A Season in Aotearoa
Words:Keith Stubbs Photos: Vernon Deck
With springtime kicking in and the end of the Northern Hemisphere winter looming on the horizon like a vicious stampede of orcs, seasonaires everywhere will be feeling that familiar itch… “What the hell I am going to do for summer?"
At some point every British snowboarder has dreamt of chasing the snow to the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe it’s time for a season in New Zealand? Why not? Sack the summer job at the local snowboard shop. Forget about Glastonbury and all the other UK music festivals. Don’t even think about skating or wakeboarding. It’s time to book your flights and buy another season pass, head south and ride the formidable mountains of Aotearoa - ‘The land of the long white cloud’.
Well if that didn’t sell it to ya, read on and, as a plastic Kiwi, I’ll do my best to entice you down-under. Plastic - come again? No, not really. ‘Ex-pat Brit and New Zealand resident’ is the formal version.
How I became a plastic Kiwi
My own endless winter itch came back in 2000, after a season in Canada and an instructing job at the recently opened Milton Keynes SNO!zone. I bought my flights, stopping in Dubai for a sweaty week of sight seeing, and arrived in Auckland early May, way before the season starts. I met up with my buddy Simon from MK and we bought a van that we appropriately named Betsy. We then spent the next month or so cruising around the country in our new house on wheels, checking out the options for the coming winter.
After that memorable phase of my life I’ve been indulging in every single NZ winter since, spending the rest of my year doing seasons or trips to North America, Europe and Japan, and balancing in a little summer sun. I now live here all year round with my Kiwi lady and our chocolate lab puppy. I love it – bar the freshly chewed footwear.
What’s not to love? New Zealand offers amazing mountains that host decent resorts and snow conditions that keep you on your toes. It’s a country with a very similar landmass to the UK but only 4 million inhabitants (as opposed to 60+ million), so there’s a liberating feeling of space yet the journeying between riding spots is never too gruelling. Living is fairly cheap when you’ve got pounds in your pocket, driving is on the left as it should be, and there’s no need to carry a language guide in your pocket. Need I say more?
Where’s good to ride?
I reckon that as a country, New Zealand has the highest ski resort-to-population ratio in the whole world. Unfortunately I can’t find any research to prove my theory, but the numbers speak for themselves: 13 commercial ski resorts, about 10 club fields, multiple heli operations and even one indoor slope (Snowplanet in Auckland). Compare that to the aforementioned 4 million NZ residents and you have an approximate 1: 200,000 resort-to-people ratio. That sounded much more impressive in my head.
One of the most internationally publicised resorts in recent years has been Snow Park, found halfway between Wanaka and Queenstown. If you haven’t heard about this place, you need to re-think your magazine reading habits. Snow Park is exactly what it says on the tin: a terrain park, nothing more, nothing less. It has almost every variation of freestyle feature imaginable: wall rides and quarter pipes, rails of all shapes, tables of absolutely all sizes, a massive super pipe and a regular-sized halfpipe, not to mention the artificial cliff drop. Everything is maintained to perfection, meaning freestyle-orientated snowboarders and skiers flock to its slopes with a passion. Those who saw The White Album (Shaun White’s first solo movie) should easily recognize the setting.
Snow Park isn’t the only good place to get your buttery jib skills flowing. Other Southern Lakes-based resorts with strong terrain parks include Coronet Peak and the Remarkables (both good options for shredders living in Queenstown) and Cardrona (known for its multiple pipes and popularity with the Japanese). If steeps, gullies and natural features are what you’re seeking, head to Treble Cone near Wanaka and enjoy some of the best lift-accessible freeride terrain NZ has to offer. Just be very cautious on the drive up (and down for that matter), as it is undoubtedly the gnarliest access road in existence.
