Skiers at Mt Hutt on New Zealand’s South Island can look down on the clouds from even the lowest point of the ski field.
Skiers at Mt Hutt on New Zealand’s South Island can look down on the clouds from even the lowest point of the ski field.

Up where the air is clear, freezing

GYMPIE winters can be a little ho-hum so it was with great expectation (and some anxiety) that I packed up my three bambinos and boarded a plane for the South Island of New Zealand during the recent school holidays.

Along with eight other excited members of my extended family, we were off on a skiing holiday in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

We had no real idea what to expect but, being sun-loving Queenslanders, had packed enough thermal underwear to sink a whaling ship.

We knew it was a whole lot cheaper to go skiing in New Zealand than in Australia - even including the cost of seven new passports - and we knew we would be flying in to Christchurch, the site of last year's devastating earthquake that left 185 people dead and great swaths of the city in ruins.

But there was a lot we didn't know, which I will talk about later.

Mt Hutt, with its height of 683m, was our skiing destination.

Before we got there though we had to spend a night in Christchurch and then an hour motoring out to Methven, which would be our home base.

Methven is beautiful: sleepy, quaint and able to provide excellent accommodation, wine, coffee and apricot brownies. Surrounded by the chequerboard fields of the Canterbury Plains, it's about 92km from Christchurch and half an hour's drive from Mt Hutt.

It is dwarfed by the magnificent backdrop of the snow-topped mountains - the scenery is absolutely breathtaking and very Lord of the Rings.

Our lodgings at Methven's Ski Time Lodge and Apartments could not have been better: modern, warm, spacious and just a few steps from the fabulously appointed on-site bar and restaurant, complete with outstanding wine list and giant, blazing fire.

And boy, did we need that fire. And that wine list.

New Zealand is cold, my friends, f-f-freezing.

First the temperature at Christchurch was a shock, then the temperature at Methven took that shock to a new level, and then we arrived at Mt Hutt. Pardon my French, but holy c**p!

On our first day of skiing the official temperature was minus five. This was a very optimistic reading, I felt, because the wind was blowing so hard you could not stand still on your skis without getting blown along like a ponderous, ice-laden sail boat. And that wind was laced with something that felt like frozen needles.

Despite the weather, our skiing lessons were excellent and the six children we sent off for four full-day lessons and lunches with their own instructors loved every minute and mastered skiing almost immediately.

Two days later as I inched my way nervously down the intermediate slope, Highway 72, the six of them would go flying past me at break-neck speeds, sans ski poles or any shred of fear or self-preservation. Helmets were a must.

By the end of the week, the children - who ranged in age from eight to 13 - were taking on some of the most advanced runs on the mountain, as were most of the other adult members of my group.

Mt Hutt caters for a wide range of skiers, but as a beginner I felt the leap from the beginner's slope to the intermediate was a bit too harrowing. Perhaps the Australian ski slopes are a little friendlier on gumbies like myself.

There is no accommodation on Mt Hutt itself and its lift facilities include a high-speed six seater chair, a quad chair, triple chair and magic carpet (a nice touch for beginners). The magic carpet is the world's first, and is fully enclosed by shipping containers.

The steep and, quite frankly, terrifying 13km access road up the mountain is prone to closure in poor weather, giving the ski field the nickname Mt Shut.

In August 2010, winds of up to 200kph struck the ski area, resulting in its closure along with the access road, and stranding 1200 people on the mountain overnight.

Gympie Times

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