Southern Africa isn’t exactly known for its abundance of snow. In fact, short of the celebrated snows that dust the cap of Kilimanjaro, the African continent is almost bereft of the white stuff. But there is one country where you can be reasonably sure to encounter it, provided your timing is right. We headed for the Mountain Kingdom in a Nissan Patrol, with high hopes of frolicking in the snow
Text and photography: GG van Rooyen
“Perhaps there is something to this whole climate change thing,” we muse as we leave the Free State town of Fouriesburg. We are heading towards Lesotho via the nearby Caledonspoort border post. The Mountain Kingdom stretches out in front of us, but there is little evidence of snow. Only the tallest peaks boast a sparse sprinkle of white.
At the Fouriesburg Country Inn, where we had spent the previous night, we were told that this had been one of the warmest and snow-free winters the normally freezing region had experienced in many years. We were very disappointed, since we had hoped to spend the day driving and playing in the snow.
The various accoutrements needed to clothe and accessorise a snowman were packed in the rear of the Patrol, ready to be used. A large flask had been filled with coffee. Earmuffs and mittens were on hand.
South Africans have the same sort of relationship with snowy landscapes that Europeans share with the African savannah. For European visitors, the wildlife-filled grassy plains are a truly majestic and surreal sight, since it is far removed from their daily lives. Sure, we appreciate the bushveld as well, but we can’t quite match their childlike glee, simply because we know it well.
Now, when it comes to snow, the tables are turned. While Europeans often view it as nothing more than a slushy menace that blocks up roads and seeps into expensive shoes, we enthuse like children when there’s a little snow. We love the stuff, and crave to toss around snowballs and build snowmen.
So, with exactly these aims in mind, we decided to travel to Lesotho during a long weekend early in August. After all, Lesotho is really the only southern African destination where one can count on regularly finding snow in winter.
Obviously there are better prospects of snow in the mountains, and there is more chance that it will last in the icy conditions. Not only is Lesotho a mountainous country, it also has a high average elevation. In fact, it is the country with the highest low point of all – 1400m above sea level. (The country with the lowest low point, by the way, is Jordan, with an elevation of minus 422m at the Dead Sea.)
But travelling to Lesotho to enjoy the snow can be a tricky business. The weather, especially at high altitudes, is unpredictable, and a fun daytrip can quickly become a hazardous adventure if the weather turns. The narrow mountain roads, dangerous at the best of times, can become impassable in rainy, snowy conditions. Temperatures can drop well below freezing, so a mountain pass in a blizzard is not a place you want to spend the night.
But, as we were to discover, Lesotho doesn’t necessarily become a frozen no-go zone during the winter months. As we crossed the border – a quick and painless process – we hardly saw any evidence of snow. We headed through Butha Buthe, towards the Afriski Mountain Resort. Surely, we reasoned, if there was one spot where we would find snow it was at one of Africa’s few skiing destinations.
As we climbed higher into the mountains and started negotiating the winding passes, we at last noticed faint traces of snow – on some peaks far off in the distance. Then there were patches of snow next to the road, and a small dam covered by ice, and lined with a narrow band of snow. But there was hardly enough around to construct a single respectable snowman!
Our timing was clearly off. According to the locals, the area had been covered in snow last winter. The road we were travelling on had even been closed.
But as we approached Afriski, things began to look up a bit, with larger and larger areas covered in white. It wasn’t quite a snowy landscape, but it was beginning to look as though a snowball fight was a distinct possibility.
On the main road, right above Afriski, we found a narrow track that led up to a particularly snowy hill. We slipped the Patrol into fourwheel drive, and headed up the slope. It led to a beautiful pool that was completely iced over. Though there wasn’t a lot of snow, there was enough to toss a few snowballs around, and even attempt to make a couple of snow angels. The Nissan managed to get its tyres onto the snow a bit, though there wasn’t nearly enough to trouble the Patrol.
After playing in the snow for a while, and enjoying a warm cup of coffee while admiring the stunning Lesotho mountains, it was time to tick that final goal off the checklist: build a snowman.
We continued along the narrow track until it crested the hill and eventually re-joined the main road a bit further on. Right next to the main road, we found a snow bank that was perfectly suited to the task. There were even a couple of rather unimpressive snowmen that had been built by previous visitors. Ours would be far better than those!
But as we started building, we soon realised that constructing a snowman isn’t nearly as much fun as we’d expected. It was taking shape rather slowly, and our hands were stinging with cold, and getting numb. A quicker way of building the snowman would have to be found.
We studied a forlorn-looking, abandoned snowman nearby. It was a sad creature – horribly thin with an odd, elongated head. Someone had stuck a cigarette into the corner of its mouth. It was an embarrassment to snowmen everywhere. So it was decided that it would become an “organ donor” for our far more impressive creation. It was unceremoniously kicked over, and its head and torso carried over to the foundation of our snowman. In record time, the remains of the roadside abomination were transformed into an attractive snowman. Our mission was complete!
We hadn’t encountered the large quantities of snow we’d hoped for, and we hardly got to do any snow driving, but it had still been a fun outing. Like those European tourists who start smiling and snapping away with their cameras as soon as they spot an impala in the Kruger Park, our minor encounter with snow had made us very happy.