When you think of Africa many things come to mind. Skiing is probably among the least likely things to be associated with the continent. High atop the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho sits Afriski, a small ski resort that blasts apart most people's ideas about Africa. Lesotho is a mountain kingdom in southern Africa, surrounded on all sides by South Africa. I was blessed to shred park, powder, and have a hell of a time 10 thousand feet above Africa.
The hectic feelings of anxiety, packing, and the uncertainty starts to grow. I drove back from Canada and packed all my stuff after a quick nap. Half conscious, i started making my way from upstate New York down to Baltimore. I dropped my car off with friends, and caught a ride to the airport. After a long trip and avoiding some rioting in Paris, I arrived in Joburg.
After some wandering around the Airport I found my ride to the mtn. It was myself and 4 ski instructors about to mission into the unknown. We had some idea what we were doing but you could feel the excitement building as we cruised off toward the mountains. .
From the beginning it felt like being a part of something special. Something about this place feels less like a ski area and more like a community. The small size and good vibes go a long way. Living in close quarters, partying at the same bar, and skiing a small hill makes it easy to get to know everyone. When I arrived, I wasn't sure how much of my love for this place was simply a novelty, and how long it would take to wear off. At the end of my the season here I still love the place.
JTK Switch Backy in the early season.
1. The park
Afriski is home to one of only 2 parks on the continent. The Kapoko park has seen many changes over the years, but still remains the place to be if you think you have skills on the snow. I found the level of riding impressive. There is some really solid riding coming out of people who have never been on snow outside of Africa. I was told that this was one of the better years for some of the best riders in southern Africa all being at the resort for the season.
If you think about it, a lot of the people skiing here had never seen snow, so their willingness to just go for it in the park was awesome to watch.
The park wasn't huge, but it had a little bit of something for everyone. The park was 5 pads long in peak season with 11 jibs and 2 sets of jumps, with a big and small side to close out the park. In the late season the biggest jump was 35' and saw a couple of dub attempts.
2. Powder days
This season we were blessed with the best snow storms the resort had seen in at least 4 years. The storms brought power outages and an extreme feeling of isolation, but it was everything you wanted if you were hungry for some African powder. Riding powder is something most of us live for, giving us a feeling that's nearly impossible to put into words. When you're skiing a place that for many seasons is simply a slice of snow in an otherwise barren landscape, any powder you get is a blessing. Throughout the beginning of the season I was scouting lines, thinking "I want to drop that cliff" or come down that chute over there. Like many things in life there is no guarantee, and regarding large volumes of snow in Africa that stands pretty true.
Yours truly enjoying the sight of my meal thanks to always carrying a headlamp.
When the forecasts came through for heavy snow, I was scared to get my hopes up. I don't consider myself a superstitious man but as soon as the chance of snow comes in, I get a bit paranoid. "DON'T TALK ABOUT IT YOU'LL JINX IT!!!!" and other conversations were heard around the mountain. The excitement and anticipations of what could be is so great, but everyone still pretends to be calm about it.
When the storm first hit, it seemed like a dud. Grey skies and clouds, but the snow was barely falling. "We're fucked!" "Too many people talking about the powder" "Maybe it's still coming?" The thoughts that were cooking in our brains and sending the anxiety all the way to frenzy mode 1000.
Mid evening the snow finally started. It came in bursts, as if for no other reason than to frustrate you that it had all ended. Mid night, I woke up to a heavy Thunderstorm sound. "Fuck! It's raining!" I thought as I crawled for the window. Too my surprise the hillsides were blanketed in a thick coat of powder and the storm showed no signs of slowing down.
Posing for a quick shot in between backcountry laps. Photo: Shawn Van Zyl
In the morning it was as if I had never seen powder before. The excitement of those childhood snowstorms overwhelmed me as I nearly skipped to work. If you think of the climate in Africa, many of the people at the resort had never seen natural snow in their lives, if they had even seen man made. The energy was unreal. The first day the skies cleared it was full on send mode. People that had never touched powder bombing through it, throwing themselves off cliffs with nothing but smiles on their faces. The energy that other people project is infectious, and being a part of that moment is something I'll never forget.
For the next 2 weeks we received snow storms sporadically, and I took every chance I could to sneak away from work to ride. There's that realization that what you are riding is finite, at least for that season. Even then, the thought crosses your mind that some of the lines you hit, may have never been hit, and may never be hit again. If that doesn't motivate you to grab your gear and go for a hike, I feel bad for you.
Hey JTK, you might be waiting for a while.
So it might seem a bit strange to dedicate a whole section to the local watering hole but believe me, it needs to be in here. The Gondola is an Apres ski bar at the base of the mtn that is responsible for most of the ridiculous shenanigans happening at the resort. When you're living in such a remote place, your options for venues to gather at are slim, and the gondola has assumed the role of the place to be.
Fooseball? If you get shut out, take them pants off and do a lap. Snowboarding? Well there's one bolted to the ceiling if you're keen to challenge your friends to shots while hanging upside down. In the biblical times there was Sodom and Gomorrah; in the present we have the Gondola Cafe. I feel like I'm a pretty well seasoned partyer but in all honestly this bar had the potentially to turn a nun into an alcoholic. My roommate and resident DJ Duma(who should play more Dre) killed it on getting the party started and keeping the folks dancing and buying drinks.
Lesotho knows how to party.
There's a joke going around the mountain that under the floor of the bar is a pentagram that casts some sort of spell on you making you unable to leave. Maybe you're an "I'll have one beer and go home" type. Sorry but that just won't fly at gondola. You might go out for one beer, but 15 later and losing most or all of your clothes you're still partying until the place shuts down. The patch home isn't the most inviting either. A sketchy boardwalk of pallets over wetland mixed with mud and ice depending on the day. Any day you leave the bar at close and wake up in your bed is a good day, cherish that.
Ski patrol has to party sometime. Here's Frosty giving the upsidedowners a shot.
4. Even The Best Seasons Come To An End
After a crazy time at our closing weekend's Winter Fest, it was all over. When I walked outside there was an eerie silence. The people, the tents, and the season were gone. The bi weekly park demos, the drunken madness of ski burning, the unforgettable memories were now just that. It's now all in the past, but as the northern hem winter heads towards its end, I find myself wrapped in the feeling of nostalgia toward what will go down as one of the best seasons I've ever experienced.
2016 Winter Whip. The final contest in the park.
If anyone has any interest in taking a trip there or working for the season, I'm down to answer any questions. If you're trying to instruct, coach freestyle, bar tend, or just take a ridiculous adventure, leave me a comment or message if you have any questions and I'll do my best to steer you on the right path. The location, the vibe, and the overall experience is simply amazing. I really can't encourage you enough to check out this spot, or other destinations you might have been looking at.
In the words of the great Tanner Hall, "Fucking send it son!"
Absolutely stunning night sky Photo: Jason May
2016 park crew was not too shy of the camera. Come shred with the crew for skinny jeans Sundays 2017. Photo: Jason May
Powder teaser by Shawn Van Zyl
A few skinny jeans Sundays laps with Jason May