AS WITH ALL GOOD STORIES,
THIS STARTS WITH A FEW GOOD FRIENDS
AND A CRAZY IDEA.
Syd Chaplin had grown up in Lesotho, his father was a politician and businessman. Growing up in Lesotho in the early 40’s wasn’t easy and friends lived far away on farms. One of these friends was a Fourieburg Farmer’s son, Brian de la Harpe. While Brain went to university in Cape Town, Syd started a few businesses in Lesotho, namely Maluti Treks. Maluti Treks was a pony trekking company which was operational out of Semonkong. Syd wanted to expand his trekking business and needed more accommodation in the north of Lesotho. He identified some land in an oxbow of a tributary of the Malibamat’so River.
He built a central living area and initially started with tents and called his camp Oxbow Lodge. Unfortunately, he needed something more weather resistant than tents in the harsh Lesotho weather and quickly built “permanent tents” in the form of small A-frame sleeping huts.
One day, Syd was visiting his friend, Brian, in Cape Town. He went for drinks at Forester’s Arms (AKA Forries) in Newlands with Brian and a UCT friend of Brian’s called Phillip (AKA Taffy) Lloyde. They had a good evening and at the end of the evening Syd asked for a lift home, Taffy being said “Sure, where can I take you?” Syd replied “Maseru, Lesotho.” Fifteen hours later Syd was dropped at home and Taffy turned round to drive back to Cape Town, feeling very excited at a new friend and the prospect of a new adventure.
On their journey, Syd had mentioned that very little happened at Oxbow during the winter, because it was cold and snowy in Lesotho during the winter months. He thought, if he could make some snow he could draw some crowds to Lesotho in winter. Taffy had spent time skiing in Scotland and was missing skiing now that he had returned to South Africa. If they could make snow in Lesotho, he would be able to ski!
As with many UCT graduates, few months later Taffy, Brain and another friend of theirs Stan Flemming found themselves chasing their careers in Johannesburg. Now Lesotho and Oxbow Lodge were even closer! They contacted Syd… they were in for a snowmaking adventure in the mountains!
They first went to Oxbow Lodge and spent many weekends looking at slopes, slope gradients, taking temperatures, analysing wind patterns and sun exposure and collecting general data. After two years, they identified a slope! It was about 4km from Oxbow and South facing, so ideally it would be protected from the sun.
They imported some snow cannons from Scotland and were very excited to see how these “amazing things” were going to work. You can imagine their disappointment when they found out, all it was, was a ruddy mixer-pipe and a compressor!
In the meantime, in order to build interest and create some traction around snow skiing in Africa, the four friends as well as Stan Flemming’s new wife, Anne (AKA Cookie) Roberts decided to start a snow skiing club. They called it Club Maluti. Stan Flemming became the first chairman and the committee members along with their new club members began building a large A-frame on the slope just above the Fanana River. Brian, now an architect helped with the design and they tried to model it on the smaller A-frame structures Syd had built at Oxbow.
After some amazing work parties, the A-frame was completed in April 1968. However, the slope they had identified was a complete failure! They had one season of good snow and then nothing! The afternoon sun, baked the slope and melted all possible snow.
Luckily, a local Fiksburg man, Keith Whitelock, was a mine manager at Moeng Mine and later Letseng Mine and he and his family used to spend winters camping on the rim of the Mahlasela bowl and skiing down into the bowl. Keith had seen the activity around Oxbow Lodge and Club Maluti and watched with interest as to what was transpiring. Keith new the Maluti mountains like the back of his hand after hiking the area extensively. He knew the slope they were on was not ideal for snow, so when Club Maluti no longer had snow, Keith felt sorry for them and informed them, that 10km East was the Mahlasela Bowl and the best place to ski in Lesotho!
Unfortunately the snow making venture failed. The compressors were left with water in them and they froze overnight, damaging the equipment. In the time between weekend escapades into the Maluti Mountains, equipment grew legs and disappeared deep into the mountains. In 1969, there was political unrest in Lesotho, Syd sold Oxbow Lodge and Stan Flemming passed away from cancer. With these occurrences the dream of a commercial snow-skiing operation faded and Brian, Syd and Taffy went their separate ways.
