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Australian Alps: a visit to the ski resorts of Perisher and Thredbo

Published
September 11, 2019
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LIVING in New Zealand, I often pop over to Australia. On my latest trip I went to the two great Australian ski resorts of Thredbo and Perisher.

A selfie at Blue Cow, on the Perisher skifield

You might be surprised to learn that the sunburnt continent of Australia has quite a few ski resorts. And that some of them are really big. Though New Zealand’s a popular skiing destination itself, Thredbo and Perisher are a lot bigger than anything in my country. Check out this map of Perisher, for instance!

Map data ©2019 Google. North at top.

Australian skiing takes place on the island of Tasmania, and also in a region of the mainland known as the Australian Alps. The Australian Alps straddle the border of the states of New South Wales and Victoria and takes in a small part of the Australian Capital Territory as well. Thredbo and Perisher are in the Australian Alps.

Parklands of the Australian Alps, including places mentioned in this post. Sketch done for this post, based on https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AustAlpsRegionMap.png

No part of the Australian Alps is much more than 2,000 metres, or 7,000 feet, above sea level. And hikers can walk to the top of its highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko (Koh-shoosh-Koh), without much difficulty.

Still, this is the only part of Australia that is even that elevated — so, ‘Alps’ it is.

I was surprised to hear that the word’s first club skifield is supposed to have been created in the Australian Alps, at the gold mining town of Kiandra. The Kiandra Snow Shoe Club got going informally around 1861 and became organized around 1870. It’s still going as the Kiandra Pioneer Ski Club, though it has relocated to Perisher.

The Kiandra Snow Shoe Carnival in 1900. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons (Charles Kerry, NL 80/3227).

Getting There

From Sydney, via Canberra, you travel to the inland lakeside town of Jindabyne. From Jindabyne, you get to Thredbo by going about 30 km up a road called Alpine Way. Thredbo’s ski runs start from a village of the same name on Alpine Way, with shops and places to stay.

Alpine Way, heading westward out of Jindabyne

Perisher’s in the back country north of Alpine Way, halfway between Jindabyne and Thredbo. You normally visit it for the day because there isn’t much accommodation on-field. The best way to get to Perisher is via a Swiss-built mountain railway called the Skitube, because it runs through a tunnel more than six kilometres long. The Skitube sets out from a carpark on Alpine Way, halfway to Thredbo from Jindabyne, called Bullocks Flat. You can also take buses to the skifield itself if you have paid to go all the way as part of a package bus tour, and drive to the skifield as well if you want.

The Skitube is a cog railway, in which the driving wheels are like gearwheels and grip a lengthy rack in order to pull the train up steep slopes. You can see the rack in this photo.

Inside the Skitube

Both fields have apps these days that provide ski reports and travel and parking updates.

The ski runs on both fields pass through evergreen forests. I thought it was really neat being able to ski past trees; though I suppose you do have to be more careful!

Jindabyne, Cooma and the Snowy Mountains

Thredbo and Perisher are both in the Snowy Mountains, the part of the Australian Alps that’s north of the Victoria / New South Wales border. The Snowy River, the most high-up of Australia’s large rivers, flows out of the Snowy Mountains, past the Perisher skifield.

This is where the action in Australia’s most famous poem, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, takes place:

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise / Their torn and rugged battlements on high / Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze / At midnight in the cold and frosty sky . . . .

The Man from Snowy River was composed by Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, probably Australia’s most famous colonial poet, who lived in these parts.

The Man from Snowy River was first published in 1890. It’s funny to think that even in those days, the man from Snowy River might have gone skiing at the weekend!

Paterson's poem was later made into a classic Australian film of the same title.

In the twentieth century, the Snowy River area also became the site of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme, which generates more than 4,000 MW and irrigates vast areas of farmland as well. Most of the larger lakes in the area, such as Lake Jindabyne, are actually part of the scheme.

Lake Jindabyne, with Banjo Paterson roadsign

To get to the skifields, I first took a bus from Sydney to Australia’s capital city of Canberra. The bus from Canberra to Perisher and Thredbo takes about three hours. Passengers for Perisher disembark at a place called Bullocks Flat to catch the Skitube.

But I got off before that, in the town of Cooma, because backpackers’ lodgings there were about a hundred Australian dollars (A$100) a night. The accommodation at Perisher, more swept-up no doubt, cost about A$400 a night and was booked out; and Jindabyne was mostly booked out too.

