As an Australian, I imagine that most of the world has an image of Australia as being filled with kangaroos, beautiful beaches and the outback – but on the Great Dividing Range, stretching down the southeast coast of mainland Australia, there are snow-covered mountains that each winter host some world class ski resorts. No, they don’t compare to Whistler, Aspen or Val d’Isere when it comes to the scale of ski terrain or the depth of the snow, but the facilities, relaxed atmosphere and people make them absolutely addictive.
Riding through the snowgums at Thredbo.
If you draw a straight line between Sydney and Melbourne, then the area south of Canberra (approximately halfway along this line) pretty much maps the snowy sections of the Great Dividing Range that span Australia’s two main ski regions and five major resorts. In the “Snowy Mountains” of New South Wales the two major resorts are Perisher Blue and Thredbo, whilst the Victorian Alps host Falls Creek, Mount Hotham and, closest to Melbourne, Mount Buller. Each of the resorts has a particular character and style, and there are dedicated groupies who will argue late into the night that their resort is better than all of the others.
Snow typically covers the landscape between June and October, with the most reliable riding conditions stretching from July to September. The seasons vary widely, but the safest bet for snow cover is from late July through August. We have had seasons extend to November, but they are rare indeed.
Comprising the ski fields of Perisher Valley, Smiggin Holes, Mt. Blue Cow and Guthega, Perisher Blue has a maximum elevation of 2,034 meters (6,673 feet), and an incredible total of 53 lifts capable of moving 53,900 skiers per hour. The total rideable area is 1,245 hectares (3,076 acres), making it Australia’s largest lift-served ski resort.
Accommodation is available either on mountain, or in the nearby town of Jindabye, located an easy traveling distance to the resort via either car or the Ski-Tube Alpine railway from a car park at Bullocks Flat. The resort has an extensive selection of shops and a variety of restaurants as well.
Perisher’s feel is of wide-open spaces, and huge blue skies. It’s well suited to beginner and intermediate skiers/boarders, but limited in advanced/extreme terrain.
An aerial view of Thredbo.
Thredbo is the style capital of Australian snow resorts. At 2,037 meters of elevation (6,683 feet), with 12 lifts and an uphill capacity of 17,841 people per hour, it is smaller in infrastructure terms than the other major resorts, but offers superb accommodation, dining and nightlife to complement some of Australia’s most spectacular alpine mountain views.
The mountain caters mostly to predominantly intermediate skiers/boarders, but there are some excellent advanced runs available, particularly when there is snow cover top to bottom. Thredbo boasts that they have “the longest runs and most vertical terrain in Australia” (total vertical drop is 672 meters, or 2,205 feet), but again that is dependant upon the snow cover on the resort’s lower slopes.
Thredbo township is a beautiful resort at the foot of the main ski slope (home to Australia’s highest golf course outside of snow season) that provides easy access to the lifts at the start of the day. Excellent but expensive accommodation is available at the resort or in the town of Jindabyne via road access for more cost-conscious skiers and riders.
Falls Creek is a beautiful European-style village with views across Rocky Valley reservoir and back down the length of the Ovens Valley. Falls has a real community feel, and is very family oriented. It’s a great place to learn snow sports, with excellent beginner and intermediate runs, but it too is limited in advanced runs. Expert skiers and riders will be happy to learn that you can ski Hotham on the same ticket (see below).
Falls rises to 1,780 meters (5,840 feet) and has an approximate lift capacity of 20,000 per hour over 14 lifts, almost all of them chairlifts. The resort straddles a ridge, so there’s usually somewhere to shelter in windy weather.
Falls is accessible by road via the town of Mt. Beauty, and is an easy day trip from both Bright and Mt. Beauty. There is a wide variety of on-snow accommodation, ranging from small private lodges to large apartment buildings. In a typical season you can ski in and out of many properties.
Hotham is my favorite for a number of reasons, but I’ll try to be objective!
Twelve lifts carry approximately 25,000 people per hour to a summit of 1,850 meters (6,070 feet). Hotham arguably offers the most advanced slopes of any Australian resort, with some true double black diamond runs and easily accessible backcountry slopes. Hotham’s base area is a mixture of small private cooperative lodges and large commercial hotels and units spread through the heart of the resort. In good snow conditions you can walk out the door, clip on the skis or board, and off you go for the day.
Access to Hotham is via road from either the north (across the spectacular Razorback Ridge), from Omeo in the south, or via the Mt. Hotham Airport, a unique feature amongst Australian snow resorts. You can fly in and catch a shuttle to the resort, and be out on slopes even sooner. Hotham also runs a helicopter service to sister resort Falls Creek, and with common day tickets, you can catch the helicopter for a day’s skiing at Falls and return last thing for drinks at Hotham.
If you’re staying off-mountain, Hotham is an easy day trip from the beautiful alpine towns of Bright, Mt. Beauty, Harrietville and Omeo.
Mt. Buller’s Moonlight Ridge. (photo: Mt. Buller)
As the only resort within an easy day trip of Melbourne, Mount Buller is a passionate favorite of many, and justifiably so. The resort is extensive, stylish, offers a wide variety of terrain for all levels of ability, and hosts magnificent views of surrounding valleys and ranges.
Buller rises 405 meters (1,329 feet) to 1,805 meters (5,922 feet) elevation, with 25 ski lifts capable of moving around 40,000 people per hour. Access is very easy via a scenic road from the mountain town of Mansfield, but to reach your on-mountain accommodation you need either a 4-wheel drive or take an oversnow transport vehicle – not the cheapest means of transportation. Available accommodation is a mixture of private apartments, small lodges and large commercial blocks. Buller is a year-round resort, and even hosts a university campus.
Buller has slopes to suit everyone, with a great mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs, subject to good snow cover. Poor conditions limit the advanced terrain, so you need to pick your days carefully if you’re after the steep stuff.
Buller’s strength of its proximity to Melbourne is also a weakness, as it gets crowded, particularly on a sunny Sunday. But when the sun is shining, who notices the crowds anyway?
Now, it’s time for some general tips and advice.
Food & nightlife –Yes, lots. A wide variety of bars and restaurants exist, all with typical holiday resort prices. Top quality bands usually play on Friday and Saturday nights, and resorts also feature movie nights, theme nights, and fancy dress nights. If you’re after something more sophisticated, there are some excellent four-star restaurants with very tempting native wine lists.
Snow cover –Australian resorts typically have extensive snowmaking equipment, and even when great natural snow conditions exist they are used to keeping trails and high traffic areas well covered. It is rare to find unskiable conditions these days, and even if you are restricted to a few lifts you can usually keep skiing through a dry spell.
Entry fees – there are mountain access fees applicable to all resorts, as they are typically located in National Parks. In Victoria its about AU$25 (US $19) a day, reduced for longer stays. Fees are much cheaper in New South Wales.
Alpine character – Australia is like nowhere else in the world, with snowgums, alpine shrubs and unique fauna.
Ski school – Every resort offers professional ski schools, with a variety of local and international instructors of an excellent caliber. Group and individual lessons are available to suit everyone.
Employment – To find out about working at an Australian resort, check the web sites listed in this article. They usually have contact details for employment, but get your application in early (around April or May).
So what’s the skiing/boarding really like? – Australia receives just about every variation of weather and snow condition with the exception of deep powder. Often the slopes are icy first thing in the morning, or wet in mid-afternoon, but you also find those sensational days after a fresh dump when it’s like gliding on silk. Most European or North American visitors will probably notice that the runs are shorter than they are at home, but the excellent lift networks compensate for that.
That’s just a brief overview of what Australia offers, so I’ll just close with an invitation – why don’t you come down here and see for yourself?
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Perisher Blue: www.perisherblue.com.au
Falls Creek: www.fallscreek.com.au
Mt. Hotham: www.hotham.com.au (lift company), www.mthotham.com.au (resort)
Mt. Buller: www.mtbuller.com.au