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Snowventure – June 2014

Posted on Jun 6, 2014 by in Blog Posts | 0 comments

Snow in South Africa is somewhat of a rarity. During the winter months, light snowfalls can sometimes be found scattered about on the high peaks of the Drakensberg, but it melts within a day or two, and is barely ever considered “thick”.

However, we seem to get at least one massively heavy snowfall each year, where the snow creeps away from the higher mountains and into areas that are more accessible. While it was still too early in the snow “season” to tell whether this would be the only worthwhile snow scattering, I decided to make the most out of a recent warning, and head to the mountains for the day. I had done the snow hunt a few times before, but this was the first time that I would be flying solo. It was also probably the earliest I’ve woken up all year.

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Blending in with the trucks at Marianhill Toll Plaza (iPhone photo)

Getting up and leaving home by 4:30am in winter takes a large amount of dedication, but I somehow managed to pull it off. I can already hear the grumbling here of anyone reading this from further afield…northern Canada, for example. Let me just state (again) once and for all: cold weather and snow is something we NEVER experience here. In the depths of winter, temperatures might fall into the single figures in major cities, and that’s single figures measured in Celsius, not the daft Fahrenheit measurement. So when you hear of a dusting of snow anywhere in the country, you start driving before it rapidly vanishes. Which brings us back to where we left off. The drive was somewhat uneventful, but a bit scary at times (away from the city and with no streetlights, you experience a new kind of dark). However, 2 hours into the drive, and with the inky darkness of night turning into the deep blues of early dawn, I arrived in Underberg – the stepping stone to the Drakensberg. Snow should be plentiful.

After stopping for a healthy breakfast of food that is in no way considered healthy, I took a short drive to a viewpoint and scanned in every direction. Guess what? There was no snow. At all. It didn’t feel right to give up this early. Snow can be an evasive foe, which sometimes requires a bit more effort to be rewarded. Feeling increasingly despondent, I pulled out my zoom lens and started snapping at some distant valleys. Nestled inbetween two far ridges, appeared to be remnants of the white powder. I pointed my car in the general direction of the mountains, and started driving. Satellite navigation signal here was minimal, and cellphone reception was absolutely zero.

There are worse places that one could watch a sunrise...

There are worse places that one could watch a sunrise…

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Rural homesteads set against the snowy mountainous backdrop

About 50km later and on various dirt roads, I came around a corner, and what lay before me? A road winding into the mountains, with snow coating the hills on either side. Jackpot. Up ahead on the road, I drove through a gate, indicating that I was entering Lower Lotheni park. The snow was plentiful here, but with the rapidly rising sun, it wouldn’t be hanging around for very long. Time to get busy…

Once my first venture outside of the car here, I was reminded that I was surrounded by a very cold substance, due to the icy air whipping me in my face. The sun hadn’t risen over the mountains of the valley, and temperatures therefore were still incredibly minimal. The car outdoor thermometer had been reading 0 degrees for quite some time, but I’m convinced the true temperature must have been lower than that. Nissan probably never thought that a car destined for the South African market would ever see weather below freezing, and found it useless to make the temperature gauge go any lower.

Red marker indicates were I ended up. You can see Underberg in the bottom left corner, which is the furthest point that I originally planned to travel to.

Red marker indicates were I ended up. You can see Underberg in the bottom left corner, which is the furthest point that I originally planned to travel to.

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The winding road through Lower Lotheni park

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Not exactly thick enough snow to snowboard on. But still provided a great atmosphere.

There isn’t much to say about the actual snow experience. I was the only person in the entire park, save for a very confused attendant at the park gate. Having free reign over such a large area was a unique snow experience to have in South Africa, since any reports of snow usually have city dwellers bolting for the mountains to catch a glimpse of the white stuff. However, here, in this area I previously had no knowledge about, there were no overcrowding issues. No roads clogged up with snow spectators. Just me…

I spent about two hours in the park, stopping every now and then to get various photos of the snowscapes that surrounded me. The challenge was finding a location that made it appear as if there was far more snow in the area than there actually was (the distant peaks clearly hadn’t been touched by the previous evenings powder). However, I left feeling somewhat satisfied at the photos that I had managed to gather, which included the most optimistic attempt at a panorama I have ever undertaken (6 images in total). Final results pictured below.

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6 images, all merged to create this one panorama. View at full size for best results…

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The main mountain in the above photo is also visible in this one, a little to the right of centre

Heading out of the park, it was already evident to see that the snow was quickly melting. Deciding to take one last shot at luck, I drove all the way back to Underberg, and then pointed the car towards the Sani Pass area. With the car now making a funny rattling noise that still persists to this day, I was glad that the roads here were all freshly paved. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t even using my own car for this. In a way, I didn’t even have my hopes up anymore; this journey was now more just about exploring the foothills of the Drakensberg. About 10km closer to Sani Pass, it became evident that there was no snow to be found here. I stopped, admired the scenery for a few minutes, then turned around to begin the long journey back to the slightly warmer climates of the coast.

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Don’t let the sunny skies fool you. It was still bitterly cold.

While on the 3 hour drive back to Durban, I found out that an area way closer to my home had also had a decent snowfall, but since I drove past under the cover of early morning, it went completely unnoticed to me. We live, we learn…

For an interesting history of snowfall in South Africa, have a look here.

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