I’m handed the details of my trip and look down puzzled. At the top, in shiny red letters, is the word “Christchurch”.
“Er, is there still anything there?” I ask hesitantly. I’m met with a stony silence, but it’s a fair enough question. The city, the biggest on New Zealand’s South Island, endured a massive earthquake back in 2010. Miraculously, the Canterbury capital survived largely unscathed. That is until another monster quake hit in February last year, much nearer the centre, leaving large parts of the city as rubble.
Since then, despite green shoots, opportunistic suburbs thriving and plans for a completely redeveloped CBD, a fair chunk of the centre – the elusive Red Zone – has remained out of bounds to mere civvies as, one by one, the remaining buildings are made safe or demolished. But I’m not heading to Canterbury for a natural disaster tour it turns out, hell no. I’m hitting the snow.
While many of the South Island’s big, commercial ski resorts are further west, looking down on Queenstown and Wanaka, Christchurch, it seems, has been keeping a secret.
On the up
In New Zealand, you see, there’s a thriving community of ski clubs offering access to snow fields on a no frills, cheap and friendly basis. There are just 10 of these so-called club ski fields dotted around the country, and seven of them happen to be within an hour or two of the Garden City. And the good news is that there is plenty of time to check them out, as the snow season goes well into October.
But more on them shortly, as my first stop is Porters, a swift 90km drive from the airport. Boasting a trio of t-bar lifts and terrain for every level, Porters is the perfect place to get your snow legs back. Porters might be more commercial than the sociable club fields, but the neighbours’ friendliness seems to have worn off, as this is no faceless resort. And soon enough I’m booted up and hitting the slopes, carving some white lines.
The clear air, spacious snow and lack of lift queues means I’m swiftly back in the swing. Too much perhaps, as a crunching fall from a way-too-cocky attempt at a jump leaves me reeling. The surroundings might be breathtaking, but not as much as my lack of skills.
A few more runs to get my confidence back, however, and I decide it’s time to go clubbing. After stopping for the night, spending an evening propping up the bar with the locals at the Flock Hill Lodge in the heart of clubland, I head back off the main road and onto the gravel. Soon I’m winding my way back up the mountain roads towards Broken River.
I reach a half-full car park and pull up, wondering what’s next. That’s when I see the cable car. As Yazz once sang, the only way is up, so in I jump with my bags, skis and boots and press the green button, which sends me soaring up into the trees with a shudder. Once settled into my bunkroom at the lodge, I waste no time in making my way up to the slopes.
“Hang on a sec,” I’m asked. “Have you ever used a rope pull before… or a nutcracker?”
“Err, no…” I reply hesitantly, trepidation increasing as I accept an extra glove and tow-belt with metal “nutcracker” attached.
“Okay, I’ll send someone up with you.”
Now, I’d been asked this several times over the previous couple of days, and I’d never really got to the bottom of what a nutcracker was. However, thanks to the wry smiles produced whenever I questioned it, I’d been nurturing a growing concern. After all, how the hell was I going to get up the slopes without a chairlift, t-bar, even a button lift? And I didn’t even want to think about what a nutcracker was.
But my concern turns into slightly baffled excitement when suddenly I’m presented with the rope pull. My nuts, it turns out, were going to live to face another day.
On the pull
Before me was a speeding rope. The trick apparently being to grab the rope with your double-gloved hand and hold on tight until you’re being pulled up and the rope isn’t flying through your fingers. Then, with your other hand, you have to flick the metal “nutcracker” over the rope so that it grips and, hey presto, you’re being pulled up the mountain while clinging on for dear life. It’s intimidating at first, to say the least, but the rope pull really demonstrates exactly what club skiing is all about – the complete opposite of what the perception of snow pursuits has become to many people. Cash and fancy outfits matter for nothing here.
This is old school skiing taken back to its rawest roots, when all that matters is having fun chucking yourself down a mountain with a bunch of like-minded fanatics. Once upon a time, this is what all resorts would have been like.
Anyway, several false starts later and I make it up, collapsing in a heap at the top as I struggle to untangle myself when the rope suddenly comes to an end. But I’m there, with all the valley below me.
I shimmy my way halfway down before pulling into the rest lodge to grab a glass of water (and, ahem, maybe put off my second assault on the rope pull for a few minutes). And then a strange thing happens. Well, it would have been strange if it didn’t seem to happen every time I took a break to chill out for a bit. Somebody starts talking to me.
Up in the clubs you see, many of the skiers are members, meaning they’re on the slopes throughout the season and have often been coming for most of their lives, while the non-members all stay in the same lodge for a week or so. The result is a thriving sense of community, with everyone keen to share their thoughts on their first love – the mountains.
Care in the community
I experience that community to its full later that night when, after devouring a huge spread at dinner, I find myself the
sole Pom in a room full of Kiwis as England labour to a narrow and tortured rugby victory on the TV, much to the amusement of my new buddies.
On my final day, I stop off at another club, the brilliantly-named Mount Cheeseman. Yet again I’m struck by the friendly community feel, with everyone stopping to chat to one ageing hiker who’s making the slow ascent all the way up the piste on foot. I’m also, I admit, a little relieved to be back in the stressfree world of t-bars.
I’ve only got time for a final few runs, however, before the dash back to the airport, where I find a corner to nurse my aching body. I’d never even heard about the club fields before heading to Christchurch, but now I’m a convert. Thanks to uncrowded slopes, cheap prices and a really sociable feel, it’s hard to imagine a better set up from a snow-obsessed backpacker point of view. I’ll see you there.
The basics: This is a great mountain for the average skier or boarder but it’s especially good for those who want to try their hand at freestyle stuff, with four halfpipes and two terrain parks full of jumps and rails. I came out worse for wear but felt I had pushed myself that little extra because Cardrona’s technical courses have a smooth learning curve. With wide open spaces, there are also plenty of lines to be had on a powder day.
Where to stay: Cardrona is placed closer to Wanaka than to Queenstown but if you’re also looking for the good nightlife stay in Queenstown. There is a wide a range of hostels and lodges to choose from.
Charge it: $95 will have you riding all day, while $54 will get you a half-day, but then you’ve missed out on the fresh stuff.
The basics: My first day riding saw blue skies with a foot-and-a half of snow at Treble Cone – perfect conditions to fall all over the place, trying to find my mountain legs again. TC to the cool kids, this mountain, close to Wanaka in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, has excellent terrain, especially off-piste action. Be prepared to have your lungs explode from the crisp yet almost non-existent air. There are runs for all levels of snow lovers, with a quaint chalet for the hot chocolate afterwards. There’s even a new Jazz Fun Park full of rails and jumps.
Where to stay: Wanaka is your nearest town, only 40 minutes away. Punching above its weight for fun, this town has a few sweet hostels, a lounge chair cinema and a good pub by the lake, even a skatepark for the gnarlies. Indeed, National Geographic Magazine recently named Wanaka as one of the world’s top 25 ski towns, the only southern hemisphere inclusion to make the list.
Charge it: Lift passes are $95 for a full day or $69 for a half-day.
The basics: There is nothing basic about Snow Park. Just as it sounds, this resort is one giant park: no real terrain here, just every jump, halfpipe and rail imaginable with terrain features for every level of rider. What makes this place great is the vibe they create. A huge sound system pumps the hills so alive with music you’d think the Von Trapps were on the wheels of steel. Because we’re in the southern hemisphere, Snow Park has become a playground for the world’s best skiers and boarders in the northern off-season.
Where to stay: Snow Park is right across the road from Cardrona so again, you’ve got the choice of Wanaka or Queenstown.
Charge it: A day pass is $88 or a night riding pass pass is $41. As this is a specialist resort, there is no rental equipment, however you can hire gear from Wanaka or Queenstown.
The basics: The Remarkables are deserving of their name, rising from Queenstown and surrounds like a wall of ice. It looks like you could fall from top to bottom with one leap. This all-round resort offers plenty of space to roam both in-bounds and off-piste. It has some steep and deep snow as well as the groomed corduroy. Slink down the hill after last runs and find yourself in aprés mode, by a fire in one of QT’s top bars.
Where to stay: Queenstown is directly below Remarks. Once you get down the windy road it’s just a five-minute drive. Back to the hostel, take off your pants and jacket then shower, jacket back on, happy hour.
Charge it: A day pass is $91, afternoon pass is $62.
The basics: Kamikaze Kiwis have been skiing Coronet Peak for more than 50 years. It has a wide range of runs, a lil’ somethin’ for everyone, from halfpipes and parks to easy-does-it runs with a conveyer belt, in case, like many, you find the lift dismount the hardest part. Enjoy some sun on the patio in your fluoro one-piece and work on your goggle tan.
Where to stay: Again, Queenstown is the place to be, just up the road. Charge it: To spend the full day there is $95, while a half-day is $65.
The basics: Just south of Lake Taupo in Tongariro National Park, near Frodo’s Mt Doom, Mt Ruapehu is home to the biggest ski area in New Zealand, with a vertical drop of 722m. It can get pretty busy in the peak season because of its size and proximity to Auckland but it offers world class terrain with a wide array of runs whether you’re experienced or still using the “pizza, french fries” technique. The views are spectacular – volcanic peaks circle your vistas. Spring skiing at Ruapehu is fantastic, lasting until November on a good year, with warm weather.
Where to stay: Whakapapa Village (pronounced fukapapa, tee hee) Ohakune and the National Park Village are all nearby and have a number of hostels, and camping if you’re sharing two people to a sleeping bag, brrr.
Charge it: A day pass is $95, while half a day costs $67.
The basics: Famous for its deep, dry snow and for having one of the longest seasons in Australasia, Mt Hutt makes the most of its location. The fields look back over the lush green Canterbury Plains and out to the Pacific Ocean. There’s a huge range of terrain, with plenty of space for novices to eat snow. Park monkeys are also guaranteed a rush with death-defying jumps and rails to sample.
Where to stay: Methven is a small town just down the hill with a couple of good backpackers; otherwise, Christchurch is a popular option.
Charge it: A day pass is $91, with half the day costing $62.