Other decent-sized resorts that are well worth a visit include Mt Hutt in Canterbury, as well as Turoa and Whakapapa (pronounced ‘Fakapapa’) on Mt Ruapehu in the North Island. These last two are actually NZ’s largest ski areas and are relatively unknown overseas. Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano that puffed out a small eruption as recently as last September, but it also has truly unlimited riding potential. The volcanic rock formations create wondrous freeriding and natural freestyle terrain. Unfortunately, as Ruapehu isn’t settled amidst a whole mountain range like most South Island resorts (it’s out there all on its own) it attracts some intense weather systems; gale force winds often cause the resort to close. So if you’re only in NZ for a short time, Ruapehu is not a good recommendation as you may only get half the expected days on snow. However, if you’re out for a season and can handle the extreme conditions it’s certainly a great option.
The riding plethora doesn’t stop there. In addition to the well-established commercial fields, New Zealand boasts numerous smaller ‘club fields’. These are managed through a voluntary club-style system where everyone chips in and does their bit. They do usually have some paid staff but the number of positions is minimal. Many of these ski areas make ideal daytrips, as passes are inexpensive. Just be sure to keep a watchful eye on the weather as getting trapped there after a good day’s riding is always a possibility - but not necessarily a bad one mind you. The club fields most worthy of a mention here include Craigeburn, Temple Basin, Mt Olympus and Broken River.
And if that wasn’t enough already, the Southern Alps are home to some of the world’s most renowned heli operations. In fact there’s almost as many heli-ski companies as there are commercial ski resorts. Based out of Wanaka are Backcountry Helicopters and Harris Mountain Heli-ski (which also has an office in Queenstown). Other operators in the Q-town include Southern Lakes Heli-ski and Alpine Heli-ski. Moving north to Mt Cook – the highest mountain in NZ - you have Wilderness Heliskiing, and then in the Canterbury region there’s Southern Alps Heli-ski and Methven Heli-skiing (a favourite with photographer Jeff Curtes and the Burton team). Finally, a mandatory mention goes to Mt Potts, which is also in Canterbury and is well known amongst the Brits. Rumour has it that the cat-skiing operators are now moving exclusively to helicopters and renaming themselves Heli Park NZ. As you can see, the options are genuinely in abundance.
Four seasons in one day
New Zealand is renowned for its extremes. Extreme sport, extreme weather, extreme pre-rugby war dances! The list goes on. The Kiwi snow conditions also help maintain this reputation. One day you’re riding nice dry pow pow, and the next it’s bulletproof ice. When you wake up in the morning you’re never quite sure what the day has in store for you. Weather forecasting certainly helps give you an idea, but with NZ’s geographical location (or rather – isolation) even the best websites can be way off the mark. As the name Aotearoa (‘Land of the Long White Cloud’) suggests, the land is long and skinny. It is also surrounded by a rather large ocean and its nearest neighbor, Australia, is approximately 1250 miles away.
South Island New Zealand consists of about 60% mountain-classified land and has 18 peaks over 3,000 metres (10,000 ft). The prevailing westerly winds often bring in storms from the Pacific that, when the wind turns southerly, dump ample amounts of the frosty white stuff all over the peaks and valleys of the Southern Alps. The North Island is much less mountainous and only really receives snow on the central plateau, where Ruapehu is found alongside two other volcanoes. But that doesn’t equate to a lower snowfall. Actually it’s quite the opposite - Turoa typically has the deepest snow base of all the Kiwi resorts. So in other words, the weather systems are not quite what you’d expect.
I remember a day in August 2004 that began with 40+ centimetres of fresh and ended with winds gusting over 150kms per hour, throwing sleet sideways into my face. I started the day as most good locals do – scoping potential lines and cliff drops. By 11am I had scored my fair share of face shots when the sun came out. Now for those that aren’t aware, the Kiwi sun is vicious. We have one of the world’s biggest ozone layer holes almost directly above us, and your skin can burn in a matter of minutes. This being the case, you can imagine what the sun does to the snow. By 1pm on that memorable day, the soft dry powder was quickly turning into sun-baked cruddy slush. Nevertheless it was still worth riding. By 3pm the winds were picking up and another storm system was rolling in, this time from the north. Within 30 minutes a huge, wet mass of grey engulfed the whole mountain, bringing visibility down to about 5 metres. Poor visibility like this happens everywhere of course, but most Northern Hemisphere resorts have trees to provide a little shelter and some definition in the snow. NZ resorts are completely, 100% treeless!
