MIRAGES are not just seen in the desert
A squat little A-Frame hut shimmered in the distance… “You look as though you have seen a mirage,” a fellow skier said to me, as I squinted across the dazzling white expanse at the shape in the distance.
But as I skied closer, I discovered people lounging on deck chairs in the snow. They were drinking mulled wine, schnapps and beer, outside a tiny bar on skids overlooking Lake Tekapo on a fresh-snow day so clear and sharp and bright it made my eyes water even with my goggles on. I skied to the window and impulsively ordered a schnapps, re-enacting a romantic memory of a ski holiday in Austria in my younger days when our instructor-guide insisted we partake of the local fire-water in a quaint little mountain bar to warm up before braving the sub-zero temperatures outside. Rationalising it was well nigh impossible to come to grief on Roundhill's incredibly gentle slopes, I attempted to skol my schnapps - so much for the memory. It was ghastly, and I instantly handed it over to the nearest young male snowboarder who gave me a quizzical look but didn't waste any time downing the stuff in case I changed my mind. In hindsight, I suspect the schnapps we were drinking back then was seriously diluted with fruit juice because I seem to recall a pleasant peachy flavour - not cleaning fluid. And no one skied into trees or was worse for wear after a schnapps session long ago in the Tyrol. We had run away from Wanaka's crowded slopes to ski the smaller fields in the MacKenzie High Country, and were richly rewarded with fresh powder, cloudless skies and no queues. Roundhill Ski Field is just as the name suggests - a mound with no cliffs, drop-offs or craggy peaks, and little chance of getting up too much speed. The main slopes are no challenge to anyone beyond the snow-plough stage but it is the most picturesque of ski fields, looking towards the beautiful Godley Valley to the right, Tekapo township 32 kilometres to the left and straight ahead, beyond the turquoise-blue lake, to Aoraki Mt Cook. The field also boasts the longest, steepest rope tow in the world and Australasia's biggest vertical drop (783 metres). The last time I used a nutcracker was in the pre-chairlift days at Coronet
Peak when it was a sign of great prestige to own a rope tow belt - it's still in the attic somewhere - but I decided to give it a miss in favour of drinking in the view and a glühwein at the "mirage" while my husband tackled the tow. who were sprawled about the lounge in beanbags. We eagerly joined the merriment and gazed out the huge picture windows as the sunset painted the snowy Ben Ohau Range pink and gold. Just when we thought things couldn’t get much better, a delicious three-course dinner was served beside an open fire, roaring away in the huge old stone fireplace dating back to when Sir Harry Wigley established the lodge in 1951. We skied all afternoon until the shadows were long and loath to leave the mountains; we spent the night 123 kilometres down the road at Lake Ohau Lodge. When we arrived, rosy-cheeked after a day in the alpine sun, we were beckoned by another mirage - the winemaker from Terra Sancta at Bannockburn was pouring generous free tastings of Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir and other delights to a bunch of animated après-skiers Early next morning, with the landscape sparkling under a thick layer of frost, we soaked in a hot spa pool on the lodge deck overlooking Lake Ohau as the sun rose. After a hearty skiers' breakfast, we drove 20 minutes up the road to Ohau Snow Fields, high above the lake.
We were two of only seven skiers on the mountain before the rush of 30 or so hit the slopes, and what Ohau lacked in breadth of skiable terrain, it made up for in snow quality and the sheer number of runs we had on uncluttered slopes. A few keen souls were hiking the ridge above the double chairlift to make first tracks in the powder, and a pair of hardy ski trekkers were heading off to an alpine hut in the next valley. Skiing Ohau, like Roundhill, is as much about the scenic experience as the skiing itself. To stand at the top of an empty slope with pristine untouched snow, and no need to plot a course to avoid maniac snowboarders, kamikaze skiers and unpredictable learners was a rare treat. And the view of Lake Ohau and surrounding mountains is mesmerising, all the more so because of the peace and solitude.
“EARLY NEXT MORNING, WITH THE LANDSCAPE SPARKLING UNDER A THICK LAYER OF FROST, WE SOAKED IN A HOT SPA POOL ON THE LODGE DECK OVERLOOKING LAKE OHAU AS THE SUN ROSE"
Hiking the ridge to make first tracks in the powder at Ohau Snow fields