Patrick Keneally, The Guardian, August 17, 2015
The Snowy Mountains are home to Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, a vast wilderness of snow gums and alpine heath that offers a huge range of outdoor pursuits from horse riding to fishing or canoeing. Yet more than 90% of visitors in the winter come here for one thing: to visit the slopes. It’s a shame, because as great as skiing and snowboarding are, there are so many other great, and more affordable, attractions.
New South Wales ski resorts are popular but also slightly maligned. The winter snow cover at its four resorts, Perisher, Thredbo, Selwyn and Charlotte Pass, can be patchy, the cost of accommodation, lift passes and food and drink can add up, and in terms of facilities it doesn’t stack up to the experience overseas. A ski package to New Zealand – or even Japan – can be found for about the same price as a week’s skiing in NSW. Yet despite the criticisms, the Australian high country is unique.
Less than 1% of Australia’s landmass is covered in snow during the winter, most of it protected inside Kosciuszko national park, which spans about 6,900 sq km. Despite being named after the Polish explorer who “discovered” it, the park has a rich Indigenous history as home of the Walgal and Ngarigo people. These groups visited the alpine regions in summer, feasting on the fat bogong moths that are abundant then, much the reverse of current visitors who flock there in winter.
There are also the natural history, wildlife and spectacular landscapes of the park. The sight of a fresh snowfall covering the ground and ghostly white snow gums against a bright blue sky is enough to stir up the Banjo Paterson verse in even the least patriotic of souls.
Snowboarders and skiiers in the Snowy Mountains in August 2015. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the high price of most things at the ski resorts, if you have travelled this far it’s really worth paying for at least a day or two on the slopes. Resort passes start at about $130 and a season pass at Perisher, which costs about $750, now includes access to resorts in Colorado, Utah, California and Nevada after its purchase by the US-based Vail resorts, which is a bargain of sorts.
Friday 3pm: Poachers Pantry, Nanima Road, Hall
The drive from Sydney is a long one – about five or six hours. Alternatively you can fly to Canberra with Qantas, Virgin Australia or Jetstar and hire a car. There are also coaches daily from Central station and Canberra to Jindabyne.
If driving, it’s not a bad idea to break up the trip. Poachers Pantry, just outside the ACT in New South Wales, is a good place to stop and recharge. It’s home to a cafe, a smokehouse (where you can pick up some excellent bacon for a fry-up when you arrive in the snow) and a cellar door, with a decent range of cool-climate wines.
The writer, Patrick Keneally, at Perisher resort in August 2015. Photograph: Patrick Keneally for the Guardian
Poachers Pantry had its moment in the spotlight as one of the destinations on the taxpayer-funded taxi trip by the former Speaker, Peter Slipper. Say what you like about entitlements, but at least he showed impeccable taste in choice of venues. He also paid a visit to Clonakilla winery, just down the road in Murrumbateman, another top choice. The Clonakilla riesling, which we sampled apres-ski a day later, is well worth facing an AFP investigation just to get your hands on it.
Friday 7pm: Lake Crackenback Resort and Spa
Lake Crackenback Resort is just next to the Bullocks Flat ski tube station and is an amalgamation of chalets and apartments. The chalet where I am staying is an immense affair – three bedrooms, three bathrooms, chandeliers made out of faux-antlers, underfloor heating and plenty of top-of-the-range technology. It all seems a little excessive, especially as when you are skiing you seem to spend little time at your accommodation, but if you split the costs between three couples, the $900-odd a night cost of a deluxe chalet would be worth it. There are also studios for about $255 a night.
The resort certainly has its upsides: an expansive view of the snowcapped ranges from the chalet’s balcony and a 150-metre private driveway linking the resort to the ski tube station. You can comfortably go from being tucked up in bed to getting on the first chairlift of the day in 30 minutes flat. The resort also offers activities for non-skiers, from mountain biking tours to archery and trout fishing (you can drop a line directly from the balcony of one of the apartments into the lake).
