The soft snow shuf­fle

Barry Oliver takes the long road to Vic­to­ria’s pop­u­lar Mt Hotham and finds it well worth the dif­fi­cult jour­ney

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

MT Hotham’s slopes look pic­ture per­fect on this glo­ri­ous Wed­nes­day morn­ing. Nat­u­rally, it’s the day I’m leav­ing. The sun has made a full-blooded ap­pear­ance for the first time in days, bathing the snow in a peachy glow. Skiers and board­ers are head­ing out for the day, carv­ing neat pat­terns in the newly groomed cor­duroy sur­face.

A bank of snow guns shoot clouds of wa­ter sky­wards. The low thrum­ming of he­li­copter blades comes from around the cor­ner as vis­i­tors take the six-minute hop for a day at nearby Falls Creek.

Only the ad­di­tion of a few flut­ter­ing snowflakes could im­prove the busy alpine scene viewed from my apart­ment’s tiny bal­cony, perched above the slopes. Ah well, back to pack­ing.

Mt Hotham and I get off to a bad start. The jour­ney from Al­bury air­port, just across the border in NSW, usu­ally a 21/ 2- hour drive, takes a whop­ping six hours. (Qan­tas dealt the re­sort a late blow this sea­son when it de­cided not to op­er­ate flights from Syd­ney to Hotham air­port, 20km from the moun­tain. Hopes are high that the air­line will be back next sea­son.)

Our driver, Nigel, can’t un­der­stand what the prob­lem is: it’s snow­ing gen­tly but the road was fine when he set out to col­lect us in his four-wheel-drive. Now, bumper to bumper on the wind­ing moun­tain approach road, we learn that two buses head­ing out have had to re­verse down for a sec­ond at­tempt. And a car has had a dis­agree­ment with a snow­plough and there’s talk of a diesel spill.

But no one seems too con­cerned about the de­lay, de­spite a com­plete lack of in­for­ma­tion on how long we’re likely to be stuck here (un­less you count Chi­nese whis­pers). Or even if we’ll get through at all. Snacks are munched, beers and wine ap­pear from car boots, re­serves are kept cool in the snowy banks at the side of the road. It’s al­most a party: all we need is some mu­sic. As if on cue, some­one in braids and fancy beanie pro­duces a ghetto-blaster.

At least it’s snow­ing and that’s what ev­ery­one has come for, one happy chap, beer in hand, tells me with a con­cil­ia­tory slap on the back. It’s best to grin and bear it, even when we have to go back a cou­ple of hard-won kilo­me­tres to ditch our trailer be­cause, un­like our 4WD, it doesn’t have snow chains. But, fi­nally, we ar­rive and, af­ter a good night’s sleep, it’s hard to hold a grudge against lovely Hotham which, ly­ing un­der 1m of nat­u­ral snow, looks divine.

Sur­pris­ingly, Bridgit Dean, my in­struc­tor from South Aus­tralia, has a slight Cana­dian ac­cent. It turns out her boyfriend is Cana­dian and it’s where she spends the north­ern win­ter. In fact, she’s buy­ing a home on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

Her favourite word is per­fect, which doesn’t re­ally go well with my ski­ing. She soon has me per­form­ing a se­ries of ex­er­cises de­signed to get my weight where it should be. A move to more dif­fi­cult ter­rain means a strug­gle: Hotham, with 40 per cent in­ter­me­di­ate, 40 per cent ad­vanced and 20 per cent be­gin­ner, is not the eas­i­est moun­tain I’ve skied. Neigh­bour­ing Falls Creek, which has the same owner, tends to at­tract fam­i­lies while Hotham has earned the sex­ist tag The Bloke’s Moun­tain. Just don’t tell Bridgit, who I reckon would ski the socks off most men.

But Hotham has plenty go­ing for it; dur­ing my visit the snow depth is 105cm and there’s free kat ski­ing (pow­der hounds are taken off piste), sun­set tours to the sum­mit (1861m) rid­ing in a heated cabin atop a snow groomer (wine and nib­bles, any­one?) and snow kit­ing. There are kids’ snow­mo­biles, groomer tours, sled dog rides, cross-coun­try ski­ing on 35km of trails, two spas, to­bog­gan­ing and snow­shoe­ing.

The 320ha re­sort, at 1750m the high­est in Vic­to­ria, had a dif­fi­cult start to the 2008 sea­son but the snow gods fi­nally came to the party and, with the help of an army of snow guns, cov­er­ing 25ha, it looks set for suc­cess un­til the sea­son ends on Septem­ber 28.

Day two — the overnight tem­per­a­ture is a chal­leng­ing mi­nus 8C— sees me back on the moun­tain, mar­vel­ling at the ar­ray of imag­i­na­tive names for the var­i­ous runs. Hacker’s Hor­ror and Wall of Death don’t sound en­cour­ag­ing while Mother John­son’s Re­turn is sim­ply in­trigu­ing. (Who was Mother John­son and where had she been?)

