Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bad Snow Year in Africa

Grass. Sun. Lonely wilderness. 4x4 transport. You would expect to find those in Africa. And I did. But I also found mountains, a ski area, olympic athletes, and snow. And the highest bar in South Africa. I'm in Tiffindell, South Africa's only ski area that re-opened this year, after being closed for a couple of years.

And what a lovely place it is. The skiing is limited, as Africa is having a bad snow year. Seriously. On a normal year I would have been able to select any off-piste route from the ridge 300 meters above us, but now there is snow only on the last 50 vertical meters above the village. It was snowing when I left, so I'm hoping the rest of the year will be better! 

But despite current weather situation, there were two slopes and one beginner area open. The scenery was wild, very African-like. And the little, closely knit village of buildings at the bottom of the slopes was fun. The highest bar, high up in the slopes, was closed due to lack of snow, but the next highest bar in the village had taken over.

It was fun to see the Tiffindel crew in action. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the ski instructors seemed to be on a round-the-clock duty. In the day they guided guests, and in the evening they ran cabaret shows in the bar. The most popular game in the bar seemed to be Hammerschlagen. Hammers, large nails... what else do you need in a bar evening?

Seriously though, I can warmly recommend this place just for the village atmosphere!

I also met many local skiers, including skiers from Cape Town's Ski Club of South Africa. And South African athletes who had competed in snow sports in the olympics. 

After skiing half a day, I decided to hike to the top of the ridge. Unknown to me at the time, I had actually hiked all the way to the border towards Lesotho. But there were no passport controls in the mountains. I just wished that if there had been more snow, I could have explored the area on skis.

Skiing in Africa

As an aside, the journey to Lesotho reminded me of my previous skiing visit to South Africa and Lesotho two years ago. The setup and even scenery was very similar in Lesotho's Afriski. In fact, if you as a foreigner come here to taste African skiing, I can recommend visiting both sites. I have written three articles about the earlier visit, on facing the AK-47s, skiing Sani Pass, and our after-ski experiences.

I have yet to ski in North Africa. I hear Morocco is good.

The 4WD Adventure

Coming to Tiffindel I chose to follow the instructions from the web site, driving through Barkly East and Rhodes, a trip that took 9 hours from Durban. The last 20 kilometers are very rough and usually require a 4WD vehicle. This time the road was in good condition, however, just very steep.

But on the return things got more difficult. First off, I had to wake up at 2am to make sure I'd have enough time to catch my flight out of Durban. Then I made a stupid decision. Later my friend Thomas asked me if I like risky adventures. I do, of course, but in a planned fashion. This time I just chose to do something which offered no exciting skiing but still put me in in difficult and perhaps even dangerous position. 

I chose to believe my GPS. The road that I had used turned right. GPS said left. I chose left. And I had zero situational awareness of where I was or what the options meant. This is bad.

In this case left turned out to be a 100-km adventure through Naude's Pass, South Africa's highest road pass. A road that is only recommended for off-road capable vehicles. Preferably traveling on multiple vehicles for safety. And even then it is treacherous in the winter, as it may snow. And, it was snowing. I was alone. And it was 3am. And dark. And I run into nomads shepherding their cattle in the night, reminding me of my experiences two years ago in nearby Lesotho.

I made it back to the airport with minutes to spare before my flight, but it was a long and lonely ride.

Just on this one day trip to a ski area, I completed 3 out of the 8 passes in Wild Mountain Adventure's South Africa's Eight Passes Challenge.

Additional Pictures

Beginner's area:

The bar:


Entry sign:

Buildings in the village:

Hiking up:



 Reception pond:

The highest pub:


 Moving the small amount of available snow around:

Photos and videos (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko

Friday, July 12, 2013

Miracle in Johannesburg

Miracles are rare, but I experienced two today. First, my ankle has been in bad shape, almost unbearable to walk on. As I landed in Johannesburg this morning, it had completely healed! Maybe it was the 12 hour flight in coach, unable to move? It took me fifteen minutes to realise that something was different -- the pain was gone.

Ok, so the sick got healed. Has happened before. But the second miracle is something completely unheard of: British Airways delivered my ski bag!

I don't know if I'll be able to use my skis though. The ankle needs to stay OK, I forgot my international driver's license home, and I don't know if I have time from work to escape to the mountains. (But given that I'm burning a week and two weekends in my meeting with the domain name lawyer-geeks, I wouldn't feel bad about taking a day of rest somewhere.)