Experiences like this one just add to the adventure however, and that’s exactly what New Zealand is about.
When and how much
The Kiwi snow season generally kicks off mid-June. The bigger ski areas utilise snowmaking and manage to open a number of their easy trails at this time. The more sizable snowfalls tend to come in July and August, whilst September is the beginning of spring. Most resorts close early October, with the exception of Whakapapa and Turoa on Mt Ruapehu, which can stay open as late as November – although by that time it’s pretty sketchy.
August is usually the best month of the season, ensuring both snow base depth and quality. Try to avoid the NZ school holiday periods as the lift lines can a little get backed-up. There are two sets of two-week school holidays that coincide with the snow season: one in early July and the other starting late September going into October.
Day passes in NZ are surprisingly expensive, comparatively speaking. Treble Cone is one of the more pricey ski resorts, at $89/£35 a day (that’s the 2007 rates). You can purchase multi-day passes covering a few different resorts, but if you’re doing the season or even half the season, buy a season pass. These generally go on sale in February and every resort offers ‘early-bird’ deals at varying prices until a specified date in March or April. Purchasing a season pass after this time is not recommended as the price can more than double, but if you must do so, some resorts also offer a pre-season rate as well. Here are a few examples to wet your appetite:
(£1 = Approx. $2.50)
Snow Park (2008 details) Before 15th March = $699, 16th March – 15th April = $899, 1st May onwards = $1199
Whakapapa and Turoa (2008 details) 1st April – 30th April = $409,1st May onwards = $725
Cardrona (2007 details) Before 15th March = $490, 16th March – 30th April = $625,1st May onwards = $1185
Ultimate Pass – Cardona, Whakapapa and Turoa Only available 1st April – 30th April = $719
Coronet Peak and Remarkables (2007 details) 9th February – 8th March = $649, 9th March – 19th April = $849, 20th April – 8th June = $1249, 9th June onwards = $1649
Mt Hutt (2007 details) 9th February – 8th March = $549, 9th March – 19th April = $749, 20th April – 8th June = $1049, 9th June onwards = $1349
NZ Ski Pass – Coronet, Remarkables, Mt Hutt and Ohau (2007 details) 9th February – 8th March = $749, 9th March – 19th April = $949, 20th April – 8th June = $1349, 9th June onwards = $1719
The above prices are all quoted for an adult and some are last season’s as not all ’08 information had not been released at the time.
As is standard with most winter tourism destinations, New Zealand caters to all tastes and budgets. If it’s 5star luxury you want, you will find it. Not likely if you’re reading this though.
Resort access towns in NZ offer a reasonable selection of accommodation for seasonaires. Knowing all the ins and outs takes a few seasons’ experience, but you may strike it lucky first time round. Your best bet is to start early. Do the research and choose where you want to be based. Once you’ve bought your season pass, get on the net and check out every single Kiwi real estate website there is. If you’re looking to rent a house with a crew of friends from home, you will struggle. It’s always worth a try mind you, but expect to pay out a large bond (the Kiwi word for ‘deposit’) and a minimum of 4 weeks rent in advance – be warned, it’s not the cheapest option.
Other opportunities include long-stay lodges, campsite cabins - maybe even a caravan - or just renting a room in a house full of random strangers. There are also opportunities to work for your keep at one of the local backpackers. These can be sweet deal (but are hard to come by) as you only tend to work a few hours per day, either first thing in the morning or late in the evening – no cutting into your riding time.
If your bank balance isn’t as healthy as you might like and you’re looking for paid employment, think about what your priorities are: riding or working. The only way you’ll ensure maximum time snowboarding whilst maintaining an income is to work off the hill. Bars, restaurants, hotels; they all need staff and the work available is predominantly in the evening. The ski resorts themselves hire plenty of seasonal staff too but these tend to be daytime positions, meaning less ride time. Nevertheless, working on the snow is a rewarding experience and I highly recommend it. All resorts hire their staff pre-season and applications can open as early as February – get in quick if that’s what you’re after. Even the town-based jobs seem to fill before the main season begins. Bear in mind that pretty much every employer will require you to have a New Zealand Work Visa. However, as a Brit, it is easy to obtain a Working Holiday Visa valid for 1 year, as long as you’re under 31 years of age.
