Snowboarding the Southern hemisphere winters are a treat when you have the budget to get here. Growing up in Europe, I knew that New Zealand and Australia had opposite seasons than us. But I never really knew what it meant until in February 2015 when I set foot in Auckland for the very first time.
It was winter in Belgium when I left. Not the snowloaden, sleigh bells winter that you might imagine. Our winters are more of the dreary, grey and depressed nature: not cold enough to snow but wet enough to stop yourself from going outdoors for four months.
I hated winter for the first 23 years of my life.
Until that lovely winter in 2011. I left to work as a housekeeper in Valmeinier, a ski town 1800m high in the French Alps. This is where my love for winters started. From one day to another, my dreadful Belgian winters had been replaced by snowy mountains and snowboard culture. A love that would take me to my first winter season in New Zealand four years later.
After two ten-hour flights, I arrived in New Zealand, at one am in the morning. It was still summer here, humid and warm enough for a t-shirt in the middle of the night. I had a working holiday visa for a year, after which I planned get a working holiday visa for Australia. Little did I know that I would still be here after my visa would expire and filing for residency.
I had a plan when I came to New Zealand in February, that was to find a job as soon as possible, save up for the upcoming winter and travel south to find work at a ski field. Then snowboard all winter.
I knew it would be hard, having been spoiled in Canada and France with easy job finding. That first winter I spend in Wanaka was hard, my job was terrible, I had to hitch hike to work every day because I couldn’t afford driving my car.
It was a catch 22 of work and snowboarding. I was constantly broke, but if I worked more, I couldn’t ride. If I snowboarded more, I had no money to buy food.
As I reflect on that winter in Wanaka, I can’t say that it was all tar pits and chicken poo. Struggling makes you reflect on your life. I knew that I didn’t want to go through another winter like that.
This thought eventually led me to Japan to do a snowboard instructor certification. I wrote another post about that winter. Make sure to check it out!
Japan led me to a job as an instructor in Ohau, New Zealand the winter after. I was so happy! Everything I missed in Wanaka, I had in Ohau. There was even budget to travel to different snow fields.
New Zealand is lucky to have some of the best snow conditions in this part of the world. I say best, but know that the only competition comes from Australia. I have snowboarded in better conditions, better snow, better mountains than in New Zealand. But I always take New Zealand winters for what they are: bluebird, redneck snowboarding, where a car trying to get up to the ski field might find the road obstructed by a cow. Gondolas are science fiction here.
There is powder and there is backcountry to play in. There is also a lot of artificial snow and during a bad winter, some resorts don’t even open. When you do go, be prepared to meet some of the most ridiculous people and ski hills, especially on the smaller hills.
I love snowboarding in New Zealand and dare anybody to come and experience it for yourself. It is something different and very much worth the trying.
As to engage your imagination and desire, here are my favourite New Zealand snow resorts.
The central south region of the South Island is home to New Zealands outdoor Disneyland: Queenstown. Around Queenstown you can find two snow resorts: Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. Heading north is the town of Wanaka with in between the cross-country ski resort of Snow Farm and Cardrona. Heading towards Christchurch, between Omarama and Twizel is the quaint little ski hill of Lake Ohau.
Drive unaware and you might miss it. There are only a few signs indicating that there is a ski hill when driving the road in between Twizel and Omarama. Ohau snow resort is a legend with snow sport enthusiasts. I had never heard of it when I did my first season in Wanaka. Ohau was mentioned by a friend of mine, who was a backcountry skier. He was planning a trip there and me having a wild imagination about everything backcountry saw an eclectic, bewildering, snow empire.
Ohau would be the first ski resort where I would get hired as an instructor, the year after. I found my winter wonderland vision wouldn’t be far from the truth.
There is nothing there.
Lake Ohau consist of the Lake Ohau Lodge, and a cluster of 20 houses. Why in earth would you want to snowboard here you might wonder? This great nothingness is exactly the reason why you should go. This is exactly why backcountry enthusiasts head down to Ohau. While you’re there, you might stumble on the USA ski-race teams, who train there every winter. Or the Japanese free-riders, that ride the black diamonds on a powder day.
It’s a small resorts, which means more laid back, zero lines and cheap lift tickets. Have a chat with the owners of the ski field who also run the Lake Ohau Lodge, Mike and Louise Neilson. That’s how relaxed it is here.
