Canterbury: The humble hidden gem

By Glenn Cullen

Glenn Cullen skis down steep slopes and dreams of what Porters could become with a bit of work.
A skier carves up the powder at the top of Porters Ski Field in Canterbury.
A skier carves up the powder at the top of Porters Ski Field in Canterbury.

Almost 2m of snow adorn its slopes, it's just over two hours' total travel time from Auckland and its gobsmacking masterplan could position it as the premier ski and snowboard area in the Southern Hemisphere.

But chances are Aucklanders will have seldom heard of Porters, one of Canterbury's many skifields.

The closest resort to Christchurch, about an hour and 15 minutes' drive from the city, Porters lives in the shadow of nearby Mt Hutt. It is rarely on the radar of visiting North Islanders and misses out on many of the estimated 100,000 Australians who come for winter sport in the South Island each year - Queenstown and Wanaka their more regular destinations.

Humble at present, it is now only serviced by three T-bars which access two major bowls and a vertical drop of almost 700m.

But Porters hopes to become a ski and snowboard mainstay with Australians and Southeast Asians, with $500 million targeted to be spent there over the next 15 years.

Upgrades are scheduled to roll out as soon as next year with a gondola and terrain expansion into Crystal Valley.

The gondola would be a first for a ski resort in Australasia and with the plan to start from the Porters Valley it would remove a lot of the driving on another of New Zealand's switchback roads - a real bugbear for tourists.

From there, plans include accommodation in a year-round village for up to 3400 people, shops, restaurants and hot pools, and new chairlifts for the expansion area and existing ski basin.

With the potential (with snowmaking) to have regular skiing right to the village, there is scope for up to 1000m of vertical - roughly 300m more than anywhere else in New Zealand.

Funding is the key issue.

The resort's Australian owners are already investing $7 million into the area but they are relying on future village property sales and further investment from a Russian consortium to get the real developments off the ground.

Snow lovers will no doubt be a touch sceptical - after all the $120 million masterplan for Perisher in New South Wales has largely been gathering dust for a decade - but those on the ground at Porters are confident things will start happening next year.

Until then, Porters remains a modest but enjoyable experience.

Arriving at the top car park before 9am on a Saturday, we're comfortably in the first 30 cars there and have a spot that enables us to ski right back to our carboot at day's end.

It's a picture-perfect day with cobalt blue skies and nary a breath of wind but there's probably a couple of hundred people on the hill at best.

T-bars aren't everyone's cup of tea, they can take some time to get used to but they're a big step up from the ropetow/nutcracker system used in New Zealand's club fields.

Imaginatively called T1, T2 and T3, the top T-bar will take you to 1980m above sea level, where you can enjoy spectacular views of Lake Coleridge and the tabletop of the country's highest peak, Mt Cook at 3754m.

The riding itself is not for the timid.

There's big mountain skiing not dissimilar to Lake Louise in Canada - consistently steep pitches on runs like Big Mama, and the central bowls of Big Bill's traverse major thigh-burners.

Intermediates are offered a couple of runs off Adrian's Highway but it's largely a mountain for stronger riders. The chutes on the other side of the ridge on Bluff Face are genuine expert-only.

My son and I pick apart a good slab of the mountain over the next seven hours, its enormous potential laid out before us.

Day two is rather less successful with high winds closing the lifts for the day.

It means a slow drive back to Christchurch with chains on, but it also means plenty of time to think about how good this place could be when the plans come to fruition.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Porters is a little over an hour's drive west of Christchurch. Take Highway 73 and look out for the turn-off to the skifield on the left, a few kilometres past Lake Lyndon.

Further information: See skiporters.co.nz.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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Week 1 - Japan: Where the view is stunning and rare

- AAP

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