Skiing the snow-covered slopes of Southern Africa

By Stef Terblanche

When I told an American friend recently that I’m going snow skiing next winter, his response was: “Oh, where are you going, the Swiss Alps or Aspen?” When I answered, no, right here in Southern Africa he was astonished: “You gotta be kidding me!”

Well, I wasn’t… but many people would have reacted the same. The southern parts of Africa are usually associated with sun, lots of it and very hot. Dry bushveld where wild animals roam and temperatures can soar to the upper 30s Celsius. Endless summer beaches where half-naked bodies shine under layers of sun screen oil. And where the word ‘skiing’ means being towed on water behind a speedboat under summer’s blue skies.

For most people the last thing that would come to mind is a snow-skiing adventure on pure white snow. Or people on wobbly legs strapped to two long planks and only their goggled eyes visible from behind layers of thickly padded thermally engineered clothing. High up in the mountains where the air is crisp and cold. Where, after a day’s action on the ski slopes you can warm yourself by a log fire sipping glühwein while swapping stories about your breath-taking downhill speeds or disastrous tumbles.

Two premier resorts

It’s still a relatively little-known fact that Southern Africa boasts two premier ski resorts, one at Tiffindell Ski & Alpine Resort in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, and the other a short hop across the border at Afriski Mountain Resort in Lesotho. Tiffindell was even voted number 19 in CNN Travel’s ‘World’s best ski runs’ in 2014!

Afriski is located at the northern border of Lesotho while Tiffindell hugs the southern border of Lesotho. Both owe their existence to the mighty Drakensberg mountain range. These two resorts are among only four places in Africa where you can go skiing or boarding in the snow, the other two being in Algeria and Morocco in North Africa which are of course much closer to the cold north associated with snow. The beauty is, Tiffindell and Afriski will save you the expensive cost of plane tickets to Europe and quite a bit more, given the weak rand exchange rate.

For those who live in the Western Cape, there’s actually also another third option closer to home, the Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve 35km outside of Ceres. For Capetonians this area is their prime snow playground in winter. While the Cape mountain peaks may be covered in snow during winter, the area around Ceres is really one of the few places where you can actually reach the snow from a nearby public road. Not really marketed that much as a ski resort though, Matroosberg is better known for fabulous hikes in nature, mountain adventures and 4X4 trails. It does, however, offer snow experiences and snowboarding on its slopes and if you join the Tiffindell Ski and Snowboard Club you can use the ski lift up to the slopes. You can also overnight in the reserve’s Ski Hut among other things.

So, put on your winter woollies and warmest padded jackets, pack your ski boots, skis and poles, goggles and helmets and let’s head off to the snow for some really great fun!

Tiffindell

As Afriski is on the Lesotho side of the border, Tiffindell gets to boast of being South Africa’s only true ski resort. A good idea for checking it out this winter would be to take in the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from 27 June to 9 July and then head on towards Barkley East, Rhodes and Tiffindell. Or, if you are on the coast of KwaZulu-Natal enjoying South Africa’s only ‘summer playground’ of the otherwise cold winter months, Tiffindell is not that far from the warm beaches of Margate and Port Shepstone. But of course, you’ll need to pack two different sets of clothing for two starkly opposite seasons!

From whichever direction you come, you’ll be driving a route through awesome natural scenery that becomes ever more spectacular the closer you get to the mountains. Once in the vicinity of Rhodes or Barkley East, you will be entering the Eastern Cape Highlands in the Southern Drakensberg mountains region. On the way from Barkley East to Rhodes you’ll also be passing last active volcano still left in South Africa. For guests’ convenience, vehicles can be left in Rhodes and the resort’s shuttle service used for the last stretch of the journey.

Travis Morrison, marketing manager of Tiffindell, tells us that every winter from June to the end of August families from all across the country flock to Tiffindell to experience the thrill of skiing and snowboarding and the après-ski atmosphere unique to a ski resort.

“Over and above skiing we have some of the best trout fly fishing in the country, mountain biking and hiking trails and now South Africa’s iconic highest off-road mountain pass, Ben McDhui at 3,001 metres high! All our accommodation is centrally heated, our resort is equipped with a restaurant, coffee shop, pizza hut and the most festive pub in the land – Ice Station 2720!