Settled on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka is this little town. Often overlooked because of it’s bigger sister Queenstown, 30 km south. The town has that charm of not yet being completely overrun by tourists. It is the base for people wanting to snowboard Treble Cone and Cardrona, two very different snow resorts. If you meet some of the ski bums in Wanaka, you’ll find some die-hard fans who have picked sides with either one, swearing that you might end up in hell if you snowboard both in the same season.
There is a good reason to do both resorts though if you are in Wanaka, since they complement each other.
30 km north of Wanaka, driving towards Mt Aspiring National Park is Treble Cone. You won’t find much more than a sign in the middle of farm land and a dodgy looking road zigzagging up the mountain. Treble Cone has loads of die-hard fans because of the difficulty and off-piste terrain. Don’t get me wrong, it has an easy slope. Just one though because the mountain is VERY steep.
It has the biggest terrain on the South Island, only accessible if you have been avalanche trained AND if coverage is decent. On a powder day you can expect long lines with plenty of people wanting to ride the bowls of Saddle Basin. Keas will try to steal your lunch and will wreck your car.
They even named one of their cafes after this tyrannosaurus bird. The Cheeky Kea has some seriously delicious gourmet burgers and barista made coffee. It’s more of a sit down restaurant rather than a cafeteria. Perfect for a rest during lunch time. Their mulled wine is excellent!
The best snow park in New Zealand is at Cardrona. They have a half pipe, a slopestyle course and build the big air for the Winter Games. Unlike Treble Cone, Cardrona is beginner friendly with wide, groomed slopes. They have a bit of ungroomed terrain, easier than Treble Cone.
It gets really busy here during and after the school holidays, beginning of July. Because the parks is the best in the Southern Hemisphere, you might share a ride on the Whitestar Express Quad with freestyle athletes from all over the world. This the place they train for the southern hemisphere winters.
It’s a fun snow field to ride, especially because it’s tailored to beginner and intermediate riders. The park has beginner ride-on ride-off boxes and rails. Medium features and up to large features when you feel you’re ready. There is a regular half pipe and a super pipe.
I never get bored when I ride here because there are so many different things to do.
This the region around Christchurch. Here you’ll find the snow fields of Arthurs pass and Mt Hutt. There is only one ski town, Methven and it is a lot smaller compared to Queenstown. The ski fields are small with the exception of Mt Hutt. Expect driving for 10 km on dodgy dirt roads in between paddocks. Don’t forget to bring snow chains!
The biggest snow resort of Canterbury. It is run by NZ Ski, who run Coronet Peak and the Remarkables around Queenstown. I had a season pass here in 2016. It is also the place where I did my level 1 ski instructor exam.
Mt Hutt has a World Ski Award for New Zealand’s Best Ski Resort for 2015 and 2016. It has a decent snow park during winter and the slopes vary from easy to steep and ungroomed. There are shuttles leaving twice a day from Methven and once a day from Christchurch. Prices are $20 and $55.
When buying a season pass for Mt Hutt, there is an option to buy it for all three NZSki snow resorts. It’s a good deal if you plan to travel around during the winter. The season pass also gives a discount for afternoon lessons. Accommodation is in Methven, ranging from hostels to lodges. They are very reasonably priced . I stayed at The Blue pub in a lovely single rooms for only NZD 200 for five days.
All the Methven pubs are colour coded. There is a Green and a Brown pub as well.
Best breakfast is in Primo E Secundo, a vintage shop and café in one across from Four Square.
Snowboarding in Mt Hutt makes you feel less secluded than when you’re in Queenstown or Wanaka. After all, Christchurch is only two hours away.
Tucked in behind a magical beech forest is the mini snow resort of Mt Cheeseman. No chairlifts here, just two good old T-bars and a learner’s tow. There is one decent sized beginners slope. The rest is pretty much black diamond.
The backcountry of Cheeseman is amazing with easy open terrain for learning. The mountain has a great history of mountaineering. The two lodges having been built in the early days by keen mountaineers, hauling in most of the building supplies on their backs.
It’s a fun hill. With lovely staff and very handy ski-in ski-out accomodation.
Mt Dobson snow fields is a quaint little ski hill hidden behind a 10km stretch of paddock. They have awesome terrain on a good day. The snow school provides excellent training if you plan to up your technique.
Mt Dobson is a New Zealand style ski hill with a few containers serving as the main office and cafe. You can find the snow school here. Make sure to carry snow chains when going up to the mountain. Especially after a snow dump, the access road gets very slippery. If you don’t have snow chains, rent them from a petrol station.
Enjoy snowboarding in New Zealand but make sure you don’t feed the Kea.
Next post will be about Canada. A snow resort I lived and worked for the winter.