Lake Crackenback Resort and Spa superior lodge in August 2015. Photograph: Patrick Keneally for the Guardian
8pm: Cuisine Restaurant, Lake Crackenback Resort
The Lake Crackenback resort’s one-hat restaurant looks over the lake and the ranges and is the perfect place for a drink and a meal after a day’s skiing. It also provides breakfast. I filled up on pork belly, king browns, cauliflower custard, macadamia and crackling ($23) then a wagyu sirloin with skordalia, watercress and miso mustard ($39), a side of hand-cut chips with garlic aioli ($12) and brussels sprouts, prosciutto and parmesan ($12). A four-course degustation menu with wine will set you back $125, or a five-course one for $150. We also ordered a bottle of Clonakilla Riesling ($58) and a couple of Asahi beers ($9 each) – just what you need to prepare you for a day of skiing.
Saturday 8am: group ski lessons, Perisher
If, like me, you consider yourself a reasonable skier but are largely self taught, the chances are you’ve been doing it all wrong. I’ve always wanted to be able to ski like James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, fleeing an eagle’s nest lair of a criminal mastermind down near-vertical slopes chased by henchmen with machine guns, all while not spilling a drop of martini.
When I relay this dream to my Czech skiing instructor, Mataj, in the morning, he gives me a blank look, perhaps not realising the film’s cultural importance. I’m in a group of six skiers, and feel a little rusty after not having skied for about four years. We start off doing big gentle loops down the mountain following his tracks, trying to shift our balance counterintuitively down the slope and concentrating on technique.
Sadly, I’m not likely to get a call from MI6 to join its elite winter division any time soon, but I am improving. Group lesson and lift-ticket packages are available for $176 (about $50 on top of the usual lift ticket price) and begin at 9am and 11am daily.
Snowboarders and skiiers in the Snowy Mountains this August. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
1pm: The Man from Snowy River Hotel
Good food and drink is hard to find in the snow – mostly it’s overpriced, stodgy pies, chips and pizzas. The Man from Snowy River Hotel does a decent job with a huge schnitzel and chips for $23 and a schooner of beer for $9, but it’s not the nice cosy pub with battered comfortable old chesterfield sofas, a roaring open fire and an expansive view over the valley that I had hoped for.
2pm: Private ski lessons, Perisher
After lunch, I trudge back up to the ski lifts to meet Luke, my instructor for the afternoon. Again he works on improving my skiing style, trying to make me more fluid in movements in and out of the turns. Luke chats to me on the lifts about what I’m doing right and wrong (mostly the latter), but putting what he is telling me into practice is difficult as old habits die hard. After an hour’s worth of lessons, I notice I am much less tense in my legs and core. The improvement in technique translates into less effort. As a beginner, I remember being wrecked at the end of a day’s skiing, but the promise of an improvement isn’t just to take on bigger mountains and look better, it’s also allowing you to conserve energy. By the time the lesson wraps up, the wind is howling and visibility has dropped. Skiers are being blown side to side on the chairlifts, which close down pretty soon afterwards because of the poor conditions.
With skiing over for the day, we head back to the resort for another amazing dinner at Cuisine Restaurant, a quick massage at the resort spa ($120) to iron out all the kinks and then off to dinner again at Cuisine restaurant. Two-hour afternoon private lessons are $251.
Sunday 8am: snowshoeing, Wilderness Sports, Kosciuszko Road, Perisher Valley
Bruce Easton is our guide for a snowshoeing trip out from Perisher. He is hugely enthusiastic about getting tourists to experience everything the park has to offer. He says 99% of people visiting the national park head straight for the resorts, and only 1% ever venture into the backcountry.
I’ve often looked out from the safety of the groomed trails and dreamed about heading out there, but with no experience and considering the very real dangers of exposure and avalanches, I’ve never been game.
