Ski Clubs in NZ Geographic

A home in high places

Ski_clubs
At the end of a long farm road, Peter Wilson greeted me with a knuckle-crunching handshake, then swung open the access gate. “No matter where in the world you have skied, you’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, nodding up the big hill. He cast a practical eye over the business parts of my Land Cruiser, its high clearance and the predatory mud tyres. “Follow me. You should get up the track all right,” he said. “Just put her in low range and go quietly.”

Moments later, through a gushing ford and up a couple of steep hairpin turns, I could see why. This was the kind of track you’d negotiate when going tahr hunting, to camp under rock bivvies and melt snow for water. But at the end of the narrow and exposed switchbacks, Wilson assured me, was a well-appointed lodge—like an eyrie on a mountain—the ski club’s headquarters and an oasis of backcountry luxury with a log burner, hot water and flushing toilets. And a spa pool on the deck overlooking the wide, green confluence of the Waitaki and Hakataramea valleys.

“We’d be sitting on the deck at the end of a day’s skiing and watch a car coming up the track,” said Wilson. “It would start off eagerly, then you’d see it getting slower and more hesitant, then doing a 10-point U-turn at one of the hairpins, and start heading back down—failing what we call the ‘Awakino Test’. One of us would have to go down and fetch them. Once people get up here, they love it, but keeping that access track open is our biggest headache and expense.”

It was early June. The snowline was only just coming down to below the summits of St Marys Range above us, and the long weekend was the last opportunity for the club’s major work party before winter proper and the much-anticipated ski season. The list of chores was long, and at the lodge and around the machinery shed four men in well-used overalls milled about purposefully, getting things done with quiet efficiency. The talk was not about skiing but about gear ratios, spare parts, strategic diesel stashes, the stubbornness of certain engines and that godsend of the new tow rope—a central part of the entire operation—replacing the old one, which had been procured from another club field for a bottle of whisky.

“One of our members owns a liquor store so he donated the whisky,” said David Campbell, wiping engine grease off his hands. “So the old rope didn’t cost us anything. We’ve managed to get a grant for the new rope from the local electricity company. That’s how things are done here: not on a budget, but with no budget at all.”

With only 15 members and the cashflow of a school-leaver, Awakino is the country’s smallest and one of the oldest ski-club fields, a one-of-a-kind relic from the old New Zealand. It’s open only on weekends and runs on traditional rather than economic values: enthusiasm, volunteer hours and classic Kiwi can-do attitude.

“Whatever we need, we either have to find for free or make ourselves, or both,” said Wilson. They scavenge and cannibalise spare parts from the entire Oamaru farming district: an old tractor for the rope-tow engine, a railway carriage around it as a housing, a $500 road grader that the previous owner never wanted to see again. The grader was a steal, said Jack Parkes, a farm mechanic who has been a key member of the club since 1972, but it took all summer to rebuild its massive engine, which was giving no end of trouble. “It’s still not quite right,” he said. “Maybe next summer I’ll get the bugger working properly. Continue reading …

Photos by Julian Apse