I checked into a bunkhouse in Cooma, where the owner appeared to be stoned. Still, that’s how it goes!

Later on, I also managed to find cheap-ish accommodation at the Youth Hostel in Thredbo for A$120 a night.

From Cooma, I hitchhiked to Perisher. I could have hired a shuttle and that would have been A$90 return.

The bus-train combination was also pretty pricey and actually not much cheaper than the shuttle. It was all very expensive compared to New Zealand.

I decided that I wasn’t paying A$90 to go to any mountain. So I hitched, and that was really interesting because I met locals. The first ride that I got was from a truck driver and he gave me a ride to Jindabyne. Accommodation-wise, there was nothing under A$260 in Jindabyne, so I decided to make Cooma my base for Perisher. Jindabyne was fully booked out anyway, and the town was full of tourists. But I found my favorite Australian supermarket (Woolworths) and got a coffee and a muffin for a dollar each. The funny thing was that the truck driver knew the owner of the bunkhouse I was staying at in Cooma, and it turned out he was a bit of a character, alright.

Lake Jindabyne is one of the lakes where the old town was sunk beneath the waters. A new town of Jindabyne was built above the shore. The truck driver said that there was another dam going in at Jindabyne shortly. So, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, though it was mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s, still isn’t complete.

Perisher

My next ride, which took me to the Perisher skifield, was with a ranger who worked in the environment and with animals. He also gave a ride to a ski instructor named Mike, who was only twenty-two. Mike told me that he got A$25 an hour while in New Zealand they only got NZ$17, just barely over the minimum wage. Mike said he couldn’t afford a car even in Australia because he was only assured of two hours paid work a day (which could be shoveling snow).

A collage of photos, mostly from Perisher

Mike said that the holidays were busy and that the rest of the season was not. He had to pay for his accommodation which was A$260 per week, but he loved his life. He said that the pay and conditions for ski instructors in Japan were better than in Australia and that Japan was where he wanted to be.

Perisher was crowded. I got a chairlift up to the top, the only one to allow walkers. I was told that by a friendly guy sitting next to me. Even the chairlift set me back A$40!

The Perisher Skifield

There were far more older people skiing in Perisher than in Queenstown; it was great to see people older than me!

I was told by the gentleman I was riding beside to stop at a cafe halfway up called the Mid-Perisher Centre. I had a pie there and listened to Christmas music, with green garlands winding up the pillars, even though Christmas was still nearly five months away. Of course, the snowy time of year in Australia is at mid-year. Not at Christmas, but halfway from one Christmas to the next, is the only time Yule traditions make sense downunder!

The ski country of the Australian Alps is also worth visiting at the actual, honest, Christmastime. There’s no skiing then, of course. But you can still hike the trails. And like the hill stations of India, the area is also quite a bit cooler than the plains.

The Mid-Perisher Centre

Welcome stove in the cafe, Mid-Perisher Centre

Mid-Perisher Centre Cafe

The other place further down at Bullocks Flat had lines with people pushing in front of hundreds of other people. I was told to stop at the cafe halfway up because when you come down, you have to come all the way down.

The man told me that I could also get the Skitube to Mount Blue Cow, an adjoining mountain that is part of the Perisher skifield. The skiing on Blue Cow is less steep than on Mount Perisher, where the main part of the skifield is located.

Blue Cow

Along with Alpine or downhill-type skiing, there’s plenty of opportunities to do Nordic or Cross-Country skiing in the wider Perisher area, and they have trails for that as well as the downhill runs.

Typical Blue Cow terrain

Skiers on a rope tow at Blue Cow

The Skitube has two stops on the field, Perisher Valley on Mount Perisher, and Blue Cow. The man said that people generally didn’t pay the official A$40 charge for just using the train locally. So, I thought, “ok, I will get the Skitube to Blue Cow.” Mount Perisher is 2014 metres high and Mt Blue Cow is 1901 metres, with really good views.

I figured that couldn’t afford to actually ski Perisher this time around, as I’d left my skis in New Zealand. It would have cost me about A$300 for a ski pass and hired gear if I just rocked up casually by myself.

Actually, the smart way to have done things — as I discovered too late! — would have been to join a day trip package tour. These are often sold at bargain rates, when you consider that transport is included.