Snowshoeing at Perisher – takes snow lovers off the beaten path. Photograph: Patrick Keneally for the Guardian
The snowshoes are not the old tennis-racquet string and wood type that artfully grace the walls of ski lodges; they are the modern carbon fibre, plastic type. We pop them on and begin the trek out of the Perisher valley. It’s surprisingly easy to walk in them. At first the temptation is to take giant moonwalking steps, but I soon realise it’s not necessary. We head out along the Rock Creek/Porcupine Ridge trail and pretty soon are in an untouched sheltered valley of snow gums. Ours are the only footprints disturbing the surface of the powder.
An introductory one-hour tour is $49 and a three-hour trek to Mount Wheatley is $99, but if you want a more adventurous option, you can take a full-day tour to Mount Kosciuszko at 2,228 metres. The journey is 6.5km from the top of the Kosciuszko express chairlift for $149, with snowshoe hire, lunch and national parks fee included. Compared with the price of a one-day resort pass at $122, guided snowshoeing is pretty good value.
12pm: lunch, Wildbrumby Distillery, corner of Wollondibby Roadd and the Alpine Way, Jindabyne
At Wildbrumby Schnapps distillery I managed the find the schnitzel I had been hoping for: a thin piece of veal, battered, coated in breadcrumbs and then shallow-fried and served with a wedge of lemon. It’s not difficult, but it’s surprisingly hard to find. The distillery and cafe is on the road between Jindabyne and Thredbo and has a sculpture garden, sundeck and orchards (where much of the fruit for the schnapps comes from). There are about 15 schnapps on offer, all made in a still sitting in the middle of the cafe, with the pink lady apple, pear William and mango all highly recommended.
Wild Brumby Schnapps distillery offers the ‘perfect’ schnitzel. Photograph: Patrick Keneally for the Guardian
3pm: fly-fishing at Moonbah huts, 688 Big Yard Road, Jindabyne
Last stop before heading back to Sydney is a spot of fly-fishing. About 30 minutes from Jindabyne, Moonbah Huts has a handful of small, self-contained cottages available for hire and also its own lake stocked with brown, rainbow and brook trout. It is also just 100 metres away from the Moonbah river, which is one of the best spots in the Snowy region for fly-fishing. I’ve never done fly-fishing before, though plenty of regular angling. Brett Smith, our instructor, shows us how to send the rod back and forth and for the first 10-20 minutes we practise this with bare lines, sending them out over the lake and looping back. If you are doing it correctly, the end of the line whips past your head at speed, so as well as asking us to wear protective sunglasses, he wants to be sure we are competent before attaching hooks. No one has yet been hooked in the eye, but he doesn’t want to take any chances, he tells us.
The fly is supposed to imitate the type of insect the fish are likely to eat at different times of year and in different places, such as whether the river is near grasslands or forest. They are very pretty small things, colourful and intricate, like something a bower bird would love to drag back to its nest to impress a potential mate.
Fly-fishing at Moonbah huts, 30 minutes from Jindabyne. Photograph: Patrick Keneally for the Guardian
With the fly/hooks attached, I send out the line to settle on the surface of the dam. You have about one-fiftieth of a second to react, I’m told, when the fish strikes, which sounds impossible. I soon find out that while that might be an exaggeration they are pretty quick. My fly disappears under the surface; I feel a slight tension and yank the rod. The trout disturbs the surface then nips back beneath. A couple watching from one of the huts give a yelp of support, then commiserations.
I missed my chance. When someone next to me hooks one and hauls it in, Brett helps to remove the hook, then gently lowers the trout back into the dam, where he holds on to it for a minute or two while it recovers then swims away. He explains that because of the frigid water, the trout are generally slow and lethargic, so they need help to get back into the swim of things.
We can see the line of the Moonbah river as it gently snakes along the bottom of the ridge. It’s sunny and warm until we lose light behind the ridgeline and then suddenly it turns very cold and dark.
I feel like one of the trout hiding at the bottom of the dam – cold, lethargic, slow and overfed – so it’s time to head home.
The Guardian was a guest of Destination NSW.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Patrick Keneally from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.