pants.
- Bring a hipflask with some Old Brown Sherry to keep you warm on the slopes.