Snow wonders

Snow wonders

Why run away this winter, when you can embrace the cold right here, says Keith Bain

SCRATCH SWITZERLAND, CELEBRATE CERES

Odd as it might seem, Ceres is touted as South Africa’s answer to Switzerland. This is mainly because, come winter, the fruit-growing valley sees at least some snow on the surrounding mountains – some years there is loads of it. Enough, in fact, to prompt half of Cape Town to turn up. You need to know, though, that Ceres itself lies in the lower, warmer Bokkeveld region, while the real powder will most likely be found blanketing the surrounding Skurweberg Mountains.

Just 35 km from town, Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve is where you can reach the top of Matroosberg Peak, the second highest point in the Western Cape, accessible via the province’s highest 4 4 trail. Thanks to its altitude, the peak gets the first and last snow of the season: Sometimes as early as April and then as late as November. Trips up to the top to play in the snow are not to be taken lightly – along with magnificent views, there are some stupendous sheer drops where you don’t want to get too close to the edge. Based up at Matroosberg, the Ski Club of South Africa has two permanent ski lifts, plus a pair of portable lifts that can be moved to follow the snow. Snowboarding is also doable.

And, in the town of Ceres itself, it is worth tackling the zip line, which offers all-weather adventure as you whizz along the eight lines covering a total of 1.4 km. The view is good in summer, but in winter you’ll really be wowed by the expanse as you slide above the valley: A breathtaking white blanket of snow covering rugged mountains, with full-flowing waterfalls and rivers too.

AVOID AUSTRALIA, VISIT THE KAROO

The vastness of Australia’s outback is quite astonishing: humongous, endless stretches of nothingness, and then you are suddenly in a ‘town’ with a couple of petrol pumps, a diner, and a group of eccentric locals talking about dingoes attacking their sheep. These sleepy hollows often have at least one bizarre collection, unusual art display or odd gallery – reminders that solitude breeds creativity.

Back home, the semi-arid Karoo is rife with weird and wonderful hamlets where the locals like to keep themselves busy in similarly strange ways. In the central Karoo, the tiny time warp of Nieu-Bethesda is one such place where life is lived as if it were another era. There are still no street lights and the roads are wide and made of dirt, with irrigation channels built from stone lining the way. It’s still a place of slow walks, donkey-cart rides and passing time on the veranda watching the world go by. During winter, the beauty is multiplied exponentially. Enfolded by the magnificent Sneeuberge, Nieu- Bethesda is arguably the most romantic snowy destination in the Karoo.

For years, the main attraction here has been the former home of outsider artist Helen Martins, who was either quite mad or a genius. The enigmatic woman externalised her loneliness by transforming her home (now known as The Owl House) into
a jewel box that is bursting with sparkling ground glass and mirrors. Outside, she and Koos Malgas spent decades creating South Africa’s most famous sculpture garden, filled with fantastic owls, mermaids, camels, sphinxes, serpents and Wise Men crafted from cement, wire and glass.

SKIP THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, SEEK OUT SEMONKONG

Surrounded by raw, rugged grasslands that might easily be mistaken for the moors of the Scottish Highlands, the faraway mountain town of Semonkong is in fact in the middle of Lesotho. Its high-altitude terrain is dotted with traditional rondavels and farmsteads, and its plateaus are traversed by Basotho cowboys mounted atop nimble ponies daintily treading where no sane horse would dare set foot.

Snow falls three or four times a year, leaving the surrounding peaks covered for weeks. The 200m Maletsunyane Falls is a sight to behold. You can also set off on overnight pony rides with local guides to show you the true unspoilt Lesotho – with not a whisky distillery or a kilt in sight.

NIX NEW ZEALAND, HEAD FOR HOGSBACK

Near New Zealand’s northernmost tip, the Waipoua Forest is filled with ancient kauri pines, including the mighty Tane Mahuta (‘The Lord of the Forest’), which – at roughly 2 000 years old – is said to be the country’s largest. South Island has magical forests too, plus blinding white glaciers and magnificent snowfields.

But why spend half your trip flying, when Hogsback, at the top of the Amathole Mountains, will cast its spell over you even before you arrive. Shrouded by swirling mist and mystical forests laced with crystal-clear streams and waterfalls, this enchanted hamlet
is a haven for tree-huggers and lovers of the outdoors: there are gorgeous gardens, gobsmacking views, and plentiful trails through lush forests to hike or cycle. Said to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of waterfalls, the Afro-montane woodland here is a cool, soothing shadow world of ferns and ancient yellowwoods, gnarled branches and knotted vines – all alive with birds chattering, samango monkeys frolicking, and duikers and bush pigs rustling in the fallen leaves.

When it’s blanketed by snow, it transforms into an enchanted wonderland that’ll make you want to believe the unlikely rumours that Hogsback’s mountains inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. So, you can see the original right here, or fly halfway around the world to see where the movies were made.

TAKE A HIKE TEXAS, SAVOUR SUTHERLAND

The Lone Star State is riddled with vast reserves and protected wide-open lands where darkness prevails and the night skies are filled with celestial bodies. It’s considered a stargazing Mecca, with several major observatories and telescopes. It’s also mostly devoid of winter weather – come Christmas, Texans wear shorts while most Americans are building snowmen.

But why miss out on the snow, when Sutherland – South Africa’s stargazing capital – delivers an abundance of it? It’s quite feasible, in fact, for people to get stuck in town for days: In recent years, an armoured vehicle was used to rescue people from snow-clogged dirt roads. Local experts say that the coldest recorded night-time temperature was –16.4 ̊C; while, one snowy, windy morning, the chill factor took it to –33 ̊C. Snow, however, has been recorded in every month of the year and, oddly enough, one of the heaviest snowfalls occurred on 6 December 1970, producing powder that lay 1m deep in town.

Sutherland is also home to Snowfield Boutique Winery, where winemaker Bi-Anne du Toit produces a flagship Cab-Merlot blend – aptly called Icebreaker – and Anti-freeze, a Port-style wine. And, of course, once you’ve dug yourself out of the snow, you can visit SALT (South African Large Telescope), where the biggest single- optical telescope in the southern hemisphere is located. It’s one of only two of its kind in the world – the other is in Texas.

PASS ON PATAGONIA, TRY TULBAGH

Near the southern tip of Chile and Argentina, snow from the Andes produces the meltwater that irrigates the desert region’s vineyards, resulting in some of the world’s most interesting wines. It is not the only wine area surrounded by snowy mountains though.

One of South Africa’s oldest wine-growing regions, Tulbagh is set in a horseshoe-shaped valley. Here, you feel as if you are being embraced by the snow-blanketed ranges that enfold this historic town and its patchwork of farms and vineyards. The locals even host an annual Christmas in Winter Festival (24 & 25 June) when the town gets dressed up and the wine cellars celebrate by serving hearty meals.

This is also the best time of year for lovely hikes in the area, where you’ll come across rock pools and waterfalls (as long as the drought breaks soon). Wintertime horseback riding here is especially blissful. They have horses in Patagonia, too, of course, but they are used as beasts of burden, carrying harvested grapes as well as gauchos (South American cowboys) on their backs.

Photography: Alamy, Gallo/GettyImages, IStockphoto; Africa Media

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