“We have state of the art snow making equipment which guarantees snow all winter should mother-nature not provide us with any or enough. However, over the last 4 years we have been fortunate to experience snowfalls of over 2 metres on several occasions during our winter season,” says Travis.

Tiffindell has been a ski resort since 1993 and besides lots of snow and superb accommodation, it now boasts ski lifts, a restaurant, ski shop and ski school offering three months of skiing and snowboarding during June, July and August. If you don’t feel like risking a downhill run on skis, you can still enjoy making snowmen, throwing snow balls or tobogganing, making it the perfect family holiday for young and old.

Summer fun too

 Even outside of the winter season, the place is an adventure destination for action-packed fun. In summer, spring and autumn, Tiffindell offers activities that include high altitude hiking, mountain biking, grass skiing, mountain boarding, photography, rock art, birding, some of the best local fly fishing, and quad biking. Motorcyclists, 4X4 vehicles, hikers and cyclists can also tackle the High 5… the five highest passes and meanest gravel roads in the country. The area is also known internationally for its unique alpine flowers luring people from around the globe.

At an altitude at 2,720 metres, Tiffindell is nestled snugly on the slope of the spectacular Ben McDhui peak which rises even higher to 3,001 metres, making it the highest peak in the province, and of course the highest resort in South Africa. Hit some golf balls from Ben McDhui, the highest tee in the country, or end the day sipping sundowners.

But it’s all about the snow…

Of course, if you’re heading to Tiffindell in winter, it’s all about the snow, skiing and snowboarding. In the winter months the area is transformed into a winter fairyland of snow and icicles when everything you see comes in shades of dazzling white to grey and black. Colour is provided by the bright outfits of skiers on the slopes.

Tiffindell’s is a fully-equipped winter snow resort with state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming equipment, ski lifts, ski shop and ski school offering three months of skiing. The ski slopes include an 80-metres long Beginner’s Slope. After that, there’s the Main Slope, considered a red run from above the Yeti Bar, and the Gully Slope, a blue run. Two long button lifts will take you back up the mountain after each run. A snow fun-park with rails and jumps is erected on the middle island for the more adventurous ski and snowboard enthusiasts.

Tiffindell offers slope lengths of around 1.3km in total, descending from the highest peak around. The Main Slope becomes increasingly steeper the higher you go up and has been “homologated” by the International Ski Federation (FIS) for slalom and giant slalom courses. The only FIS race on the African continent is held here annually since inception in the 2014 winter.

Never tried skiing before?  No problem. Tiffindell’s highly experienced local and international instructors will teach you to ski or snowboard quickly, safely and almost like a pro whether you’re aged 6 or 60. Private, beginner, intermediate and advanced lessons are available on request. Also, there are artificial ski slopes in South Africa where you can go learn the basics before heading to Tiffindell. For kids there’s a Junior Development Program at Tiffindell’s Ski Academy which is run by three-time Olympic skier and South African National Ski Coach, Alex Heath.

If you don’t have your own equipment, no worry. The cost of hiring standard skis or snowboards (and boots) is included in your package when you stay at Tiffindell. Top carving skis are available for hire for the more experienced, and they also offer big foot skis as well as freestyle snowboards.

Accommodation & entertainment

Accommodation at Tiffindell varies to suit different needs, is comfortable and well equipped, all with central heating, and will have you thinking you are truly in the Swiss Alps. All accommodation is within 100 metres of the ski slopes.

These include Private Chalets suitable for 4-5 people; Family Chalets for 8-9 people; 6-, 8- and 12-sleeper Leisure Chalets; and the Tiffindell Mountain Suites suitable for 2 people. The resort has an experienced medic on duty with a first aid room and a private medical service provider. A day care centre is available for kids under 5 years. There’s also a conference centre.

One half of the fun is enjoyed on the ski slopes; the other half by the entertainment on offer. Guests can’t wait to join in the famous après-ski fun in the evenings – sipping warm Glühwein or a cold Old Brown Sherry, snowy cocktails and shooters in South Africa’s highest pub, the Ice Station 2720.

