a belated update from down under
28.06.2007 - 01.08.2007 0 °C
Shivering violently with enough force to shake the nuts and bolts loose from the ice-clad chair lift and my bones within, I clunk and grind my way into the driving wind that bites into my Queensland tanned façade, feeling like a dog on the back of a speeding ute. The salty surf spray of Western Australia, transported on a westerly wind across the baron red Martian landscape of the Australian Outback, is frozen mid flight and dumped onto The Great Divide, morphing into ice needles that slice into every inch of my exposed skin. “Am I still in Australia?” I begin to question myself, and moreover “why did I choose this place over the tropical paradise of Queensland?” As I reach the crest of the chair lift, the cloud and my doubts clear as the mountain once shrouded within an impregnable white veil is revealed and the exhilaration of the adventures to come brings adrenalin to cause through my veins. The freezing cold is forgotten and replaced with a feeling of elation and euphoria as I slide down the in-ramp to commence another run.
Just 3 hours drive north of Melbourne through lush green farmland lies another one of Australia’s great surprises in a land of contrasting environments and ever changing climates. The ski resort of Mount Buller, nestled on the Western Fringe of the Great Divide, has been serving up the Australian alpine experience since Helmut Koffler first opened the Junior Ski Club here in 1929. If you thought Australia was only about babes, beaches and surfing, think again.
Mush akin to the cultural diversity of Australia, Mount Buller attracts a broad demographic from the jackaroos of the nearby farming communities, city slickers from the metropolis of Melbourne, and visitors from far and wide across the globe including Sri Lanka, India, Japan, Vietnam and China, for many of whom is their first contact with snow.
Gazing up Bourke Street (the main piste at the heart of the resort) from the village square, it’s clear that the lions share of visitors are jean-clad, snow virgin day trippers, ill-equipped in both clothing and competence, who undoubtedly selected the mountain experience from a brochure nestled between the Ned Kelly Last Stand and Melbourne Zoo experience in the Melbourne tourist office.
To expatiate the calamity, an alarming number of guests deem a lesson from the Ski & Snowboard School surplus to requirements (perhaps de-motivated by the escalating cost of their trip) and as a result spend their day sliding around on their derrieres as opposed to the base of their skis. Luckily for their bruised behinds, Mount Buller offers a selection of quaint cafes serving a selection of food including scrumptious soups and ‘glue-vine’ (or Vin Chaud as I prefer), paralleled with stunning views to warm the aching bones and rejuvenate spirits.
That is not to say Mount Buller attracts only first-timers as a large number of highly competent skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers dominate the mountain. Perhaps testament to Mount Buller’s own university which specialized in Outdoor Education (sadly the university closed in 2005 due to lack of funding), the exemplary Mount Buller Ski & Snowboard School or simply a wealth of knowledge learnt and shared amongst the local Victorians - whatever the secret is these Aussies command respect as a force to be reckoned with on the mountain.
With a total of 58 runs spread over a skiable area of 300 hectares, Mount Buller (and Australian ski resorts in general) simply cannot compete with the worlds great ski hills as found in North America and the European Alps but what it lacks in challenging terrain and size it more than makes up for in charm. A plenitude of pisted runs have been carved into the hill, accessible through a well maintained lift system, which whilst rarely exceeding a 25 degree incline on even the black graded runs, provides a wide selection of high-speed, snow gum gladed skiing and some fun bumps and mini cliff drops for the more adventurous rider.
The weather is a little hit and miss with a mixture of glorious blue-bird days quickly followed by icy cold, winds that make it a struggle to free yourself from the comfort of your bed; days of heavy snowfall which can be immediately followed by driving rain which can demolish the shallow base. The 2006 season was a dismal year with at best only 50% of the runs skiable, but with the bumper start to the 2007 and record snow falls received in the first 3 weeks of the season it looks set to be a cracker.