However after Club Maluti’s chairman (Stan Flemming) passed away, Barrie Jones, the vice-chairman took over Club Maluti, which continued to be operational! The members of Club Maluti would find themselves, traveling the 6-12hour journey from Johannesburg to the Club Maluti A-frame leaving at lunch time on a Friday. They would wind up the old Moteng pass, which was just a widened bridle path. The switchbacks were so tight, one had to reverse 3-5 times to get around the corner! There were no bridges and during times of floods one could not cross the rivers. Old members have stories of the journey from Buthe Buthe to Club Maluti taking more than 15 hours to complete due to bad roads and bad weather conditions.
Club Maluti members would ski in the Mahlasela bowl, when there was snow, ice-skate and play broomball on the gorge of the Fanana River when it froze over, and play in the rapids and swim in the natural pools in summer.
A German man, by the name of Hubertus (Hubie) von Mellantine, had bought Oxbow lodge from Syd Chaplin. Co-incidentally he met a young Austrian Ski-instructor in Johannesburg and asked him to help identify some equipment he had found in the store room and thought to be winter sports equipment. So in autumn in 1971 Peter Isopp, went with Hubie into the Lesotho Mountains to have a look. What he found was old snow making equipment. Hubie saw an opportunity of turning Oxbow Lodge into a winter ski resort and three months later Peter was still at Oxbow managing the lodge.
Peter was a huge boon for Club Maluti, rumours have it that he was wild but a great ski instructor. He managed Oxbow Lodge for three winters, his last being 1973. He worked hard to make snow on the southern facing slopes of Mahlasela bowl. Unfortunately snow can only be made at -1 to -2 degrees Celsius, which in Lesotho it only gets this cold at 1am in the morning, by which stage everyone is drunk! In addition, equipment still had a tendency to disappear when no one was using it. The snow making once again failed, however Club Maluti remained strong, with committed members and great leaders.
Club Maluti slowly acquired some structural additions. A bunk house (B-Frame) was built to house the growing member numbers, the A-frame had an extension added on the east side which became the kitchen. An ablution block was built as the long-suffering long drop was no longer able to cope with all the people.
The first South African ski Champs were proposed to take place at Ben McDhui on 20 July 1974. The event was to be hosted by The Alpine Ski Club, which was based at Tena Head, a hotel on the Naude’s neck pass on the road between Rhodes and MacLear in the Eastern Cape. The preparation and event proved to be a veritable dog show! Firstly, invites to other clubs were sent out from Rhodes village, inviting them to participate. Unfortunately return post to the Rhodes based postal address seemed to go AWOL and ended up in Rhodes Island Greece or at Rhodes University in Graham’s town. Other clubs (including Club Maluti) wanted to boycott the event, as they claimed they had not received an invite. Then the issue materialised that there were not actually enough snow skiers in South Africa to for a National Skiing Champs Event. To bulk out the numbers Austrians were invited to participate and they came gladly looking forward to the adventure. However, the South Africans were then up-in-arms saying “How can be possibly be expected to ski against Austrians who grow up in skis!” But the Austrians were already on their way. After massive snow storms in August 1973, the organisers expected a bumper snow season. Unfortunately, they were given about 300m worth of snow on the lower slopes of Ben MacDhui to work with… the Austrians did little to hide their disgust. Needless to say, the event took place and in the end, we think, good fun was had by all. Club Maluti’s Peter Isopp clean’s up the men’s event.
By 1976 things became more formalised and South African Amateurs Snow Skiing Association was formed with Ruargh Findlay as chairman. The Ryan Floating Trophy was donated by the Springbok Ski Club and was won by them at Ben MacDhui in 1976. The oldest ski club in SA, The Ski Club of South Africa based in the Matroosberg Mountains in the Western Cape, hosted and won the 1977 SA Amateur Ski Championships. Club Maluti hosted and won the 1979 Ski Champs. The Ryan Trophy ended there and is still kept by Gunter Wodak of Club Maluti who won it in 1979.
A newspaper article was found which was published circa 1973 about a Colorado “snow engineer” called Chester Winter (go figure) who was invited by the Lesotho National Development Corporation to see the feasibility of starting a ski resort in Lesotho. Nothing more was found on this however.
