‘One of Afriski’s biggest priorities is to try and expand the skiing community in Lesotho and we have kids’ programmes that generate a lot of interest’
Nestled high in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho, skiers and snowboarders from around the world rub shoulders at Africa’s leading ski resort, which is cultivating a loyal clientele despite its diminutive size and remote location.
Since 2002, Afriski in north-eastern Lesotho has also become a hub for the country’s young winter sports enthusiasts to hone their skills and maybe one day compete for gold at the Winter Olympics.
“Afriski was always a unique option as a destination,” says resort snowmaker Martin Schultz, who comes from SA’s surfing hub Jeffreys Bay, but swapped his surfboard for a snowboard to take to the slopes. “It’s been a nice progress — nice amounts of terrain we’ve been able to open up,” he adds, wearing stylish wrap-around blue mirrored sunglasses and a lemon-yellow crash helmet.
Schultz is responsible for maintaining the quality and consistency of the artificial snow on the slopes, used by the 12,000 visitors who travel to the resort every season. “We use high-pressure air, high-pressure water and a certain temperature and humidity,” he says of the resort’s state-of-the-art snow-making equipment, used when snow is not falling naturally.
Afriski’s main kilometre-long piste is a strip of brilliant white snow between brown grassy ridges, dotted with artificial snow-makers, although, on average, its three slopes are covered with natural snow for several weeks a year. Both expert and novice skiers go down the pristine slope from a height of 3,222m to the compact, alpine-style resort below. There, visitors drink Glühwein and listen to chart music in sub-zero temperatures.
“Ready? Go!” shouts one ski instructor, from the US, as she loads her young charge onto the lift, while more experienced snowboarders spin and flip on ramps nearby.
Schultz, who worked as a ski instructor at resorts across Europe before spending nine seasons at Afriski, hopes the resort will help the tiny kingdom one day win medals at the Winter Olympics.
“One of Afriski’s biggest priorities is to try and expand the skiing community in Lesotho and we have kids’ programmes that generate a lot of interest from the local communities,” he says. The resort employs 240 staff, three-quarters of which are locals.
“Some of our kids, such as Thabang Mabari, the son of one of the guys who works here, has been skiing for about five years and he’s brilliant. There’s a good future for kids like that,” he says. “Hopefully, in the future, we can aim to get those kids to an Olympian standard so they can actually fly the Lesotho flag at the Olympics.”
Ten-year-old Thabang’s mother, Mathabang Mabari, who also works at the resort, tells AFP that he had started skiing at the age of three. “It’s something he liked a lot. Of course, it’s in his blood to compete, of all the other kids of people who work here, he was the first to ski and teach the others,” says Mabari, who is from the nearby village of Moteng.
Outside, slender-framed Thabang glides down the slope with ease dressed in yellow boots, a black puffer jacket and red snow trousers.
Despite some promising youngsters, Southern Africa has yet to make a mark at the Winter Olympics. South African alpine skier Sive Speelman qualified for the Sochi games in 2014 — but was blocked from attending by his own Games Committee who said he was too slow.
His dream to be SA’s first black contender in his discipline was also thwarted at this year’s tournament in South Korea and he was, instead, a technical assistant to SA’s solitary winter games participant, Connor Wilson.
Lesotho has never put a Winter Olympian forward. Afriski is Lesotho’s sole ski resort — the only other one in Sub-Saharan Africa is SA’s Tiffindell which has two runs and relies on artificial snow.
“Afriski has been a great help in my training. I don’t think I would have got to the Winter Olympics without them,” says Wilson, who was training at Afriski for a fortnight. “There’s huge potential here. I always join in with the [local kids’] training … they’re copying what I’m doing and they are always interested. One day hopefully, they will go to the Winter Olympics for Lesotho.”
Despite its small size and relatively limited facilities, Afriski still sees itself as a destination firmly on the global winter sports circuit. It even pays homage to its European competitors, naming its chalets after renowned ski centres such as France’s Meribel and Courchevel.
French ski and snowboard instructor Thomas Frontoni, originally from Nice, says that he would recommend skiing in Southern Africa to Europeans despite the relatively short piste. “Try it — it’s always beautiful, perfect views, friendly people. Southern Africa is cheap for European guys.” A full-day “snowpass”, which gives access to all the pistes and lifts, costs $34 (€29). “It’s a small resort … but I think if a French or European skier came here they’d have a good time.”
“I have seen lots of South African pupils, Argentine pupils, Canadian pupils — they don’t come here because it’s a kilometre of skiing, they don’t come here because [there are] massive mountains,” adds Schultz. “They come here to ski in Africa, because it’s on their bucket list.”