All living costs vary dramatically depending on the region you’re in. You can rent a room for as little as $80 a week, but pay as much as $170. Queenstown and Wanaka are two of the most expensive places to live in New Zealand. Food, petrol, housing – it’s a little over the top to be honest. But it’s completely viable for businesses to charge so much with all these wallets spilling out the Pounds, Euros, Yen and US Dollars. I’ve even heard a rumor that the Wanaka New World (that’s a supermarket) is the most expensive in NZ.
Major access towns that are a little easier on the bank balance include Methven near Mt Hutt, Ohakune and National Park (which access Whakapapa and Turoa). If you’re on a tight budget these are definitely safer options, though you don't get the glamour that comes with Queenstown – but maybe that’s a good thing?
Getting from the towns to the resorts is a mixed bag depending where you are. Some resorts offer shuttles to-and-fro, but they cost for non-staff. Hitchhiking is often a viable means, but time consuming – plus no one wants to pick you up on a powder day. Your best bet is to buy a car and share the petrol costs around (renting is only worthwhile if your stay is under two weeks). Buying a car in NZ is an easy process. I recommend spending a few days in one of the main cities when you touch down; search out a good deal from a traveller type about to leave the country and bargain your ass off. Do get a mechanical check (unless you’re that way inclined), and make sure it’s got a Registration and Warrant of Fitness (equivalent to an MOT). To give you an idea, you can pick up a 1990 station wagon for around the $1000 mark (approximately £350). All-wheel-drives are super-useful when the roads are restricted to ‘chains or 4WD only’. You can pick up a similar age Subaru for $2000-$3000 no problem, but stay away from the turbo models if you want peace of mind.
Courses and competitions
A fair few Brits that migrate south for the winter are looking to either a) train and compete, or b) do a course to get some new skills/qualifications under their belt. NZ is certainly a great place for both of these.
Considered to be the number one off-season training ground for Northern Hemi pros, New Zealand is the cream of the crop for budding competitive riders. Every resort offers a series of local comps in Halfpipe, Slopestyle and Boardercross – there’s even a Mt Baker-style banked slalom hosted at Treble Cone. If you’re based in the South Island and are willing to travel around a little, you can hit up a comp pretty much every weekend. NZ also plays host to a few international events, the biggest of which is the Burton NZ Open (Snow Park and Cardrona) which brings in the big shots every August. Last season saw the UK’s own Jenny Jones take the Women’s Slopestyle title with an impressive display of super-smooth skills.
New Zealand snow industry qualifications are some of most respected in the world. The Avalanche Level 1 (for patrollers) and the SBINZ Stage 1 (for instructors) are both extremely well known internationally. There are a number of academies that offer season-long training courses to prepare you for these qualifications (they’re not easy!). For Patroller courses check out the New Zealand Snow Safety Institute at Broken River. If it’s instructing you’re aiming for take a look at the Rookie Academy in Wanaka, Instructor Training Co. in Queenstown, and Ruapehu Snow Academy in the North Island – which is where I work these days.
Well, if I haven’t managed to convince you, maybe the quotes from other Brits will. If not, the surreal photography will surely capture your imagination.
To wrap it up… Almost every New Zealand characteristic is attractive. If I could combine that wonderful Japanese powder with Kiwi mountains/culture/people, I would surely be in heaven. Even the cheeky Keas (high altitude, crow-sized parrots that steal your wiper blades whilst your out riding) provide entertainment and some classic bar telling stories.
So as the snow melts in the north, why not make the dream of an endless winter a reality this year? Head down south and check out a country that exhibits a unique landscape, cherishes its mix of Maori and European heritage, demonstrates sincere kindness and truly cares about the environment (NZ came 7th in the latest Global Environmental Performance Rankings). Oh, and the riding’s pretty good too.
Just in case you’re in need of further NZ information check out these web sites:
NZsnowboard.com – a locally run site with info covering all aspects of Kiwi riding, plus the international scene too. Snow.co.nz – a weather/conditions-based site with up-to-date snow reports and web cams.