It took me until my thirties to touch snow for the very first time. We’d driven out to Ceres on an appropriately chilly day Sunday morning in early July – your best bet for seeing a dusting of winter around the Western Cape. After tailing back and forth along roads between snow-capped mountains, we parked on a dirt road and hiked up into hills unknown. After scooping up handfuls of the white stuff from rocks and flattened scrub, I noticed a few ephemeral specks of white dancing on the wind and heard a light ‘tic’ on my shoulder as snowflakes began to drift down from the heavens, culminating in the lightest of blizzards, dusting the landscape and us liberally. I wasn’t traversing the Alps, but as a first snow experience, it was pretty magical.
A different world
Almost a year later, I had my passport stamped at the Caledonspoort border post on my way into Lesotho, the last stop before completing the final 80km of our lengthy journey from Parkhurst in Jo’burg. We weren’t quite prepared for just how long that final stretch would take on the circuitous roads, nor were we prepared for the transformation in the topography and colour palette of the landscape as we wound our way slowly towards our destination.
After 10km, the quasi-urban rural dwellings gave way to a full-on agrarian dreamscape, with terraced hillsides of wheat opposite towering buttresses of rock, stone huts and brick houses lining the road, and seemingly everything bursting with shades of gold and red and brown. It was dusk by the time we tackled the stomach-churningly vertiginous Mahlasela Pass, but I could still make out the drifts of snow draped over the hills and the icy rock faces alongside the 3000m-high road. It was dark, and -6°C by the time we arrived at our destination: Afriski Mountain Resort, Lesotho’s only ski resort and one of only two in southern Africa.
Tucked into a valley with the ski slope rising up the western slope, Afriski wears its inspiration on its sleeve: the wooden lodges dotting the eastern slope of the resort all bear the names of famous international ski resorts, and the whole operation has been designed to mimic the experience of a Meribel or a Chamonix. It wasn’t the twinkling winter wonderland I was expecting; in the morning, the sight that greeted my eyes was a golden landscape dotted with pockets of snow. The ski slope gets its covering from snow machines – kind of like the opposite of hair dryers, but much larger. They roar from the early evening into the night, blasting out man-made snow that collects in drifts and is then shuffled around by bulldozers to create skiable surfaces.
Accommodation is available in the form of a backpackers, lodges, mountain chalets and apartments. The gas fire in the lounge of Courchevel, our four-bedroom apartment (I insisted on calling it a lodge), was burning when we arrived, and continued to burn the entire weekend – making it at times very difficult to pry myself away from the couch.
But we didn’t drive 400km just to roast our toes like the pudgy little marshmallows they are. I had a date with snow, and this time I was prepared. By ‘prepared’, I mean I headed down to our first skiing lesson dressed like the Michelin Man, anorak over jacket over body warmer over hoodie over long-sleeve T-shirt, with towels tucked in around my thighs to protect against the inevitable falls. I was practically bulletproof, ready to ski cross-country, rifle slung across my back, James Bond theme tune ringing in my ears as thugs on snowmobiles crashed haplessly into trees in my pursuit.
Alex, our bubbly, diminutive ski instructor, had different ideas for two newbies who’d never so much as donned a ski in their lives. Swiss-born Alex had been skiing since she was able to stand, and came to southern Africa a few years back in the European off-season and predictably fell in love with our more appealing climate and cultural disposition.
First step was sorting out our equipment – there’s a full equipment rental centre on site, as well as a shop for any extras. Your ski boots – enormous, rigid, clunky things that make you feel like you’re walking on high-heeled clogs – need to be snug, but not cut-off-your-circulation snug. Then the skis, or planks as they’re known in ski lingo. Beginners’ planks are enormous, and get shorter the greater your skill level. We also grabbed ski poles, which proved largely superfluous for our level of (in)experience.
Then it was time to tackle the great white slope – the icy unknown, man against the elements! Or just man against the beginners’ slope, a shallow stretch about 50m in length. We began not at the top, but at the bottom, trying to master the basics of standing on skis, not falling over on skis, moving sideways on skis, and moving forward on skis. All of which is actually a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you’re a clumsy clot like me.
From there we moved on to the key element of skiing: the snowplough. This involves pushing the backs of your skis out and the fronts in, forming a wedge shape. It’s how you steer and, crucially, stop (essential when approaching an icy precipice, or a fence, or a hapless child screaming in fear at the out-of-control idiot bearing down on them). It only took me most of our lesson to master, during which time I fell over once, crashed into a woman wearing a bright-blue tracksuit, almost ran over a child, and engaged in some unintentional synchronised skiing with Alex – by which I mean I crashed into her too.
Despite all this, she remained strangely patient with me, calling out instructions to my compatriot as he whizzed down the slope and straight to the rope lift back to the top. ‘Bend your knees, keep your weight forward!’ she said, before returning to my floundering. Even stranger was just how pleasant and supportive everybody else was – from the other instructors to the newbies to the more experienced. There was an amazingly convivial atmosphere out on the snow, and in fact everywhere I went at Afriski. People were just nice. Perhaps there’s something about the inhospitable cold that makes us realise we need to work together to survive – to wait out the storm.
The storm never came, but the end of our lesson did, and we retired for a well-earned lunch. Sky Restaurant serves a great selection of wholesome food, including great pizzas, possibly the best chicken wings I’ve ever tasted, and Tiroler gröstl – an onion, potato, bacon and parsley fry-up topped with an egg. A gas fire burns in the middle of the restaurant, and windows all along the east and south walls provide stunning views of the area.
For livelier recreation, there’s the Gondola Café and Apres Ski Bar, overlooking the beginner slope, where guests and staff let off (and create) steam after a hard day on the ice. You won’t find many better parties on a Friday night at 3 000m above sea level, and we watched in amazement and horror as a patron had her feet strapped into a mounted upside-down snowboard to drink a tray of shooters. A roaring wood fire provides the ideal place to thaw frostbitten digits, while the glühwein will thaw pretty much everything else.
The morning was a stark illustration of what happens when you mix beer and glühwein at high altitude. I fumbled with the taps in an attempt to get a glass of water, but scarcely a drop issued forth. When we’d returned in the evening, we’d found the taps running gently, and being water-wise citizens we’d closed them. Now the pipes were frozen, my thirst was unassailable and the storm was now inside me.
A cup of coffee and an enormous breakfast later, I was ready to hit the slopes for a quick session before departure. I bent my knees, kept my weight forward, leaned into my turns … and I got it. Simple, beginner-slope stuff, but I was carving back and forth across the snow, not crashing into anyone or anything, and the experience was nothing short of euphoric. I wasn’t traversing the Alps, but as a first ski experience, it was pretty magical.
Carving: Turning with the dug-in edge of a ski or snowboard, producing a crisp, clean arc without significant skidding or side-slipping
Chowder: Chopped-up snow powder
Cruising: Making big turns at high speed
Catching air: Jumping off the snow
Fall line: The path taken ball rolling down a slope
Off-piste: Un-groomed portion of the ski area
Run: Designated ski slope or trail
A version of this story originally appeared in khuluma.