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