Crossing over

Meadow Hut nestles by a particularly expressive rock outcrop. PHOTO: LAUREN RIMMER
Meadow Hut nestles by a particularly expressive rock outcrop. PHOTO: LAUREN RIMMER
Inside Meadow Hut, during another family's occupancy. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Inside Meadow Hut, during another family's occupancy. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
A new day after a night at Meadow Hut during the height of the season. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
A new day after a night at Meadow Hut during the height of the season. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
The long narrow skis and relaxed approach of the cross-country skiier. PHOTO: LAURA WILLIAMSON
The long narrow skis and relaxed approach of the cross-country skiier. PHOTO: LAURA WILLIAMSON

There are compelling reasons to swap your downhill skis for the bacon rasher-thin planks used on cross-country terrain, writes Liz Breslin.

"If you can walk,'' says the FAQ section on the Snow Farm website, "you can certainly cross-country ski.''

We haven't been for seven years, although Snow Farm is practically on our doorstep. If you're driving towards Queenstown from Wanaka and you don't turn right and climb to Cardrona Alpine Resort, you can turn left about 200m further on, wind your way up about 8km of wide, juddery gravel road and you're there.

The lodge is just as I remember it. Comfy and practical. We walk along a corridor dotted with fake snowflakes and paper lanterns.

They're expecting us. We most likely wouldn't have got in just by showing up. Bookings for overnight trips into the Snow Farm's backcountry huts fill up quickly, and we're lucky: we found a booking slot weeks ago, just after a cancellation freed the date. We're heading out to Meadow Hut, 4km from the base building. Bob Lee Hut, a further 4km away, was already all booked out. No wonder, with its killer views of the Southern Alps. You can eat your dinner ogling sunset over Mt Aspiring.

The overnight deal for the hut includes ski rental, and there's immediate approval from the downhill-skiing kids among us at the comfort of cross-country boots. Mine look a little bit like Stormtrooper activewear for feet. In order to get said boots, you have to answer two questions. The shoe size isn't so hard, though they work it in Euro sizes. But the other question could be a bit curly: "Classic or skate?''.

Umm, right. I try to explain the difference to the aforementioned kids. "It's ... it's like one you go in the lines and the other is - can you explain?''

The guy in charge says some things about brakes on the bottom of classic skis which makes me think of those carpet things you put on the bottom of your downhill skis when you're touring and you want to go uphill. Hopefully this description gives you some insight into my level of technical ability and understanding. Skating's trickier, apparently. What the heck. I go skate.

So, armed with two poles that come up to my shoulders and a couple of skis not much wider than rashers of bacon, I make it out on to the ice. It's a breathtaking view out over the trails, made all the more spectacular for the late-season patches of brown. Beyond a bank of flags of the world, there is the shooting range and somewhere, the start of the loop trail.

Oh yeah, a shooting range, because you can also do biathlon up here. And ride around on fat bikes. And get sledded with huskies. And snowshoe. And other stuff. It's pretty cool.

Skis clicked on, we warm up, mostly by immediately falling over any time we attempt to manoeuvre forward. I vaguely remember the skate sequence, push forward and out a bit and lift and repeat on the other side. But I need some serious pointers in order to get me humming. Luckily, there is a school ski competition on, so I hit up some competitors from the Columba College A-team as to how to proceed. "Just keep going.''

Have I mentioned the clothes? It's important, because even if you're spending most of the day on your posterior, it's easier if you look the part. None of your bulky downhill ski pants. Leggings are the order of the day, worn either with or without shorts over the top for that tramping-the-main-trails look. Alpine headbands are the ideal hair accessory, and it's brilliant to be out in the snow and not wearing a helmet.

The start of the loop trail has a downhill that tests everyone's balance. And were off. It takes us about an hour to get out to the hut, which I spend finding my rhythm and losing it again, watching kids flip into banks of snow, marvelling at the overcast view. It is super-moody; the grey sky wraps around us from every direction.

We follow the Meg River for much of the way; she burbles underground and occasionally shows her face. The Meadow Hut, when we spy it around the last corner, is a cute squat place in the shadow of a rock with an angry frog face.

Skis off, we wait about half an hour for our bags to arrive, though it's not like we're staring at our watches. There are bunks to divvy up and snowy slopes on both sides, perfect for snow-shovel sliding and ski-free exploring.

The Skidoo shows up, driven by a nordicesque goddess in a slimline blue Snow Farm jacket. She casually reverses around the corner, perfectly parallel to the front of the hut. We tell her she should enter Wanaka's Perfect Woman competition but she's not so sure. "I usually do it better than that, my angle was a bit off.'' OK.

It's pretty handy being able to get your gear transported in and out of the hut for you. It's $10 per bag, each way. We hadn't realised the each way bit, but when it came down to it, nobody really wanted to attempt to cross-country ski balancing bacon, coffee, bolognaise ingredients and sleeping bags, so into the Skidoo they all went.

The Skidoo, the goddess explains to us, will return again once or twice during the evening, grading the tracks. Later, in the dusk, we also see the grader proper, like a crayfish on cat tracks, corduroying the trails. We're warned off overnight skiing, too icy and treacherous, even with a full moon.

So we spend the afternoon and evening working out how 12 people can cope with five chairs, watching children play truth or dare, rehydrating our aching limbs with fruits of the vine. Early on, some of us venture further up the track. The dedicated get to Bob Lee Hut. I make it as far as a wooden sign inked in orange that says Tranquility. It absolutely is. Nobody there but me and the freaky massive rock that looks exactly like a cross old man on the hill.

Back at the hut, the fire gets us toasty warm, and it is mild enough to sit outside to watch the moon rise over the Pisa Conservation Area. There are only dim motion sensor lights inside so we sleep, and wake, early hours.

The next day the track is rock-solid for starters and my legs have forgotten everything I ever told them about co-ordination. We are planning to take the rest of the loop track back to the lodge: 9.5km of trails. Half the group decide to go properly backcountry and check out a frozen lake on the way. We watch them dart across the surface, negotiating tussocks poking from the snow. We pass the cross old man. From behind, he looks, instead, like a bunny rabbit. We see the smoke from Bob Lee Hut's chimney, but we don't take the extra 10 minutes to get up there. On the loop track, we count our progress using markers for the Merino Muster, a cross-country ski marathon: 42km of this, fast? Some people are machines.

We pass a few such people on our slow schlep back to base. It is a great workout and, at the same time, a completely peaceful experience. Back in the lodge building, we drink tea and wait for our bags. We remember to sign out. We wonder how much our muscles will hurt in the morning and we plan to come back and do it all over again next year.

The seasons
The Snow Farm's skiing season ends tomorrow, but the huts are open again in summer for hikers and mountainbikers.


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