In addition to the pisted runs, Mount Buller hosts a World Cup class half-pipe and a total of 3 terrain parks offering a broad selection of rails, fun boxes and kickers to suit all abilities. This is undoubtedly the focus of the Australian snowboarding, reminiscent of the UK dry slope scene of the early 90s, being heavily influenced by urban skateboarding. I witnessed first hand beginner and expert alike attempting to ride the rails to varying degrees of success, some even before they could successfully initiate a turn which demonstrates the focus for these wannabe gnarly jib kids. Without the deep and steep terrain that makes all-mountain freeriding a possibility, the urban ised focus is hardly surprising.
With all these gnarly young folk about, the après ski scene is vibrant as ever with most descending on the local meat market known as ‘Hoo Hars’, though the sign above the door reads ‘Karura’. For those seeking the quieter life, the nearby villages of Murimbah and Merrijig nestled at the foot of the hill offer more sedate entertainment including hiking through the bush, sampling the local fungi and relishing in the abundance of wildlife including kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, parrots and cockatoos.
The evenings can be spent relaxing in front of a wood fire, or venturing to the Mill Inn and the recently renovated Merrijig pub, which if you believe local legend is said to serve the best steaks in the world by none other than the Cherie Blair. Having sampled their 14oz Porthouse Rump I have my doubts as to the dexterity of the UK premiere’s wife’s palette.
Aside from booze-riddled antics, Mount Buller offers a packed calendar of entertainment on and off the hill for all ages with activities ranging from tobogganing to live music to indoor climbing. An exciting prospect approaches in mid-July for the up-and-coming jib kids with a few wild card places up for grabs in Mount Buller’s own star-studded snowboard rail jam, which is set to attract Australia’s best riders to dazzle the crowds with their well-dialed nose presses, board slides and other mind blowing tricks. An impromptu session in the park this week brought out the best in the local riders – amazing what the presence of an impressive looking SLR camera can do to install the ‘Kodak Courage’.
A worthy note for the more eco-minded visitor, a rather damning report on the ski hill’s environmental footprint has prompted an investment in excess of $5 million AUD in the worlds first class A water-from-waste recycling system. Once the project is completed in 2008, it will deliver up to 90 millions liters of water for a range of uses including an ever expanding snow-making operation and for use in the countless hotels and lodges dotted around the village. The project is already delivering huge benefits with a significant reduction in the use of piped and natural spring water, something which the residents of the local area and further a field will be overjoyed to see having lived through a 7 year drought and ever pressing water restrictions. It makes you think twice before taking a mouthful of snow to quench your thirst but I am assured it is quite safe, in small quantities at least.
The only downside to visiting Mount Buller for the tourist is the cost. For the same as one weeks skiing at the resort including the Park entry fee ($29 plus $6 per night), lift pass ($92 per day), ski rental (approximately $40 per day) and accommodation (available from $50 per night), one could take a trip across the Tasman to the Southern Alps in the South Island of New Zealand which boasts more challenging terrain and a significantly better snow record. Perhaps the multi-millionaire property tycoon owner should consider reducing his profit margin, though the ski industry is a capitalist business like any other so expect no compromise.
Will Mount Buller ever feature on the international ski map? I doubt it. Yes it rains, yes many days will be spent scraping across bullet-proof blue glass ice, and yes you might find yourself at times dodging patches of grass and out of control Sri Lankans but given it’s day (and 2007 has already delivered 2 powder days of 20cm plus) the mountain opens up with some superb quality runs and off-piste action. And if all else fails you can go hit the park! What it lacks in vertical drop and the ‘deep and step’ terrain typical of the North American resorts, it more than makes up for in rustic charm and a friendly down-to-earth attitude that is sadly lacking in an industry tainted by snobbery. If that’s not enough the sheer convenience of being located just 3 hours drive from Australia’s 2nd largest city will ensure Mount Buller will continue to grow into the 21st Century. Bully for you, Buller!