Photos (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sheep Skiing

The girl at the sheep farm gate is from Qatar. Most tourists here seemed to be from Middle East, so I ask her why she had come to Austria: "Because it is so cool, and the weather is nice." We are standing in cold rain, but I guess she prefers a change to the weather at home. But come to think of it, I too prefer cold and rainy. I am on a family vacation, and my son Janne really wanted to go skiing. (I don't know if it is genes or training, but I'm not complaining.)

But back to the sheep. We had done the usual summer skier routine, skied the glacier near Kitzsteinhorn here in Kaprun. But I wanted to do something else for my last run, with Janne already enjoying a lunch in the valley.

I wanted to ski all the way down to the station at 1976 meters. The only trouble was that there really wasn't much snow left. The ski patrol advised against it. The route looked nasty from the ski lift, and I'd have to walk quite a bit. No matter. There was a stream running through a steep gully that still had some snow left.

My route runs under the Langwiedbahn chair lift, and it turned out that I only had to take my skis off for one small part. And at the end I had to walk down maybe 100 meters and cross a few streams. But what a wonderful run! The gully was narrow, occasionally narrowing down to less than my ski's length. The snow had not been touched by other skiers for a long time. The snow was soft and it was a pleasure to ski. In the winter this route is an off-piste run called X5, The Pipeline. The only danger on this route was from accidentally falling through the snow cover to the stream. There was not much water, but it was still scary. On one point the snow fell off under me, but not enough to sink my skis in.

And on the walk down, I met my new skier friends, the sheep. They were running scared, however. I'm guessing they do not see too many skiers. And to be honest, this part of the mountain was more suited for pasture than for skiing.

Glacier Skiing

You need to take four ski lifts to reach the glacier skiing area. The slopes sit next to Kitzsteinhorn, the highest peak in the area. The skiable part is actually surprisingly large, I was expecting a tiny slope. There is about 500 meters of vertical to be skied. Many national teams train in this area, we saw teams from Austria, Switzerland, and Russia.

The area feels relatively flat, however. And due to its relatively low altitude - 3000 meters - the snow seemed softer than on some of the other summer ski places that I have been to. I usually enjoy the early mornings when the slopes are still hard ice. Not that skiing soft snow is bad - I like it too. But it tends to stick to your skis and make you feel like you are falling. Particularly if you go outside the tracked area, unless it is steep enough.

Where Did the Eskimos Go?

We also found the abandoned ruins of an igloo village. But no signs of the eskimos!

I also liked the design of the restrooms:

Winter in Kaprun

In the winter the skiable area is much larger, and there are many opportunities for adventure. And danger. My previous visit was in the winter, and even if I only skied one run I found out that I had taken too big risks. I made it, but barely.

The ski lifts in Kaprun work well. I liked the Gletscherjet cabins. Floor photo of the round cabins is here:

As many people may remember, Kaprun has a train that runs through the mountain to one of the top stations, but after a catastrophic fire claimed 155 lives in November 2000, the train has not been used. The track and stations still exist, providing an eerier reminder of the tragedy. The ghost train of Kaprun. May the victims rest in peace.

Saunas... Not for Under 16

We stayed at Hotel Antonius, a very nice, medium-size hotel in the Kaprun village. Interestingly, the full board option for the whole family cost less than just having the room, so we decided to take that. Full-board included also access to their spa area - except that it wasn't for kids. Apparently the Austrians consider saunas improper for small kids. Not how we would do it in Finland...

Here's a street sign from the Kaprun village. I don't know what this is, but it certainly looks like my kind of a working group:

The glacier is well equipped with bathrooms and other facilities. Here you can choose your direction based on the seriousness of your emergency:

Our summer vacation was not entirely spent skiing, by the way. In addition to liking skiing, my son insists on visiting aviation and technology museums. We did a wonderful tour of museums in Munich, Sinsheim, Speyer, and Frankfurt. In particular, I can recommend the Sinsheim and Speyer museums as one of the best museums in the world for covering aviation. The only downside of this trip is that my ankle has gotten very sore for some reason. Maybe too much walking in the museums. Lets hope it heals soon, so that I can get back to skiing. And walking.

The following picture is from the mining demonstration in Deutsche Museum in Munich:

Photos and videos (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko