I am from Scotland, a country of rugged landscapes, mountain highlands and brutish weather. Now, I live in Australia; a country of beautiful beaches, a never ending and never changing arid “bush”, and burning hot weather. Like most stereotypes, both are useful in giving you a general idea but don’t quite give you the whole picture.
My partner, Claire, had arrived before me, during Melbourne’s winter. She complained of the cold and how she sat with the computer on her lap, not because she was using it but because of the heat it generated. Having previously dismissed this as a girl gone soft after years in the sweltering heat of Cambodia, I had to go out and buy a jacket immediately after arriving in Melbourne – despite it now being springtime. I was flabbergasted to see that Canberra, the capital of Australia, has whole seasons where the temperature drops to below freezing at night. There are days when I look at the weather and see that my hometown of Perth in Scotland is warmer than Melbourne in Australia. This is not the Australia that was sold to me from watching Neighbours and Home and Away as a kid.
This surprise grew to a state of disbelief when somebody told me that Australia gets more snow than Switzerland. I’ve not been able to find evidence to support this, nor has anybody else although post number 22 uses a bit of maths to show that it may not be true. But even the fact that this is a question worth debating just goes to show that Australia gets snow, and lots of it.
During winter in Scotland, we would take our sledges and slide down the hill at the old reservoir or near the school playing fields. None of my family skied and nor did my friends so it never really occurred to me to hit the slopes. When I imagined what life would be like in Australia, I never pictured snowcapped mountains and slalom runs.
From my home in Melbourne, I can hop in the car, leave the beach behind and in about four hours be at any one of four ski resorts. Scotland has mountains, but they are small compared to the Australian alps. The smallest resort, Mount Baw Baw, is, as well having a funny name for Scottish people, still 200m higher than Scotland’s greatest peak at 1550 metres. The summit of Mount Buller, the largest resort, reaches past 1800 metres, and Mount Hotham, home of the serious skiers, nearly touches 1900 metres. These heights mean that even when the temperature is a t-shirt wearing weather of 18 degrees in Melbourne, you can be skiing up in the mountains.
Recently, we decided to see what skiing in Australia was like at Falls Creek. Wisely, we decided it would be good for me to have a lesson before I tried to do anything by myself, whilst Claire has skied before. At its simplest, there are only four things that you need to be able to do while skiing – go forwards, turn right, turn left and stop. Hopefully, I could master these four skills in a two hour lesson.
When the skiing stops, there are two options for getting down the mountain to go home. You can take the chair lift down the hill, which nobody does and only exists because the chairs have to go down to bring people up, or you can ski down in stylish swishing and swooshing arcs. Claire who had not yet seen me ski asked if I wanted to ski down or take the chair lift. Hesitantly, I said that we should give skiing down the mountain a go. The problem that became quickly apparent was that I had only mastered 2 of the 4 skills needed to get a down a mountain safely.
As I gathered more and more speed, Claire yelled at me to use the snow plough method but despite my best efforts, I continue to speed downwards and could see that I was about to go off the run and head who knows where. I decided that the best way to stop would be to fall over, which I managed without any problem. Claire caught up to and asked me why I didn’t use do the snow plough. I protested that I was so maybe it was that I had too much natural speed – I was too good at going forward. Ignoring the ridiculousness of this notion, she advised that I should turn one way and then the other skiing across the hill from side to side so that I wasn’t going straight downwards. This should slow me down.
Having played football my whole life, I’ve sometimes found it frustrating that my right foot is stronger than my left, but never did I imagine that this curse would contribute to me careering down a mountain like an out of control balloon that has just been burst. To turn left, you put your weight on the outside foot, the right, so it is the right foot that is forcing you turn. Immediately this felt comfortable and natural and could turn left fine. However, as I skied across the hill, I found it a lot more difficult to turn right so as not to fall off the edge. It seems that of the four simple skills, turning right, as well as stopping, is one that evades me. The problem of course is that not being able to turn right or stop makes it difficult to evade other skiers, which I didn’t entirely do.
Undeterred the next morning, and still allowed on the mountain, I had another lesson which allowed me to learn how to stop and turn right. By the end of the day, I made it down the mountain without crashing or crashing into anybody, although it seems that I still have too much natural speed that is difficult to control. Like an untamed Ferrari.
There were two young boys, aged 3 and 5, staying in the same accommodation as us at Mount Buller, and they had both been skiing since they were aged 2. They are already good enough to be going down black runs, doing jumps and skiing downhill backwards. Next winter, they will attend the primary school that opens on Mount Buller for that one single term allowing them to ski and go to school all winter. They represent a growing interest in snow sports and Australia already has five snowsport world champions, mainly in the newer modern formats of mogul skiing and snowboarding at which they have had previous Olympic success too.
For me though, skiing is also about being up high for beautiful vistas, except I was up this huge mountain and I couldn’t see a thing. Visibility was about 50 metres, and only the object of vision was a big, bright orange pole. I had heard of these mythical days on the slopes when the sun shines and it is warm enough to wear only a t-shirt. I treated such stories with incredulity until one afternoon at Mount Buller when you could feel the heat in the sun. It was spring-time in Australia, again, and this time I could have discarded my jacket and skied in the sun.
There was a moment, when the clouds first parted and the sun shone brilliantly in a blue sky, that I was glad to be able to stop my skis and look out across a folded carpet of mountains. The views were stunning and you could look for miles afar and down to a green, lush land whilst I was standing at the top of a mountain of snow. It was a picture of Australia that I never imagined.
I have a good friend back home who has lived abroad and enjoys exotic holidays in far flung places, but Australia holds no appeal for him. I’ve not asked why but I could imagine that it may not seem different enough to the Britain that he lives in; that all Australia has are a few beaches and some pleasant cities. I think that I maybe thought the same until living here. I’ve previously written about there being more to Australia than what is on the surface, but the actual Australian surface itself, and just below it, is one to be explored and astonished by.