Photo: Rich Pearce
Words: Harry Warren Wilson
It was something you’d never expect to see. Such an oddly, alienated yet still somehow familiar sight, just in the wrong context. For the first time, as we turned the final corner on that dirt track, I laid my eyes on what would be my workplace for the following six weeks.
The lone rectangular strip, surreally white and pure, just lay there casually in the sun, set against a three-hundred-and-sixty degree panorama of the driest, dustiest hills I had ever seen. It had a kind of playfulness to it. As if the mountains were a child’s colouring book, and someone had decided to brush a thick line of white paint through the middle of a page.
Right there, in the heart of the Drakensberg, sat a surprisingly normal ski piste, with a café-bar at the bottom, a handful of houses strewn around the area, and a bunch of tourists looking for some fun. The scene seemed very out of place.
African winter was already throwing me off balance, but I loved it.
After leaving my home in the middle of summer, flying from Austria to South Africa, then having been driven to Lesotho, I had journeyed without expectations, and I suddenly felt a new excitement as I was presented with this stark scene. My first time in Africa, and I was overwhelmed. Relieved to be at my destination I looked around, and, having only been on the continent for a couple of hours, the vast beauty which lay in front of me was not believable.
It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I would find out what lay behind the flat peaks in the distance - a true geological masterpiece crafted by mother nature: an amphitheatre made of horizontal rock faces, which tower over six hundred metres above mainland South Africa. The 25km trek from the resort, through the Maluti mountains, was another experience in itself.
I noticed how the sun bounced off the snow, the reservoir, the glass windows of the cafe. The air was cold, but the sky was cloud free, bright, and the warm rays touched my skin. This weather didn’t change for weeks. No clouds, just blue sky. Even when the clouds did eventually roll over the hills, they were harmless. They flew overhead like ghosts, reminding us how dry the winter would be.
It was indeed a very dry winter. I didn’t even see ten centimetres of real snow fall during my month-and-a-half stay.
The work seemed to fill up my days. Rarely was there an hour spare to hit the park, or to lounge in Gondola Café having a drink, getting a round of table football in. The nights were usually spent in that same bar, and if we didn’t come straight from staff canteen, then we were likely giving one of the infamous ski demos. This was a night-time show. A mixture of ski and snowboard instructors showing off their skills, hucking occasional tricks - often faceplants - and performing a haka for the guests, African style. Wild nights ensued.
In the end, there may only be eight-hundred metres of slope, but the most impressive thing about that slope is what lies half way down - an international-standard park. The team of five or six shapers make a perfect setup - three separate jib lines and a double kicker line, each offering up to eight or nine features in one run - which they continue to shift around all season, swapping features out more than weekly.
What really made this resort special, though, was the atmosphere between the workers, guests, and locals. Apart from the fact that people actually live in such an extreme location, the tight-knit community and the way everyone welcomed new faces was what inspired me. It was almost like a big, multicultural family. I think this comes down to the fact that everyone was there for one reason - because that’s exactly where they wanted to be.
I could list the downsides, and there would be plenty. I see no need though. African winter isn’t for everyone, but if you like to travel and want an unimaginable experience, it’s a green light. Aweh!