Last updated: 01:32 PM ET, Thu November 19 2015

No Snow, No Problem: Namibia's Sand Skiing Scene

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 19, 2015

No Snow, No Problem: Namibia's Sand Skiing Scene

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Africa does have some decent ski slopes. South Africa’s Tiffindell and Lesotho’s Afriski have annual seasons during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. Morocco’s Atlas Mountains get snow too. The alpine town of Mischliffen is sometimes referred to as North Africa’s version of Aspen, and the city of Ifrane has a ski resort as well. 

Snow sports without the snow

The ski season in these places is relatively short compared to the European Alps or American Rockies. There is one place in Africa that offers great skiing even though it never gets a single snowflake.  

Sand skiing and sand boarding have been growing in popularity recently. Expats who are homesick for the Rockies or the Alps have started to join thrill-seeking tourists and locals on the dunes near Dubai. You might be able to see people strapping on a snowboard in the Sahara. Germany even has a sand “mountain,” Mount Kaolino, where the annual World Sand Boarding Championships take place. 

Birthplace of sand skiing

Skiing purists, however, head to Namibia, one of the places where the whole sand-instead-of-snow trend developed. A German-born skier named Henrik May began skiing the dunes of the Namib Desert after his family relocated from Europe. Over the years, he has perfected the techniques and equipment necessary to ski on the soft desert sand. He currently runs a company called Ski Namibia near the adventure-sports destination of Swakopmund, which is on the country's central coastline.        

There are even opportunities to telemark and cross country ski on the sands here. Skiing has become something that people traveling to Namibia expect. Other adventure-sports outfitters in the country have begun to offer it as a part of their packages.   

More publicity for an obscure sport

Recently, speed skier Jan Farrell, who has reached speeds in excess of 140 mph on snow, announced that he would try to break the dune-skiing speed record, which is currently held by Henrik May. You are right to think that speeds are slower on sand. May’s record is 57.24 mph. That has to do with the make-up sand (as opposed to snow), but it also has to do with the fact that, while the dunes seem mountainous, they are not as high as the slopes used for speed skiing. Nonetheless, Farrell’s attempt will bring publicity to this growing, but still obscure, sport. 

What you’ll find if you ski in Swakopmund

The runs near Swakopmund have vertical drops of between 200 and 400 feet. These are certainly not Vail or Aspen numbers, but they are respectable nonetheless, (and skiers in Namibia don’t have to worry about frostbite or forgetting to wear their long johns).   

Namibia's sand ski scene is quite environmentally friendly as well. The dunes are constantly shifting thanks to the wind patterns in this region of southern Africa. That means that ski tracks are covered, so there is no lasting damage to the dunes.

Africa doesn’t have the same kind of ski destinations as the US or Europe. It does, however, have some pretty unique places to swish down the slopes.  

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