The 1970’s and the early 1980’s saw families skiing, skating, swimming and hiking. Big parties, dancing on the tables, and amazing fundraising events back in Jozi, but most of all adventures. Club Maluti held adventures and comradeship for everyone, young and old! In 1981 Hubie sold Oxbow Lodge to a Portuguese man from Fiksburg named Costa. Costa was an interesting but genuine man, and the Club Maluti Committee members came to an agreement with him, that they would try support his bar and restaurant and would never try to take paying customers away from him. This verbal agreement worked well and past members have incredible stories of the parties at Oxbow Bar and assistance from Costa with broken down vehicles etc.
In 1984, while at university, Ivan van Eck saw a photo in the newspaper of Bronnie Eckstein ice skating in Lesotho with an article written by her husband Ray Eckstein about a little piece of paradise in Lesotho. Ivan and his twin brother Philip decided to investigate and they were not disappointed. They wanted to share it and so decided to start Wits Ski Club.
The students descended on Club Maluti en masse! Who wouldn’t want a party in the mountains with a little adventure thrown in too! By this stage Letseng Diamond Mine had built a better road from Buthe Buthe to Letseng, which bypassed Club Maluti and (to the continuation of many Club M members) cut the top half of the Mahlasela ski slope in half, as the road wound around the rim of the bowel.
Wits Ski club members naturally became Club Maluti once leaving university and Club Maluti became a place for young people to discover their true selves, to find acceptance, friendship and romance and of course to drink copious amounts of alcohol and behave very badly but in a safe space. The memories and relationships forged were invaluable, however the influx of vibrant party youth, chased away the families that had been members for years.
However, no less fun was had. The original slope that Taffy and crew first identified was turned into a grass ski slope and used in summer. In winter, makeshift rope tows were set up every weekend by members to drag skiers back to the top of the slope, in order from them to speed the 500m or so down the snow patch. A store room and additional ablution block were built at the club and the fundraisers and work parties continued to be raucous but productive affairs.
Ever the businessman, Ivan van Eck took over the ski rentals for the club… this morphed slowly into ideas of a ski shop and ski report in Mahlasela bowl. Ivan with the help of his brother Philip and other Club Maluti members started building a few structures on Mahlasela slopes, he put up shade cloth to try to prevent the snow from melting too quickly. He then advertised rates which included accommodation, ski hire and a burger dinner… and thus broke the verbal agreement Costa had had with Club Maluti.
In September 1992 Ivan was given a military escort out of Lesotho for operating without a hotel license and told never to return.
This was a blow to Club Maluti to have their Chairman forcibly removed from Club Maluti; however, they recovered and very soon, more plans were underway for improvements, parties and good times. A deck was installed, it was given a new lick of paint and Graham Joyce became chairman. Wits Ski Club and Club Maluti worked hand in hand to inspire and corrupt young minds in the realms of snow and mountain fun.
Ivan van Eck went on to build Tiffidell Snow resort which opened its doors in 1994 and allowed the next know National Ski Championships, since 1979 to take place. Peter Piltz (ex-Club Maluti Member) had started the South African National Snow ski Association in 1990 and this association took on the responsibility of National Skiing Championships in South Africa.
Another Club Maluti member, Ernesto Cassserino tried for many years to work with the Lesotho Government in the ‘80s and 90’s to put together permissions to build a ski resort in Mahlasela Bowl.
He met with officials in Lesotho on many occasions and did extensive work on feasibility and environmental impact studies in the area. One day, he read in the newspaper that the Lesotho Government had granted permission for resort to be built. He quickly phoned the Lesotho Department of Tourism and found out that the permission had be granted to Wessel Bosman. Wessel went on to build Afriski resort in association with other Club Maluti Members, Graham Joyce, Oliver Schwankhart and Peter Pyper. Afriski is the first snow making venture that remained permanent in the Lesotho Mountains.
It is a place for people to have an adventure, a bit of fun and enjoy the snow in winter. It grows and dwindles and grows again, members come and go, more is built, upgraded and maintained, while some deteriorates or get removed. Regardless of the space, Club Maluti remains a community that work in summer for the rewards in winter, where beer is drunk, good times had and memories are made. It is a special place tucked away in the Maluti Mountains that has provided a retreat, adventure, solace, confidence and memories to many.