Winter is here! Katie Bigelow picks seven of the best snowy spots to snuggle up
Hogsback, Eastern Cape
At the top of the Amatole Mountains, steeped in swirling mist and magical forests laced with crystal-clear streams and waterfalls issuing down shafts of mossy rock, enchanted Hogsback casts its spell over you even before you arrive. A haven for Bohemians, eco-crusaders, arty folks and spiritual types, its lush Afro-montane woodland is an invariably cool, soothing shadow world of ferns and ancient yellowwoods, knotted vines and gnarled branches – all of it alive with birdsong, frolicking samangos, duiker and bush pigs rustling among the fallen leaves.
It’s a waterfall hot spot, and when it’s blanketed by snow, it’s an out-and-out winter wonderland. To explore, buy a hiking map (it’s also your permit) from the village’s visitor centre and bundle up before setting out, making sure you locate the 40m-high Madonna and Child waterfall.
Don’t leave town without contacting Shane Eades of Amathole Horse Trails for horseback riding through the forest – it’ll be among the most memorable things you’ll ever do.
Smack dab in the middle of Lesotho, the faraway mountain town of Semonkong is surrounded by raw, rugged grassland that could very easily be mistaken for the moors of the Scottish Highlands – except that this high-altitude terrain is dotted with traditional rondavels, and its towering plateaus are traversed by Basotho cowboys (and -girls) mounted atop nimble-footed ponies.
Year-round, one of the main reasons to visit here (aside from the exhilarating majesty of the place), is to hike or ride to Maletsunyane Falls, which cascade almost 200m down an enormous basalt cliff into the fury of white spray and ceaseless thunder in the canyon below.
Snow falls here three or four times each winter, leaving the surrounding mountains snow-capped for weeks. Your base will be the lovely stone-and-thatch Semonkong Lodge, a retreat built right on the banks of the Maletsunyane River, with a mix of rooms and cottages specially designed to withstand the cold. Aside from suggesting ways to enjoy the snow, lodge staff can arrange a selection of activities, including a descent down the world’s highest commercial abseil, right alongside the waterfall.
You could also set off on overnight pony rides, with local guides showing you authentic Lesotho. It’s not for the faint-hearted – you’ll spend long hours in the saddle, with cold nights in basic huts, but enjoy a wondrous experience nonetheless. Shorter rides – such as to the waterfall, or to see the spiral aloes (Lesotho’s national plant) on Mount Qoang – are available too.
Sutherland, Northern Cape
In spite of its intriguing history and credentials as the hub for South Africa’s most impressive science project – SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope) – many visitors come to this minuscule Roggeveld town merely to sample how cold it can get. Local experts claim the coldest recorded night-time temperature was -16°C – or -33°C with windchill.
Snow has been recorded often, and one of the heaviest snowfalls occurred in mid-summer, on 6 December 1970.
‘Snow lay one metre deep in town,’ says Jannie du Plessis, who conducts tours of the town’s old sandstone church. ‘Eleven days later, the farmers were still pulling live sheep from under the snow.’
During heavy snow, it’s quite feasible for people to get stuck in town for days – in recent years, people have had to be rescued from dirt roads with a Casspir.
Considered one of the darkest regions in the world in terms of astronomy, it’s among South Africa’s most seismogra-phically stable areas. This, plus the lack of light pollution and cloudless nights 80% the year explain why the southern hemisphere’s largest optical telescope is situated here.
Unexpectedly, Sutherland has its own boutique winery, Snowfield, where every aspect of the process, including bottling and labelling, is handled by winemaker Bi-Anne du Toit. She explains that the cold dramatically prolongs fermentation, which can take up to a year and a half, compared to only three months typical of Boland wines.
Try her aptly named Icebreaker cab-merlot blend, and the Anti-Freeze port. Tastings (by appointment only) will be accompanied by home-baked bread, and you can order a picnic with soups, quiches and warm puddings. Bi-Anne’s husband conducts working sheepdog demonstrations too.
One of the loveliest places to stay in the region is Blesfontein, an authentic working farm just 30 km southwest of Sutherland. Accommodation options are in beautifully converted horse stables and cowsheds, and there are horses and wild game on the farm. There’s also an observatory and a star show for guests.