Kids are treated to fun-poking awards ceremony; cabaret nights are a hoot; and the ritual Ski Burning includes flame torch ski demonstration that will have you holding your breath. You can take part in the legendary ‘Upside Downers’ – hanging upside-down from skis downing shooters of your choice. Or you can party the night away or just lounge by the fire watching the action.  Halfway up and overlooking the main slope there’s also Yeti’s Retreat Pub where you can meet for sundowners at before mass bum-boarding down the slope to dinner.

There’s also a more serious side to all the fun as Tiffindell tries to give back to the local community. The resort provides much-needed employment to locals, helps uplift the local communities with training and skills development, and local suppliers are used. And it prepares local disadvantaged children to ski competitively and train to be ski instructors.

Afriski

Situated at a height of 3,222 metres in the beautiful Drakensberg-Maluti Mountains just across the northern border with the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, Afriski Mountain Resort is within easy reach of Gauteng. It is about 125km by road from the bohemian artists’ village of Clarence and a little further from the cherry capital of the world, Ficksburg, both in the Free State.

This luxury Alpine-styled resort caters to every taste and offers the perfect winter escape for sport and outdoor enthusiasts, corporate parties as well as families. It offers a selection of accommodation options, as well as a range of on-site facilities and restaurants.

In summer, when the snow has melted, there’s still plenty to do in this beautiful mountain setting, ranging from exploring the mountains, hikes, mountain biking, trail-running, fly fishing as well as 4X4 off-road adventures. Multiple trails, paths and streams await your discovery. You can also brave the hair-raising Sani Pass by 4X4 or visit the magnificent Katse Dam.

“Summer has been a big focus for us, and our aim has been to fill the summer months with events covering all the various activities on offer and showcasing the facilities and getting people out into the mountains,” says Afriski’s Peter Peyper.

“We have a network of mountain bike trails all accessible by the ski lift as well as longer XCO type trails for those who are not into gravity mountain biking and are looking for a place to explore new terrain and train at high altitude to give them the competitive edge. We host a number of high profile national and international mountain bike events each year and have also hosted the African Continental Mountain bike Champs and SA Downhill Mountain Bike Champs that are both UCI events, among others,” says Peter.

“We are also busy finishing construction and testing of a zipline that, once completed, will be the longest and fastest zipline on the African Continent.”

Winter snow action

But it’s in winter when the usual African adventures and safaris take a backseat to the action and fun in the snow, when the landscape becomes covered in thick layers of dazzling white snow, the air turns crisp and cold, and the log fires are lit.

It’s not widely known that people have been skiing in various Southern African mountain ranges including the Maluti mountains in Lesotho since 1929. But much has changed since 1929 and in 2004 modern snow-making facilities to add to the natural snow, as well as lifts were introduced by Afriski, which led to skiing and snowboarding flourishing here.

Facilities are as good as anywhere in the world and include a 1,000-metre T-bar lift, two intermediate button lifts and a beginner’s tow lift. Ski equipment is also available to rent. All first-timers visiting the resort need to complete a four-hour introductory course before hitting the slopes on their own. Professional instructors at the resort’s ski school will teach you the basics and make sure you’re ready to tackle the slopes. Natural snow is supplemented by a state of the art, fully automated snowmaking system to provide quality snow and extend the skiing season.

Ski packages

Different ski packages are on offer for people with different levels of skiing experience, such as the Yeti Premium Package, ideal for the adventurous first-time skier or snowboarder who wants the full snow experience, and which includes 3 days of ski school, a snow pass, equipment rental, and unlimited tubing or bumboarding. The latter is a little like sledding and is great to fill the time between ski sessions or for those who want to give skiing or snowboarding a miss. The slopes are fully equipped with world-class instructors on hand and lessons at every level of competence.

Afriski also offers freestyle camps for skiers and snowboarders who want to learn the art of freestyle or hone their skills. Then there’s also extreme bumboarding to be enjoyed with bigger boards and bigger thrills. Or take on the challenge of the tubing alley with its zig-zagged, high-speed adventure.

Apart from instruction for every level at the ski school, you can also improve your snowboarding skills or learn free-style skiing. Afriski offers a regular one-day freestyle camp, so that you can get together with likeminded people and improve your skills in the Kapoko Snow Park. Kapoko is a freestyle zone with several pulse-pumping obstacles, like jumps, rails, and fun boxes. There’s a 400-meter long snow park where international events are hosted snowboard films are shot.