I could have done a one day ski-snowboard package at Perisher from Cooma for A$190 including transport to the skifield, and likewise something similar for Thredbo.

I just walked on the trails on the day I was at Perisher. I planned to ski for a day when I got to Thredbo, however.

There are quite a few clubs based at these fields, including the old Kiandra Club. Getting in with a club is a lot cheaper than being a weekend tourist from Sydney.

I was really nervous about the chairlift on Perisher as a skier had lately been blown off the chairlift cable at Thredbo in a freak gust of wind, falling ten metres along with his seat.

But I loved the train to Blue Cow, where there were fewer people. I enjoyed the views and met a couple from Newcastle, New South Wales, a city about 100 km north of Sydney, who won a ski holiday in a raffle.

He grew up in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and hated snow! He’d left Katoomba for somewhere warmer at the age of nineteen.

She was a granny and was exhausted because she hadn’t been able to sleep on the bus. The first skifield buses of the day leave downtown Sydney around one o’clock in the morning. I think the couple from Newcastle must have gone to Sydney really late at night and got on one of those.

I don’t know how you’d have the energy to ski after going all the way into the middle of Sydney and getting on a bus at 1 a.m. I think I was doing the right thing staying in Cooma!

A collage of photos about Blue Cow

Well, I went to the lookout and got some great shots and then I went back to Cooma and had to look for the guy who ran the place. I got a ride with a guy who lived in Jindabyne and fitted skis for a living. He worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 2 a.m, on shifts. He said a lot of the skiers arrived at midnight. Many of them came from Sydney, of course. My next ride was from an old guy who was seventy-eight and still skied sixty days a year at Perisher. We discussed what the snow was like this year. A lot of the snow was artificial. If there was no artificial snow, skiing would not be possible on anything like its current scale in years when the natural snowfall was low.

At the Mid-Perisher café I also met a woman from Invercargill who said she couldn’t afford to live in New Zealand, especially in Queenstown. She said that she got A$25 an hour at Perisher, working in the cafe. New Zealand is known to be the land of low wages. Her friends and family worked in New Zealand and got laid off in Queenstown.

Thredbo

After my day on Perisher, I got the bus from Cooma to Thredbo, where I stayed for two days at the Youth Hostel. I took the Greyhound bus, which took about an hour and a half from Cooma. I did want to ski at Thredbo, even though I hadn’t done so at Perisher.

The Greyhound bus has an app and seems to be reasonably priced by Australian standards. Having said that, I could have got a car for the same price that I paid for the bus. People generally did not take buses to the skifields, I noticed, most probably because they’re too expensive for casual journeys (though the packages are competitive). The car parks were full at places like Bullocks Flat.

Thredbo is a real mountain village. It was founded in 1955 by three ski enthusiasts, two of them from Europe and one an Australian, at a location that used to be known as Friday Flat.

(Actually, the Thredbo skifield’s steeper than Perisher for the most part, as the town occupies the flat bit.)

So, Thredbo got going at about the same time as the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme. Some of the old ski lodges are now marked as historic buildings.

Founders of Thredbo, around 1955

Friday Flat now has a new significance

You just cross the main road, chuck on your skis and go up the mountain chairlifts. Food-wise, it was a lot cheaper than New Zealand ski resorts. It was big enough to have supermarkets, for one thing. The Turkish restaurant was reasonable for kebabs — one thing I really like about Australia is the abundance of cheap Middle Eastern, Lebanese and Greek food just about everywhere you go— and a lot of people even lived on free food left behind in the Youth Hostel kitchen! There was milk, yoghurt, and cheese. It reminded me of Colin Todd Hut on Mount Aspiring, where the climbers leave food in the fridge.

It was really cold at night but there was a lot of parkland that you could walk about in. At 7:30 in the morning you think it’s foggy, but in reality the ‘fog’ is a spillover from snow machines making snow overnight.

Lovely view of the mountains from Thredbo. The fog is probably from snow-making.

The Greyhound bus driver was a really a source of information. She was saying that you needed special insurance to cover being flow and off the mountain, which cost A$60, and there were a lot of young Australians couldn’t afford the rescue ambulance flights off the mountain and had been on the bus with bones going through broken legs, with bones going through the skin and she said, “ for God’s sake if you go skiing and haven’t got insurance, then don’t ski.” To be flown off the mountain cost A$30,000 if you didn’t have insurance, apparently.

