WITH a gentle ‘thump’ and a light ‘swoosh’, I hopped gracefully off the ski lift and made the short, smooth turn to stop neatly at the top of the slope. Adjusting my Gucci goggles and flicking a stray lock of hair over my fur-lined, Tommy Hilfiger-ed shoulder, I considered the pristine white powder run that snaked out below me as it glimmered in the bright sunlight.
My route was mapped out: A quick curve to the left to soar deftly over the three-metre ramp. Then – twisting and turning – swift descent down the steep and sharply winding slope through the tall, green pine forest, and on to the black run to test my grit, before speeding across the glacier to swish to a standstill at the front entrance of the elegant après-ski bar down below. I pictured my poised arrival mirrored in countless pairs of admiring Ray Bans…
But suddenly, the earth shook beneath me and, as my head whacked unceremoniously against something hard and cold, the dream vanished in a flash. I opened my eyes. The old Jeep – in which I had fallen asleep – rattled and bumped up the craggy and corrugated dirt road that meanders through the New England and Wartrail districts of the Eastern Cape and up the slopes of the southern Drakensberg, heading toward South Africa’s only ski resort, Tiffindell.
Dragging myself into a sitting position, I peered through a grimy window. No gleaming white snow or gently waving green woodlands greeted me. It was winter in Africa: long, brown grass, brilliant blue sky, ragged rocks and an endless, dusty road stretched out ahead of us, taking us almost 2 720 metres above sea level to the slopes of the Ben MacDhui peak near to the South African-Lesotho border.
Indeed, magnificently rugged Africa with the crumpled silhouette of one of the continent’s most beautiful mountain ranges as its back drop – but a snow skiing holiday? Trundling across the craggy plateau, it seemed unlikely… until, as we turned left off the district road, the resort materialised up on the hillside ahead of us.
Alpine village-styled wooden chalets lay alongside a long, white strip of snow that looked incongruous amid the vast brown expanses of rock and grass. But for sure, the slope was speckled with people on skis, snowboards and bum boards. They darted and flew left, right and centre of the large white slap of snow, which appeared to have been smeared across the mountainside with a giant butter knife. They were skiing in Africa and, by all accounts, loving it. I could not wait to join them.
Within half an hour of clipping boots into skis, I lay writhing on the snow, clutching my knee: “Your ligament’s gone,” said the goggle-eyed, beanie-headed stranger kneeling at my side. “Believe me, I’m an orthopaedic at Sandton Medi-Clinic.”
This time, it was no dream. And so began my five day stay at Tiffindell. My family had a ball, while I grew fat and – hobbling about on crutches – learned a great deal about the resort.
Tiffindell was established by a team of enterprising Johannesburgers in 1993 and, although the resort experiences heavy snowfalls at least once a year – it snowed there for the first time this year on 27 April – a modern snowmaking machine is used to guarantee skiing for about three months each winter. The contraption is something like a noisy sprinkler system that makes use of the cold mountain temperatures to freeze water into crude snow crystals. A grooming machine combs the snow across the slopes each morning to advance a smooth ride and to reduce the icy patches.
Initially, there was only one slope at Tiffindell. A flat 60 metre beginners’ slope was soon added and the original slope was eventually lengthened to one kilometre. Recently a new button lift, which hauls skiers right to the top of the main slope and a special 270 metre black slope were added. After good snowfalls, you can also ski off-piste for up to one and half kilometre.
The resort employs an able team of ski and snowboard instructors, many of whom enjoy skiing in the unique African surroundings during the European off-season. It is well worth taking some tips from them. You’d be particularly well advised to take heed when they recommend you refresh your technique on the beginners’ slop before rushing onto the main run – that’s what I am going to do when I return to the Tiffindell slopes this winter. Or perhaps I’ll just keep dreaming.