For kids there’s the Pudi Ski Area, a club with its own dedicated ski area, instructors and childminding facility where parents can leave their kids to be entertained and get a full snow experience while they enjoy the ski slopes. The resort also offers sit-skis for those with physical disabilities that prevent them from skiing the conventional way.

Accommodation

The resort offers a variety of backpackers’ accommodation, chalets and self-catering accommodation, all just a stone’s throw away from the restaurants, slopes, après-ski bar and rental facilities. The cosy mountain chalets offer the ultimate city escape and there are many options for travellers who are on a tight budget.

The mountain lodge, Tirol, is perfect for couples, while the chalets are great for larger groups, as they sleep up to 10 people. Adding to the unique ski-resort feel, accommodation options are named after popular ski destinations such as Chamonix, Courchevel and Lillehammer. The views from the chalets are breath-taking and they’re fully equipped with all the necessary appliances and fittings. The chalets are self-catering, so do make sure to pack enough food and drink to last for the duration of your stay.

Andorra is located behind Sky Restaurant and has four separate units, sleeping 22 people in total, the perfect budget option with added privacy, en-suite bathrooms and serviced daily. The backpacker’s accommodation has been upgraded, with the standard rooms sleeping 52 people and the upgraded rooms housing 36 that comes in units of 2, 4 and 8-person sleeper rooms. It comes with communal living spaces, shared kitchen area and communal his / her bathrooms, plus an atmosphere that is young, energetic and relaxed.

The Tirol mountain lodge offers home comfort in a completely different setting. There are 12 rooms, en-suite bathrooms, underfloor heating, space to sleep 2 – 5 people per room and a communal lounge area. St. Johann mountain chalet is perfect for friends and families who want to relax with a spectacular view of the slope. This modern, trendy self-catering unit sleeps up to 6 people and has feature windows on all sides, displaying an uninterrupted view of Afriski and the surrounding mountains.

St Moritz is a family-friendly chalet which allows you to spend your mountain holiday in comfort. Equipped with a kitchen, lounge and dining room, this self-catering chalet is serviced daily and accommodates up to 10 people.

Eat, drink and enjoy…

The resort’s fabulous Sky Restaurant is open every day of the year. At 3,222 metres above sea level, it is the highest restaurant in Africa and comes with a relaxed atmosphere, a family-friendly menu, and a real Austrian feel. The upstairs section presents wonderful views of the Maluti Mountains and a bird’s eye view of the ski slopes to enjoy while you warm up with a cup of coffee or a hot chocolate. To top off the experience in the Sky Restaurant you can enjoy the musical talents of their ‘local’ Bulgarian musician, Lizard.

At the foot of the ski slope you’ll find the wood-clad Gondola Café and Après Ski Bar The café opens early morning and serves great coffee, hot chocolate, and light morning refreshments. From the Gondola deck you can also enjoy the views of the slopes from while enjoying the delicious food.

At night, the café environment transforms into a lively hot-spot with a genuine European après-ski experience on the roof of Africa. The fun includes games, DJs, and live bands, upside-downers drinking shots while hanging upside down from a snowboard attached to the roof or dancing the night away. The Cooler Box is an express food and drinks kiosk on the main deck of the Gondola Café. Here you will find a selection of drinks, as well as light snacks.

Finally, Afriski also has a rental shop offering a full range of ski and snowboard equipment, carving and twin tip skis, snowblades, snowboards and premium snowboard rentals, catering to all ages, from children as young as 4. Helmets are included in rental packages and compulsory for kids.

What to bring…

Bring plenty of warm outdoor and ski clothing, or if you are a beginner, rent the ski gear. There are many shops in South Africa that sell appropriate gear. It’s a good idea to bring the following:

Ski or snowboard jacket

Ski or snowboard pants

Thermal base layer

Hats or beanies

Waterproof warm gloves or mittens

Specialist, seamless ski or snowboard socks

Goggles and sunglasses

Sun protection (yes, despite the cold and snow the sun will still get you!)

Contact…

For more information, packages, rates and bookings, you can contact the following or visit their websites: