Thredbo: Australia's most European ski resort
Skiing arrived in Australia during the gold rush of the 1860s, when Norwegian miners in the Snowy Mountains fashioned skis from local trees and raced downhill. But it would take another century for the sport to go mainstream.
That only happened when the next wave of European migrants who came to “The Snowies” to work on hydroelectric power schemes established permanent ski resorts at Perisher, Selwyn and Thredbo in what is today Kosciuszko National Park.
Among them, Thredbo, 500 kilometers southwest of Sydney, stands out as the only ski resort in the state of New South Wales with lodges, restaurants, nightlife and shops -- an Alpine-style ski village that wouldn’t be out of place in continental Europe.
Let it snow
Thredbo has more than 50 ski runs and the steepest overall ski terrain in Australia.
But the resort owes its popularity -- it has a permanent population of fewer than 500 but attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year -- to a series of snowmaking machines that mix water, air and an additive called Snowmax to fill out the runs.
In fact, there are more snowmaking machines in Thredbo than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere.
“Before the snowmaking machines were put in, the average number of days you could ski from the top the bottom was 18,” says Steve Ward-Collins, owner of Eagles Nest, at 1,937 meters the highest restaurant in Australia.
“But now there are more than 100 skiing days each year.”
Accessible via the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift, Eagle’s Nest is the starting point for backcountry snowshoe tours on Mount Kosciuszko -- 2,228 meters above sea level and Australia’s highest peak.
Most visitors take an easier route and follow the Crackenback Supertrail, the country’s longest ski run, back down to the village.
On Saturday night the Supertrail lights up, when instructors and advanced skiers snake their way down the mountain holding lit flares while fireworks simultaneously light up the sky.
“If you’re riding up the Kosciuszko Chairlift at the right time, it’s almost like the fireworks are going off alongside of you and then the snow lights up in streaks as the flare-runners pass underneath you,” Ward-Collins says.
“It’s a simple show but really magical to see.”
The flare run and fireworks display starts at 6:30 p.m. every Saturday during the ski season (late June to early October).
To take part in the run, visit the Thredbo ticket office before 4 p.m. to register. Participants must ski at Level 7 or higher.
Eagles Nest serves four-course meals with live entertainment and transport up the mountain in heated gondolas for $89 (US$97) per person. Bookings essential.
“The winds have eased, the clouds have cleared and it’s a perfect blue-sky day here at Thredbo,” says communications manager Susie Diver.
She’s broadcasting the daily ski report from her office above Friday Flat, the gentlest slope at Thredbo.
As Diver’s report is simulcast on radio stations as far as Sydney, hundreds of novice skiers and snowboarders aged three and up fall over themselves, smile, shout and sometimes cry in one-on-one and group lessons.
“Unless you have a base in surfing or skateboarding, snowboarding can be a lot harder for the first two or three days, as it’s a lot more foreign to the way you walk or run compared to skiing,” says Laura Price, an instructor from Britain.
“But after that, you progress quickly and the fun begins.”
Price is one of hundreds of European and North-American instructors who migrate to the Australian snowfields during the southern winter -- their off-season -- to teach locals how to snowboard and ski.
“You don’t have a pool of experienced skiers who grew up with snow in this country, so most of the instructors in Australia are from overseas,” she says.
“This is my second season here and I’ll probably do a third.”
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After spending a few hours training on Friday Flat, we take the Gunbarrel Express chairlift to The Traverse -- the halfway point between Central Spur and Merritts Spur.
It’s not all fun and frolics at Thredbo.
These runs are significantly steeper and more challenging, as witnessed by the number of accidents that take place here.
We see medics’ snowmobiles attending an injured skier and signs advising people to ski at their own risk.
A few days after our visit to Thredbo, a very experienced snowboarder hit a tree at high speed and was killed instantly.
It was the second fatality on the Australian ski fields this year, following a near identical snowboarding accident in the Victorian resort of Mount Hotham three days earlier.
So how dangerous are skiing and snowboarding?
According to a study by the Wilderness Medical Society, you’re 10 times more likely to sustain a serious injury playing tennis and 270 times more likely to get hurt playing American football.
Still, for most, skiing between the snow gums at Thredbo is as incident-free, serene or adrenaline pumping as they wish.
“The snowfields in Australia may not compare to those in Canada or Europe,” Price says. “But you can still have an awesome experience with the added novelty of having skied on the driest continent on Earth.”
Thredbo charges $110 for daily lift passes, $147 for a one-hour private lesson and $74 a day to hire skiing or snowboard equipment.
Discounts are available for advance bookings, group classes and multi-day passes. For job opportunities, visit thredbo.com.au/careers or call +61 (0) 2 6459 4294.
Off the piste
At the Thredbo Alpine Hotel, the main bar features an island fireplace and a sprawling dugout bar lined with schnapps bottles from the nearby Wildbrumby Distillery. As darkness descends upon the Thredbo Valley, the hordes hit one of the 87 cafés, bars and restaurants that give Thredbo its village feel.
Down the road, Bernti’s Tapas Terrace Bar stocks a selection of world and Australian wines plus snack-size servings of American pork spareribs, smoked-trout bruschetta and crumbed veal schnitzel.
The conversation here can get rowdy, especially when the football’s showing -- perhaps that’s your thing, of course.
And for late-night action hit the Keller Bar, with live music on Thursday nights and themed parties on Fridays.
This place stays open to the early hours of the morning and gets really wild during the college holidays.
For those who don’t ski or snowboard, or anyone traveling with kids, there’s non-snow stuff to do at Thredbo, too.
There’s the voluminous Leisure Centre, home to an Olympic-size pool, waterslides, a gym, a wall-climbing circuit, basketball, badminton and squash courts.
Yoga, Pilates, boxing, judo, swimming and other fitness classes are also available.
Or there’s retail therapy at Michelle’s or any of the other boutique and retail outlets on the village square.
“Thredbo isn’t one of those places where you just come to ski,” says communications manager Diver.
“It’s a living community with a history, a heart and a soul.”
If you imagine a holiday at Thredbo is starting to sound expensive, you’d be right.
There’s a YHA hostel where you can sleep in a bunk bed for less than $100 a night, but otherwise expect to pay two or three times that for a decent hotel.
Add the cost of lift tickets, equipment hire, lessons, transport and food and you’ll be left with a sizeable hole in your pocket.
It’s reassuring, then, that one of the best things to do at Thredbo -- going for a walk along the banks of the Thredbo River while breathing in the crisp mountain air -- is totally free.
Getting to Thredbo
Greyhound Coaches Australia run buses between Sydney and Thredbo via Canberra daily during the ski season. The trip takes eight hours and costs around $130.
Brindabella Airlines flies from Sydney to Cooma in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains from $365, with shuttle bus connections to Thredbo.
To drive, catch a taxi to Sydney’s William Street where you’ll find all the big names in car rentals and strap yourself in for a six-hour drive.
Follow Route 31 (Hume Highway) to Canberra, Route 23 to Cooma, east along the Snowy Mountains Highway to Jindabyne and the Alpine Way a final 30 kilometers east to the Thredbo turnoff. A National Park entry fee of $27 a day applies to vehicles.
Unless you’re in a four-wheel drive, you’ll need a set of snow chains to use on the Alpine Way. You can buy or rent them from gas stations and ski shops in Cooma or Jindabyne.
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