I went to the Thredbo Medical Centre and ask them where I could get the insurance and they said, “ring the New South Wales government”. I don’t see why I should have to ring the New South Wales government to find out about insurance!

There’s just no way that I would want to ski without the cost of an ambulance being covered. So, what I did was read my own medical insurance cover which was from New Zealand's ASB bank, and found that it covered my medical expenses up to a reasonable level but not the heli-evacuation apparently.

So, I decided that I would go snow-shoeing to the top of Mount Kosciuszko instead, as that was probably safer. These are the kind of snow shoes that you walk in, like tennis rackets.

(The old Kiandra ski club had been known as the Kiandra Snow-Shoe Club back in the day, but they were using the word snow-shoe to mean skis. My snow-shoe trip definitely wasn’t going to be a ski trip.)

Meanwhile, the Greyhound bus driver said that she was a qualified pilot but that she couldn’t get a job as a commercial pilot. And that she got A$35 an hour for bus driving anyway, which was double the New Zealand pay. She used to work in Alice Springs, which is where she got her commercial pilot’s license. She said she worked in a mobile dialysis unit. They used to give Aboriginals treatment and she said that in that remote part of Australia the Aboriginals were especially prone to kidney problems.

Julie, a ski instructor, who shared a bunk in the dorm room I was in, worked as a chemist in Perth. She had been going to Thredbo for about 26 years and had been a ski instructor. However, she fell over on the road on Perth and damaged both knees.

Because of her injury she was not offered any work this year and every morning she taped up her knee with bits of plastic and I thought oh my God. Julie said she was cleared by the doctor to be an instructor but the manager of the ski field would not take her on straight away.

So then what happened was she was doing volunteer work for disabled skiers. Actually, she had been told to work as a volunteer by her boss, so she wasn’t really a volunteer, merely unpaid. She said that she was desperately short of money and couldn’t afford to be in Thredbo because accommodation alone was costing A$700 a week.

I was a bit sad about Julie. She was also paying half of her mum’s Queenstown rest home fees and her sister who was a millionaire was paying the other half.

Another woman who bunked with us at the Youth Hostel, named Linda, had an interesting story. She came from Yeppoon in tropical Queenstand, and said that she’d got into skiing when she was six or seven and it just stuck. So every year people from her family went skiing. They went and stayed for a month in Thredbo each year. So there’s an older generation in Australia that started skiing when they were young. I don’t see so much of that in Queenstown, surprisingly enough.

Then I met a man who was in his forties, with two sons. He wasn’t happy. He said being a father was the most miserable thing on earth. He said his children played computer games till midday. They didn’t get up early and they were grumpy and they always wanted things. He said that his marriage wasn’t in a very good state because he had spent fifteen years building a house before the kids were born but his family did not want to live in the house.

He said that for fifteen years he didn’t have to deal with the children and he wasn’t happy being a father. He said his children fought each other but they loved snowboarding, which was one positive thing.

He asaid he’d never imagined introducing his children to snowboarding or that they would like it. But he’d taken them to the slopes because there were so many drugs around these days and he wanted them to get into something wholesome rather than just lounging around playing computer games and getting into drugs. It was a worry and that you had to keep an eye on them. But luckily, they liked snowboarding.

There was a band playing every night, a top Australian band called Holy Holy.

It was pretty good on the upper slopes, which I got to eventually. I’d wanted to go snow-shoeing but this only happened on a Monday or Wednesday. Unfortunately, on the Monday the weather was a little bit rainy and the expedition was cancelled. By Wednesday I’d gone. So I never got to go snow shoeing to the top of Mount Kosciuszko. Instead, I took the chairlift up to the top of the field and got photos of Mount Kosciuszko. The ski field and the snow looked great from the top.

I was nervous about the chairlift here too of course. I didn’t realise that if you are by yourself you have to sit in the middle. The barrier wouldn’t close properly till I was seated there, which only added to my nervousness.

Thredbo collage

After that I got the overnight bus to Melbourne.

So a key learning from all this is to scope out the package deals, insurance details, and so on, before you go.

Here’s some information on where to stay in the Snowy Mountains region:

http://snowymountains.com.au/where-to-stay/

You can also get all kinds of information, including further accommodation advice, from the Snowy Monaro Regional Council.

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