LIFE / CULTURE
Sub-saharan slalom
Bringing skiing to more children at South Africa’s only commercial ski resort
Published: Jan 26, 2022 04:15 PM
A skiing enthusiast stands at Tiffindell ski resort in the southern Drakensberg mountains in the Cape province in South Africa Photos: AFP

A skiing enthusiast stands at Tiffindell ski resort in the southern Drakensberg mountains in the Cape province in South Africa Photos: AFP

Photos: VCG

Photos: VCG



With a number of snowy mountains in winter, South Africa has one of a few known public ski resorts in Sub-Saharan Africa, although man-made snow has to be used together with natural snow.

The history of skiing in the southernmost country on the African continent dates back to 1929 when members of The Mountain Club of South Africa started skiing in the mountain range in the western region. It was in 1994 that the country got its first and only commercial ski resort, Tiffindell, according to Snow Sports South Africa, the officially recognized sports body for alpine skiing, snowboarding, freestyle skiing, Nordic Combined and bobsleigh and skeleton.

There is "surprisingly" a lot of people in South Africa who like skiing, yet it is still a small sport, with major sports like rugby taking more focus, said Alexander Heath, better known as Alex Heath, the three-time Winter Olympian and the only coach of the South African national skiing team.

Tiffindell ski resort in the southern Drakensberg mountains of the eastern Cape province in South Africa.Photo: AFP

Tiffindell ski resort in the southern Drakensberg mountains of the eastern Cape province in South Africa.Photo: AFP



He coaches two development programs in Tiffindell for children who like skiing and future skiers who can compete at an international level.

"I still believe we (skiers) have a place in the sporting community here. and I think we are doing amazing things," said Heath, adding that skiing can teach children "amazing values in life" and opens doors for them to go overseas when the opportunity is limited in other things they do.

Tiffindell started the Ikhephu Ski Pups Junior Development Club in 1996, to give local children who live in the area an opportunity to ski, and also mentor the children who might work in the sector in the future, as there were no other formal sporting opportunities for the youth in that area, according to Christina Olivier, chairperson of Ikhephu.

Later in 2014, the Winter Sports Academy ran by Heath was established here to improve the skill level of children who ski so that they could compete at an international level.

Heath, who started skiing in England at the age of nine, opted to coach children in Tiffindell after he stopped racing in 2006 as he thought it was an opportunity to help kids enjoy this "amazing" sport in South Africa.

Located at an elevation of 2720 meters on the slope of a 3001-meter mountain in southeastern inland near Lesotho, Tiffindell Ski Resort has an international-level ski area that offers three months of skiing each year from June to August in winter, with natural and man-made snow, and had been hosting ten International Ski Federation (FIS) races every year that attract skiers from all over the world, until the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

South African paralympic Bruce Warner skis during a practice round at the Hunter Snow Festival 2001 at the Tiffindell Ski Resort on July 27, 2001.Photo: AFP

South African paralympic Bruce Warner skis during a practice round at the Hunter Snow Festival 2001 at the Tiffindell Ski Resort on July 27, 2001.Photo: AFP



At Ikhephu, meaning "snow" in South Africa's Xhosa language, where members mainly ski for the interest, the youngest child could be as little as three years old, and one can keep his membership until 21. While the youngest skier at the academy is about nine, and the skiers are mostly school children.

During the winter season, over 60 children would first learn how to ski at the development club, and then go to bigger slopes and be given instructions in skiing. Around 20 identified athletes at the academy will stay on the mountain for almost the entire season, and they will do ski training in the morning on the slopes for three hours or so, and then attend school at the resort in the afternoon.

The two programs get support from the national Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, which covers some fees for children.

Over the years, four athletes from the Winter Sports Academy have qualified for the Winter Youth Olympic Games and one even qualified for Olympic Winter Games. According to Heath, almost all the athletes of the national ski team came from the academy.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 that led to the temporary closure of Tiffidal in the past two winters and related travel restrictions, none of the South African skiers have qualified for the Winter Olympics Games to be held in Beijing in February, although one skier who is training in Europe is still attempting to qualify.

"We were hoping to qualify for Beijing, but unfortunately it wasn't possible," said Heath. "I'm very sad that we wouldn't be in Beijing because we have some athletes that would have had the chance."

"Going forward, I'm pretty confident that we would be able to qualify athletes, men and women, for future Olympic Games," he said.

As Tiffindell opened when countries in the northern hemisphere were in summer, it attracted a lot of interest from overseas like South Korea, Israel, Italy, UK, Sweden, France and Morocco, especially for aspirants who sought for qualifying by making points at the competitions, according to Olivier, who organized these international competitions. She believes that skiers will return as long as the ski resort reopens.

 While expecting the reopening of Tiffindell, she said the development programs plan to reach more children in the country.

 "We are planning to involve children from wider areas in South Africa. We focus on local communities mostly, but if the resort reopens, we have plans to involve children from all over the country to join in our ski camps," said Olivier.