I think the vast majority of us have a stereotype of Africa as a hot and dry continent, with sweeping Savannahs and its fair share of deserts. Even the mountains of Swaziland came as a shock to me, when I landed here 5 months ago. Yet, when I discovered that 8 hours South of Swaziland, in the Kingdom of Lesotho, was a ski resort, the idea of a) Learning to Snowboard, and b) Doing it in Africa, was just too random an opportunity to pass up.
I planned a four-day getaway and it was full steam ahead until two days before leaving, when my Supervisor realised I was going alone and refused to let me go unless I had a travel buddy. A mad search began for an appropriate co-pilot, but despite the various names that were put forward , all sent through their apologies 12 hours before take-off. To the rescue came Sogue, a Swazi friend who had never seen snow before and was willing and able to chuck a last-minute sickie (clearly been hanging around too many Australians).
After a quick sleep, we were on the road heading West then South along South Africa’s expensive toll-laden motorways. The 8-hour trip was made easier by the seat dancing and bad car karaoke to African beats. It was easy to tell that SA and Australia were once one bit of rock, as the open farmlands brought memories of home. Yet, the sight of church steeples poking out from European-style villages seemed out-of-place.
When we finally crossed the border into Lesotho, at 4:30pm, I fell in love immediately. Lesotho has the highest lowest point of any country in the world, stretching from just over 1000m above sea level to almost 3500m above sea level. Its barren mountainous landscape reminded me so much of Nepal, yet the multitude of thatched-roof stone rondavels made it look like something from a JRR Tolkien novel. Lesotho is known for its blankets (all made in the UK!) and the people wear them like a uniform accompanied by a beanie or balaclava to keep away the cold. Seeing a blanketed man riding his donkey, or pony, down the street, and hearing the sound of the cow bell on some form of hairy animal, brings home how much has remain unchanged in Lesotho.
Ten kilometres from the border is Botha-Bothe, the second largest town in Lesotho with a population of 10,000, and the home of my friend and fellow Aussie volunteer, Kirby. The centre of Botha-Bothe was what I had envisioned Africa to be: dirty with pothole-filled roads, rickety stalls sandwiched together, stray animals, bustling, vibrant and happening. On our arrival, we headed straight to Kirby’s workplace, “Thuso Etla Tsoa Kae” a school for disabled children that literally translates to “Who’s going to help us?”. After the tour and compulsory hundred photos, we settled back into the warmth of Kirby’s abode and prepared for the next day’s fun.
It was a balmy Lesotho day with a maximum of 2oC and minimum of -3oC. The sun was shining and the roads were clear: perfect conditions for an African snowboarding adventure. The 90-minute drive to Afriski resort is incredibly twisty, bendy and steep, but also incredibly beautiful as you rise up to the snowline and look out at the mountains beyond and below. The road takes you through walls of ice that form a continuous series of waterfalls as the sun begins to hit them. Then, finally, you see it: a single slope with lots of smiling (white) people zipping down it.
I quickly grabbed some gear and signed up for a full day of lessons to get the most out of my time there. Despite a shaky start, within a couple of hours I was confidently tea-leafing down the slope, heelside and toeside. I was very impressed with myself, given that I can’t even go toeside on a kiteboard, and the last and only time I attempted a snow sport was 15 years ago on a school ski trip.
As the afternoon wore on, my enthusiasm quickly turned to pain, when I tried in vain to perfect turns and instead repeatedly landed on my tailbone leading to an unceasing shooting pain through my backside and legs. Still, nothing a shot of Voltaren in the backside can’t fix (or mask), and half an hour later, I was back on the slopes and smiling once again.
The party continued into the night, when four of Kirby’s workmates and three other Aussie volunteers made their way to Botha-Bothe to celebrate the weekend’s coming. It must have been a sight, seeing five white people dancing around Kirby’s living room, as even the Lesotho contingent were too intimidated to join in (which is not like Africans, at all!).
The following day was one of muscle pain, so we used it as a chance to see more of Lesotho. We picked up another Aussie volunteer in Pitseng, and made our way to Katse Dam. Katse is a feat of engineering that enables Lesotho to supply abundant amounts of water to large tracts of South Africa, including Jo’burg, and hydroelectricity to Lesotho itself. The drive, again, was steep and wound its way over several passes and past traditional homesteads, and it never ceased to amaze me how anyone can live in such remote, arid and freezing areas. It’s a sign of the times, though, when you see a blanket-wrapped Basotho herding some woolly sheep while chatting on a mobile phone.
Our final night in Lesotho was spent chilling with the Aussie volunteers and partaking in some Springboks (Amarula cream and Peppermint liqueur), before the sad goodbyes and arduous drive home.
To sum up the last four days:
27 hours and 1880km of driving: R2000
An Afriski pass, equipment hire and lessons: M1100
A jab of Voltaren to minimise butt pain: M90
Chilling with friends and unable to sit after snowboarding the only ski slope in Africa: Priceless