Forget the ski boots: hiking shoes rule as Australia’s snow resorts turn it on for summer.
This isn’t how I remember the High Country. The snow has melted, revealing mountainsides flush with green. The fog has lifted from the valleys, unveiling the villages secreted away inside them. And the clouds have parted like curtains, exposing the secret they’ve concealed all these long winter months: a brilliant blue summer sky.
On our first visit here, NSW’s Snowy Mountains had lived up to the chilly name. We’d rented a cabin at Lake Eucumbene, on the north-eastern rim of Kosciuszko National Park, cocooned ourselves within it and peered out of the windows at snowflakes wafting magically earthwards. With the children gathered around me, I’d read aloud Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River; we were sorry when it ended, because although Paterson had introduced us to the wild, unrestrained country of his epic poem, we had no idea how to navigate it.
When the snowfall abated, we’d tried our hand at fishing – no luck! – and had then gathered our courage in the manner of the man from Snowy River, strapped snow chains onto our car tyres and snaked nervously up into those ice-slicked mountains – twice as steep, Paterson had warned, and twice as rough.
Somewhere behind the grey gauze stood Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko. We’d hired toboggans at Perisher and had flown down snowdrifts, shivering so desperately that we could barely speak. At Thredbo we’d stopped in at a camp site and marvelled at the lunacy of campers pitching insubstantial tents alongside the icy Thredbo River. Kangaroos had grazed on grassy clearings, driven here, perhaps, by the bush’s slim winter pickings.
But years have passed and seasons have changed; we’re back in the High Country and it’s a different place. Snow gums and alpine ashes, mountain gums and stringybarks soar upwards, unfettered by fog. The sun is a soft brushstroke upon our skin. And those mountains – once a mystery to us – stand strong and resolute against a bright blue sky.
It’s this topographical drama of which Paterson spoke that gives this landscape its sublime beauty. There are the gorges deep and black, the hop scrub and kurrajong growing wild, the river running between those giant hills. And though this region – encompassing Kosciuszko National Park in NSW and the contiguous Alpine National Park in Victoria – is primarily beloved as a winter ski destination, holiday-makers are discovering the joys of summer in Australia’s High Country.
We’re staying closer to the action this time, in the very heart of Thredbo. Here, Boali Lodge has thrown off its winter coat and is morphing from cosy ski lodge into bright summer residence. The dishes prepared by manager and chef Carolyn Major reflect the changing season: gourmet salads with pumpkin, prosciutto and pine nuts, berry cheesecake and antipasto nibbles. But even though it’s summer, the nights can be crisp so Major warms us up with glühwein, roast chicken beurre blanc (surely the best we’ve ever tasted) and sticky cranberry pudding.
Dinner is a communal affair – guests help set the tables and clear away – and an earlier sitting caters especially to children. Afterwards, we drift to the fire-warmed lounge; a family plays Trivial Pursuit in one corner, another is locked in a game of chess, a third leafs through some books. As the night wears on, we peel off to our respective family rooms, where children kiss their parents goodnight and climb the ladders to their loft bedrooms.
The morning dawns bright: from Boali Lodge we look straight onto the mountains. It’s still early in the season and the ridges and crests furling out around us are dusted with snow. Walking tracks lace their way along the base of the mountain and through its increasingly vertiginous skirts.
Fortified by one of Major’s hot breakfasts, we set off on the Riverside Walk. Westwards we go, tracing a track – sometimes dirt, sometimes boardwalk – through glorious alpine woodland and unsullied high-country air. Beside us flows the Thredbo River, struck with sunlight and bubbling as though in giddy anticipation of the coming summer. It’s an easy walk that leads us through a wedge of forest and directly onto the resort golf course – the highest in Australia.
Closing the loop, we reach the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift. Armed with our Alpine Adventure Passes (starting at $30 per child and providing access to the golf course, tennis courts, leisure centre, chairlift and bobsled), we’re scooped into the chair and swept up the mountain. The ground drops away; beneath us we can see green shoots forcing their way through boulders and scattered rocks. Patches of stubborn snow subside into watery pools. In just a few weeks’ time this mountainside will erupt in colour when the High Country’s wildflowers bloom.
Flushed by altitude, we hop off the chairlift and survey the view before us: Lake Jindabyne, just discernible in the far distance to the east, a logjam of mountains to the west and Thredbo tucked like a fairy-tale village into the valley below. Behind us is Mount Kosciuszko, visible from a lookout just a short walk from here. Workers will soon begin clearing the path of its winter debris and by the time summer is in full swing – and especially when Easter arrives – this mountain will be swarming with families from all over the world who have come to walk the track to its 2228-metre peak.
“We have little kids who do it,” says Sara Ward-Collins, who co-owns the country’s highest eatery, Eagles Nest Restaurant, with her husband, Steve. “They come here afterwards and have pancakes.”
We’re eating lunch ourselves in a corner of this mountaintop establishment and enjoying an uninterrupted vista of the scenery beyond. Ward-Collins points to the tracks emerging from beneath winter’s freeze: this is a paradise for mountain bikers old and young, come summer, she says.
A new mountain-bike track is about to be opened just behind the restaurant and the chairlifts have been modified to carry bikes. “Summer holidays are sometimes busier than winter,” she adds.
On our way back down, we can see why. The mountain, replete with endemic floral species and animals that become less reclusive as the weather warms up, is a playground for walkers, hikers and bikers; the golf course, set against those beautiful foothills, promises a memorable game; and that bobsled, twisting down the mountainside, is a thrilling, spine-tingling alternative to skiing.
And it’s not only the Kosciuszko region that has embraced its summer persona. Victoria’s neighbouring High Country is also attracting huge numbers of “green season” visitors, with curated programs aimed at keeping them on the slopes long after the snow has melted. From dining and cycling to e-biking, a range of activities is available for families.
The famed ski slopes of Falls Creek transform into mountain-bike trails in summer, attracting increasingly large numbers of riders keen for some downhill action – and to escape the heat and crowded city beaches. Visitors can also enjoy road cycling, trail running, kayaking and hiking. During the January holiday period, children can participate in activities such as fishing, nature walks, cooking and games.
Nearby, Mount Hotham is luring summer visitors with its top-of-the-world views, which can be seen on the bushwalking routes, historical walks, horse-riding trails and bike paths that weave through the mountains.
You’ll find even more activity in nearby Dinner Plain – Australia’s highest freehold village – inhabited not just during the ski season but also year-round. “The pub is always open, as with any good town,” says resident Alia Parker. “And the beautiful thing about it for families is that it’s off the main road, which makes it a lot safer for kids.”
A former Sydneysider, Parker relocated to Dinner Plain for its outstanding bike trails. She now works as the town’s marketing and events officer and says there’s a growing trend for families to choose Dinner Plain as a summer destination. “It’s a beautiful time of year,” she says. “The views just open up. The wildflowers burst up over the mountains. The air up there is fresh and it’s quiet – you can’t hear a thing except the birds.”
And indeed it is: twice as steep, twice as rough, perhaps, but immeasurably more beautiful.