At some runs there

are

wor­ry­ing

warn­ings of avalanche dan­gers, but this ap­plies to off-piste ski­ing, some­thing not on my itin­er­ary un­less there’s a se­ri­ous nav­i­ga­tional er­ror. To­bog­gan­ing, sled dog rides and cross-coun­try ski­ing are based at Din­ner Plain — DP to the lo­cals — a pretty, de­vel­op­ing vil­lage 10km from Hotham. There’s a free shut­tle bus be­tween the two. It’s home to more than 300 private lodges, cab­ins, apart­ments and com­mer­cial lodges, sev­eral fine restau­rants, a be­gin­ner’s ski run and the Ja­panese-in­spired Onsen Re­treat and Spa with five treat­ment rooms, 15m lap pool and gym.

Brett Had­den, of DP’s Aus­tralian Sled Dog Tours, in­vites us to ‘‘ meet the fam­ily’’ as he in­tro­duces his five pant­ing Siberian huskies, Rex, Nikky, Akita, Blaze and Koda, which pull vis­i­tors around a snowy 2km course. It’s off-putting that the colours of each dog’s pair of eyes don’t match. Had­den says it’s part of the breed and not con­sid­ered a fault. When the dogs re­alise they’re

Ski in, ski out: Zirky’s on the snow at Mt Hotham

about to set out, they break into a se­ries of long, mourn­ful howls. Had­den quickly at­taches them to the har­ness, ex­plain­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of the op­er­a­tion.

It’s a bumpy ride up front on the sleigh with Had­den stand­ing be­hind shout­ing words of en­cour­age­ment. At the half­way point the dogs are given a rest but af­ter a few mo­ments the team vol­un­tar­ily heads off again; the driver hops back on board just in time.

‘‘ They just love to run,’’ says Had­den, who’s about to com­pete in DP’s an­nual Dog Sled Chal­lenge, a se­ries of races in­volv­ing 350 dogs and more than 25 teams. He proudly shows us his new stream­lined rac­ing sled brought from the US. It even has a sheep­skin lin­ing.

For snow­shoe­ing, we head to JB Plain, 3km from DP, for­mer cat­tle coun­try that’s a na­tional park. Snow­shoe­ing is hardly top of the list when it comes to ex­treme sports, so it’s a sur­prise when our leader and in­struc­tor, Shane Wills, has a bloody en­counter with a snowgum. It’s all down to a rab­bit. The trou­ble­some bunny makes a bolt from its hide-out un­der a log; when Wills in­ves­ti­gates, he ends up fall­ing through the deep snow on to a tree. For­tu­nately, he’s a para­medic, tak­ing a break from his job in Melbourne to spend the sea­son work­ing at Hotham. Not that it’s a se­ri­ous in­jury but it does take two Band-Aids to stem the flow of blood from his chin. Much more painful, I imag­ine, is the con­tin­ual rib­bing about dan­ger­ous rabbits for the rest of the walk.

The snow­shoes are a lit­tle more re­fined than the ten­nis rac­quet-type cre­ations that come to mind. Wills says to walk nor­mally and keep our feet slightly farther apart than nor­mal. Oh, and don’t try go­ing back­wards. We for­get about re­verse but we do try run­ning, which is rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful. We drop in on an old cat­tle­men’s hut where a hardy cross-coun­try skier has spent the night on one of the wooden bunk beds (some­one for­got the mat­tresses). Our 2km walk takes us past gnarled snowgums with colour­ful trunks. Wills says their mis­shapen ap­pear­ance comes from be­ing weighed down with snow over the win­ter. Straighter limbs are signs of a poor sea­son.

The si­lence we en­counter is in sharp con­trast to the bus­tle of the ski slopes. Best of all, it starts to gen­tly snow. We de­cide snow­shoe­ing is some­thing ev­ery­one should try at least once. Just watch out for rabbits. Barry Oliver was a guest of Mt Hotham Ski­ing Com­pany.

Check­list

A five-night fam­ily-value pack­age at Zirky’s, in the cen­tre of Hotham vil­lage, is from $1052 an adult, $993 a child, from Septem­ber 13 to 28, in­clud­ing lift passes, adult group lessons, equip­ment hire and free night ski­ing. Lift tick­ets are $94 a day for adults, $47 for chil­dren. Sled dog tours are $95 for adults, $65 for chil­dren. A 11/ hour in­tro­duc­tory snow­shoe tour is $30 a per­son. More: www.hotham.com.au. www.sled­dog­tours.com.au www.soul­freead­ven­tures.com.au www.newhotham.com.au

Wolf whis­tle: Hang on for an ex­hil­a­rat­ing if bumpy dog sled ride at Mt Hotham’s Din­ner Plain, where Brett Had­den’s five en­thu­si­as­tic Siberian huskies give their all on a 2km track

White out: Head­ing down­hill at Mt Hotham; the 320ha Vic­to­rian re­sort is un­der a me­tre of nat­u­ral snow and looks set for the sea­son

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