Tulbagh, Western Cape
Horseshoe-shaped Tulbagh Valley has just one route in and out. On approach, the sense of being embraced by the snow-blanketed Winterhoek and Witzenberg mountain ranges that enfold this wine-growing valley can be quite exhilarating – it’s almost like driving into a postcard.
Locals say winter is the loveliest time of year for hikes on the Murludi fruit farm, when the waterfall is flowing with gusto and the rock pools are all full. There’s a route along the river, as well as another, longer trail that continues for another six kilometres, taking in the fynbos along the Witzenberg foothills.
Horseback riding here is also blissful in winter. ‘It’s beautiful, green and lush, and the days are cooler,’ says Jo Lister of Horse About Trails & Adventures. ‘And from August onwards, we have flowers coming through. We only cancel if it’s pouring with rain.’
If you prefer to stay warm and dry, there’s an atmospheric cellar tour at Twee Jonge Gezellen, where famous bubbly Krone MCC is produced, and the wine tastings held at De Oude Drostdy are conducted in the former holding cells attached to the old court that is now one of Tulbagh’s museums.
The small Winelands town’s annual Christmas in Winter festivities (25–26 June) primarily showcase food (and wine), with every estate hosting some kind of celebratory dining experience, be it a fondue dinner or traditional waterblommetjie feast.
Do check out Lemberg Wine Estate, until quite recently the country’s smallest wine-producing cellar and one of only two South African farms making single-varietal hárslevelu, a Hungarian cultivar. And Saronsberg’s beautiful cellar holds a superb art collection.
Another fine place to hole up with a few bottles of Shiraz (arguably Tulbagh’s best cultivar) is at the lively Saronsberg Theatre, or try the attached De Kreeft Stamkafee restaurant on Van der Stel Street. On weekends, there are live shows (free with Sunday lunches) – mostly music, occasionally theatre, stand-up, and even poetry.
Oakhurst grows kalamata olives and hosts informative tastings of their high-grade cold-pressed extra virgin oil in a splendid new tasting room. If you can’t get to the olive farm, you’ll also find their oil at Things I Love, a restaurant and deli in the village.
More restaurants and cafes can be found in the historical heart of Tulbagh, Church Street, where the only buildings to have survived the 1969 earthquake have been restored and some transformed into museums. Also here is Cape Dutch Quarters, a beautiful old-world house filled with antiques including vintage beds, and marvellous creaking wooden floors; it’s a great spot to spend the night.
Underberg and Himeville, KwaZulu-Natal
Set amid big, raggedy hills at the heart of a vast farming community, these adjacent villages are found in a part of the Southern Drakensberg that was once called ‘No Man’s Land’. Inferior topsoil, sour grass, and distance from the nearest markets (in Pietermaritzburg) made it an unsuitable place to farm or live, and so this was actually the last part of the Colony of Natal to be settled.
Underberg is the more developed of the two – Himeville, six kilometres away, is a teeny hamlet with few shops. For many years, a bizarre feud over the location of the railway line caused a rift between the villages. Old wounds seem to have healed and today, either of the quaint neighbouring villages is a good base for a trip up Sani Pass, where – in winter – snow is pretty much guaranteed.
There are a couple of decent places to fuel up, including The Old Hatchery, which does country cuisine, and the legendary Himeville Arms for curry. For socialising, the Underberg Inn has a buzzing bar and its own microbrewery, Dragon Mountain Brewery.
The inn is owned by Charlie Major; his other business is Major Adventures, which runs 4×4 tours up Sani Pass to see a Basotho village and have some fun in the snow.
Also offering trips up Sani Pass is Roof of Africa Tours, which – at the top – always includes stops at Africa’s highest pub (2 874m above sea level) around eight kilometres beyond the South Africa-Lesotho border crossing.
If you’d prefer to take a few days off building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate in front of the fireplace in your own cosy stone rondavel, book early for a few nights at the generator-powered Sani Mountain Lodge, where the pub is located.
If you’re heading back to Himeville, Moorcroft Manor is a smart boutique country hotel that’s not only a lovely place to stay, but known for its hearty winter meals.
Another great attraction in the area is polo – the local club is South Africa’s most successful. The Watson brothers run Absolute Polo, which offers polo-centric getaways on the family dairy farm. There’s a guest house and 30 horses, and polo season runs through October, with matches most weekends.
Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape
Enfolded by the magnificent Sneeuberg Mountains, tucked away in a faraway pocket of the country some 50 km from Graaff-Reinet, this time-warp hamlet is easily the Karoo’s most romantic snow-touched destination.
It’s also among the most idyllic and idiosyncratic villages in the country – it hangs on to a way of life that’s distinctly of another era. There are still no street lights, and the wide dirt roads see about as many donkeys as cars. It’s still a place of slow walks, cart rides and time spent on the stoep, watching the world go by.
Diagonally opposite the famous Owl House, where local outsider artist Helen Martins created her fantasy sculpture garden and filled her home with all kinds of colourful eccentricities, you will find Ian Allemann’s pub, The Karoo Lamb, is one of the village’s true stoepsit-style restaurants, where you’ll be served home-made bread and real farm butter for breakfast and incredible Karoo lamb and venison for lunch or dinner.
The Brewery and Two Goats Deli is a small family-run farming enterprise where delectable platters are served with goat’s-milk cheese and on-tap ale made in their own Sneeuberg Microbrewery. They also roast their own coffee – so there’s plenty to keep hipsters happy. The restaurant is set under hundred-year-old pear and pepper trees, with a spring-fed stream flowing through it. There’s home-baked rosemary bread, smoked kudu, pickled spreads, olives and, of course, a range of cheeses and farm-style butter. They also have their own honey.
Once you’re won over by the beers and cheeses and coffee and honey and views, the owners also run Sneeuberg Guest House and Backpackers, offering self-sustainable, solar-powered accommodation that includes a communal lounge and kitchen area and a large garden area with braai facilities. Your hosts will send you off on cycling trails, bike rides, birdwatching expeditions and horse riding jaunts and, at night, there are billions of stars to gaze at.
Ceres, Western Cape
Ceres is marketed as South Africa’s bit of Switzerland and, even if that seems quite far-fetched, most winters do see a little snow on surrounding mountains. Some winters, there is a great deal of snow – enough, in fact, to lure half of Cape Town to see what all the fuss is about. ‘They won’t find it in town,’ says one resident. ‘Ceres is in the lower, warmer Bokkeveld region, but the real powder occurs on the Skurweberg Mountains.’
Regardless, if you end up in the town itself, it’s worth tackling the Ceres Zip Slide, which offers all-weather adventure as you whiz along eight separate lines covering a total of 1 400m, the longest measuring 291m.
In winter, despite the cold and wet, as you slide over the valley, you will witness a blanket of snow covering the rugged mountains. It’s a simply breath-taking sight, with full-flowing waterfalls and rivers, too.
For serious snow, the place to go is Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve, just 38 km outside Ceres. Within the reserve – more than 1 000 ha in total area – Matroosberg Peak is the second highest point in the Western Cape. It is accessible via one of the province’s highest 4×4 trails and because of its altitude, it gets the first and last snow of the season, occasionally as late as November and then as early as April. The Ski Club of South Africa is based up at Matroosberg and offers petrol-powered ski-lifts and a pair of portable lifts to reach the tops of skiable slopes – snowboarding is also possible.
For extra ease of access, simply book a campsite right on the reserve or stay in either the large, rustic ski hut, the compact 100-year-old stone Goatherds House, or one of the lakeside cottages.
Whether you’re staying awhile, or visiting for the day, trips up to the top to play in the snow are not to be taken lightly – there are some stupendous (and deadly) sheer drops where you don’t want to get too close to the edge.
Amathole Horse Trails
082 897 7503
+266 2700 6037
Dutch Reformed Church Tours
023 571 1258
023 571 2436
083 444 5810
Murludi fruit farm
023 230 0732
Horse About Trails & Adventures
082 884 9881
Twee Jonge Gezellen
De Oude Drostdy
Lemberg Wine Estate
De Kreeft Stamkafee
023 230 0179
023 230 0842
Things I Love
Cape Dutch Quarters
Underberg and Himeville
The Old Hatchery
033 701 1628
Roof of Africa Tours
073 696 6782
Sani Mountain Lodge
033 702 1967
076 111 1517
The Karoo Lamb
049 841 1642
The Brewery and Two Goats Deli
Ceres Zip Slide
079 245 0354
Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve
023 312 2282
Ski Club of South Africa
(This article was first published in the winter 2016 issue of AA traveller magazine)