Adventure Travel: Downhill Downunder

If you haven't quenched your thirst for snow as the season thaws on this side of the globe
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The Independent Online
Buses lack some of the romance of other forms of travel. Train journeys, yes, cruises, yes, even canal boat trips and cycling holidays; but when was the last time you heard of somebody spending their holiday on a bus tour? Nevertheless, BBC-TV will eventually get round to a series of Great Bus Journeys of the World. And when it does so, I hope Michael Palin won't ignore the ride to The Remarkables, even though it takes only about half-an-hour and covers a distance - as the crow flies - of just a dozen kilometres.

The route out of Queenstown, on New Zealand's South Island, doesn't seem remarkable at first; it just follows the same road towards the airport as Queenstown's other ski-shuttle, to the Coronet Peak resort. That bus - I had caught it the previous day - was completely packed; this one, heading for the slopes of The Remarkables, had only four passengers in the 60-odd seats. But where that bus had turned north out of the valley, this one turned south. And where that bus had rolled along metalled roads, this one turned across a cattle grid and headed up a mountain track.

Queenstown's ski shuttles are not buses of the air-conditioning, WC, ABS, video era; they have gears that crunch, engines that roar - and probably a history that would earn them a place in a transport museum in more sentimental countries. Yet this one set off up the mountainside bucking and kicking, through a howling blizzard and on a gravel-and-snow surface that would have had an Alpine goat stopping to check its hooves.

Inside the bus, team spirit began to grow as our journey became more perilous. When the driver stopped, put on thick leather gloves and announced that he was going outside and that he might be some time, because he had to fit snow chains to the rear wheels, one passenger even offered to go out into the blizzard to help him; and, later, when the rear wheels began to spin again, all four of us leapt at the driver's suggestion to go to the back of the bus and put our combined weight, meagre though it was, where it might do some good, over the back axle.

Getting a grip seemed a good idea. As the rough track climbed 1,300 metres up the mountain, the clouds occasionally cleared to reveal the view. We saw the sheer drop, all the way down to the Karawau river, but we couldn't see the guard rails, because there weren't any. We saw a man sitting in his van, against which he had propped billboards offering snow-chains for hire at $20 a time to ill-prepared motorists. We saw the road signs saying "Avalanche area: no stopping". Finally we saw the base of the ski resort, and safety.

Conceptually, skiing is tricky in New Zealand. It's a late-summer sport, for a start; the season usually gets going in June and runs through to October. For any habitue of the Alps, the concept that it is the north- facing slopes that get the sun (as they do south of the Equator) is bound to be elusive. You have to forget about "ski resorts", too: Coronet Peak and The Remarkables - in common with the country's other ski areas - may be busy at 4pm, but an hour later they're as deserted as a Sixties housing estate in mid-winter, because all the accommodation is a bus ride away. And pleasant though it is, you would never mistake Queenstown for St Moritz, despite the lakeside setting.

In practical terms, however, the skiing is easy at Queenstown. This is not only New Zealand's major winter sports area, it is also a centre for adrenaline activities - from bungy jumping (whose origins lie nearby) through jet-boating and rafting to bus riding. But you couldn't really include skiing among its thrill sports - at least, not in poor snow. In Coronet Peak, the main face of the mountain and its three chair-lifts were all open when I was there; but the skiing was steady and consistent rather than stirring, with fast blues and bumpy blacks running down from 1,650 metres. The back bowls, apparently much more challenging, were closed.

Still, the resort facilities were excellent, and the staff were extremely friendly - although the standard refrain of the ski-lift girls, "Had a good day so far?", did, with those last two words, suggest that some disaster might be just around the corner.

Best of all, though, was the view. Queenstown has a population of only 2,500, but it has beds for 15,000 people - and from Coronet Peak you can see why. Set on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, 310 metres above sea level Queenstown is surrounded by mountains, many of them (unlike the soft-contoured Coronet Peak) rugged, dramatic and 2,000 metres high. Most impressive are The Remarkables, a long ridge that runs south from the ski area (at 1,957 metres) towards the peak of Ben Nevis (which, at 2,240 metres, is about a kilometre higher than the one in Scotland).

It wasn't just the proximity of Ben Nevis - or the blizzard, the arduous journey up the mountain, or the lack of crowds - that made me think of Scotland. The skiing at the more popular Coronet Peak reflects its soft terrain; at The Remarkables both the skiing and the terrain are more rugged. Although here, once again, the lack of snow meant that half the resort was closed, the absence of grooming made even the resort's long blue runs a challenge, as well as the short and steep black chutes into its Sugar Bowl.

But it wasn't like skiing in Scotland: there were more Japanese skiers, for a start - and there were parrots on the terrace of the resort restaurant. The kea mountain parrot is a hooligan, more colourful in character than in most of its plumage; one of its favourite tricks is to tear out the rubber surround of a car windscreen with its beak. New Zealanders usually give these birds a wide berth. I watched as a couple of the parrots flew in off the mountain, spread their wings to reveal lurid red feathers underneath, and then settled down to eat the food that the Japanese skiers had hurriedly abandoned. A remarkable sight, and itself worth the bus journey up the mountain.

There are plenty of cheap flights to New Zealand between April and June; the best deals are on carriers such as Singapore and Japan Airlines, for around pounds 650 return. Five-night, all-inclusive ski packages from Christchurch to Coronet Peak and The Remarkables are offered by the Mount Cook group (0181-741 5652) for pounds 359 (based on two sharing, includes lift pass). At the resorts, equipment packages cost from NZ$30 per day, lift passes $59 (Coronet Peak) or $57 (the Remarkables).