New Zealanders have given their own style to the sport of skiing, writes Tom Bywater.

Since the first Norwegian slapped on a pair of planks and hopped into the first telemark turn, there are few places this winter sport hasn't reached.

Skiing has been adopted as a national pastime anywhere where the first flakes of snow stick around long enough to form a decent snowbank; it is an experience that reaches from the adrenalin-fuelled ski fields of North America to famous European Alpine resorts, where Swiss bankers glide by fearlessly supported by the kind of bravado that only top-tier private health insurance can afford.

I've heard there's even a shopping centre in Dubai that has built 22sq km of indoor ski-slope. Well, I suppose if Sheikh Mohammed will not come to the mountain ... Here, however, Kiwis have taken skiing and made the sport their own. Like the flightless bird or Cadbury's milk chocolate, here on the slopes of Ruapehu's sleeping volcano it has become a different beast entirely.


As a Brit living in Auckland, the ski season was something that I had heard a lot about but had not yet experienced. Friends and colleagues would spend a weekend in the mountains and return either glowing with snow conditions or else in casts and slings, broken by the mountain. The only way I would truly understand would be if I had a go at it myself. I made it my goal to hunt out the real "Kiwi ski experience".

And so, with the snow forecast promising an exceptional weekend, I put the rental skis in the back of the car and decided to make tracks to Whakapapa and see what it's all about.
Foolishly, I'd presumed that a skiing holiday started on the slopes.

A New Zealand skiing holiday begins in the tailback from Auckland to Taupo.

Like any great migration, snow sports enthusiasts flock together. As vehicles sit bumper to bumper, you'll see most cars are loaded with ski gear and ski racks. At the edge of the pack, UTEs swoop on unsuspecting gaps. But we're all heading in the same direction at the same glacial pace.

After taking an assortment of shuttle buses and 4WDs from the train station and the National Park boundary road, it's finally time to hit the slopes.

Perhaps most shocking to a Pom is the amount of skiing that gets done.

Gone are the posers in salopettes who take their pristine skis for a glass of mulled wine on the mountain; that's not an option here. If you make the pilgrimage up to Whakapapa village you're here to ski.

Picking up a piste map and clipping into my boots, I was ready to see what Ruapehu had to offer.


Perhaps the greatest omission from the Kiwi skiing vocabulary is the "red route".

Somewhere between a smooth "cruisy" blue and an unforgiving black diamond, the red routes are a European invention. They are a way of promising a challenge without the fear of bodily harm, to ease you into a new season. New Zealand, it appears, doesn't have these.

Without this frame of reference, I set off into the unknown.

I had the best part of a day to explore New Zealand's largest ski area. With no time to lose, I aimed for the 2300m ceiling of the ski area on the west side of the mountain.

I was reassured to see that one thing translates to ski slopes the world over: the unspoken feud between skiers and snowboarders. One side blaming the other for "clogging up the runs" or "icing up the piste with their edges".

Whether boarder or skier, there can be only one clear winner in this passive-aggressive war of attrition, and that's the ski-schooler. The whole mountain makes way for these meandering snakes of fearless kids. It doesn't matter how mean or fast you are, you're going to come out of any collision looking like a jerk.

Skilift on Whakapapa.
Skilift on Whakapapa.

Having traversed the ski field to the top of the Far West T-Bar, I could finally turn around and take in the majesty of snowcapped Mt Ngauruhoe. It's a peak recognisable as Mount Doom, even to a Tolkien-loving Pom from the Shires.

The Swiss can keep their Matterhorn. This has to be, hands down, the most epic view down from a mountain the world over.

Early to start, early to finish. The lifts shut and the piste bashers came to chase the remaining skiiers off the slopes at about 4.30pm. If you timed the last chairlift to perfection you could have an hour's worth of skiing on the mountain.

Another part of the slope that empties mind-bogglingly early are the bars and cafes. In a European resort the bars would be just beginning to lure parties in off the slopes. Here most are already back on the road home.

But not everywhere.

On the edge of the park, the Schnapps Bar is just filling up. As the ski-boots kick back in front of the Wallabies v All Blacks game — this has to be the most "Kiwi as" take on the apres-ski experience there is.


"He asked if there were 'any singles in the queue' and bumped me to the front of the line.

"You'd better ski fast if you're going to cut in like that."

"No, I'm not there any more. I'm at the T-bar overlooking Mount Doom."

"Where do they put the moguls in the summer?"

"No, it turns out hot Milo does not drink well from a CamelBak."