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In 1965 I was twenty-three years old and in my final year at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Once the August holidays had begun, I couldn’t bear the thought of staying home with my mother’s resentful harping about my being a bludger and other things. My brother Malcolm was no longer at home to protect me or to deflect the criticisms. I had to escape to preserve my sanity by taking off again on another adventure. Anywhere was better than being at home.
This time I arranged to go skiing at Thredbo Village in New South Wales. I had never skied before and thought it would be a fun sport. I arrived at Sydney Central Station and caught the train for Cooma. Then I bussed to Queanbeyan. The countryside was mostly shrouded in mist. Once the vehicle reached the highway it climbed increasingly higher during the trip to Thredbo. Patches of snow appeared alongside the road, especially in shady areas. Having never seen snow close up I was enthralled. I put on my parka for extra warmth as the temperature dropped in the bus. Finally the bus arrived at Thredbo around 5.30 pm.
How beautiful it appeared! A picture-book alpine village with assorted-shaped houses perched on snowy slopes on a mountain that overlooked unclines of another mountain. Just as I arrived hordes of skiers returned, covered in snow and sporting muddied boots. It took me awhile to find the Youth Hostel as I trudged along slippery paths, with rucksack on my back, and gripping my suitcase and handbag. Eventually I found the hostel. It was cosy and warm inside.
Nobody could get a sensible word out of me for some time because I was suffering from early side-effects of hypothermia. About twenty people were lodged in the hostel. A pleasant woman showed me to the dormitory I was assigned. Still feeling confused I unpacked a few items and walked to the common room. A blonde to whom I had been introduced, asked me would I like to go down to the ‘Den’ for a drink?
The Den was just as I had imagined – overcrowded, a hive of activity and decorated in a Swiss theme. Music blared, busy waiters with trays held high skilfully weaved their way through the crowds; the animated chatter of skiers adding to the intimate atmosphere. We downed two rounds of drinks before walking back to the hostel through the snow-covered ground. Slightly drunk, I recalled opening a tin of Camp Pie for dinner.
My roommates warned me to get up early if I wanted to hire ski gear. To my dismay £5 deposit was required in addition to another £5 for weekly hire. Due to my lack of finances I hired equipment daily –more expensive in the long run and a nuisance as well.
With some others I visited Perisher Valley – about 27 miles away. Snow was piled high everywhere. From the roof of the Eatery sparkling stalagmites were suspended from eaves. Intermittently some broke off and startled me with the sound of glass smashing when they hit the ground. After staying about ten minutes we headed back to Thredbo.
The next morning I awoke to falling snow. I couldn’t get over how powdery it was or how quiet it became as the snow gently settled. It was such a pretty sight I could have spent the whole day, warm inside, watching the flakes fall. Inside, I wrote letters and grimaced at my yet to-be-completed Russian essay before going out with some hostellers.
I hiked to the post office to see if my Commonwealth Scholarship cheque had arrived and was bitterly disappointed to learn otherwise. On the way back I walked along the roadway past the village. Suddenly it turned bitterly cold, with the wind coming up and icy blasts chilling my uncovered ears. I lost my sense of direction. Fortunately a girl who worked at the Den showed me the way back. She told me she worked 80 hours a week and was paid £40 for the work.
That evening I suffered a terrifying nightmare: some evil ‘thing’ was chasing me in the snow. I screamed three blood-curdling cries, and regained consciousness on the final scream. Just as well I stopped because the girls in the dormitory were scared out of their wits. One whispered,‘ Someone’s been murdered!’ Fearing I would return to the nightmare I remained awake. My throat ached – from the screams or from a sore throat – I couldn’t tell. It was a bad night for everyone.
The next day dawned clear and sunny. One of the hostellers lent me money so I could go skiing for the day. She accompanied me to the afternoon lesson. Unfortunately the class proved too big and the instructor summarily dismissed half of us, telling us to come back next morning. I practised walking and sidestepping up the gentle slopes all afternoon. For the first time, I used the chair lift with help from attendants who shoved me into an available seat. It was so eerie going up the lift, thinking it would be all too easy to fall out, unaware of the restraining strap dangling by my side, unused.
I stayed awhile watching the skiers swoop off the chairlift. As I had come without skis I was confined to the shop. It was time for me to return. How tremendous it was observing the Village come closer and closer. At the end of the journey I managed to jump off the lift successfully.
Back at the hostel, one of the main topics of conversation was about the screams people heard the previous night. Not everyone had heard them but the ones who did said how horrifying they were. As I drifted off to sleep I heard others in the dining room swapping jokes. Best of all I slept well and - no nightmares.
Overnight, the snow had almost melted on the lower slopes. I tackled my Russian essay but I procrastinated when I saw how gorgeous it was outside. At last, my money had arrived. I visited five places before the Ski Hire Shop finally cashed the cheque.
That evening I partied at a disco along with the hostellers. Later someone burst inside and shouted, ‘It’s snowing!’ A wave of joy flowed through the disco as we raced to the windows to see the fluffy flakes descending. With renewed vigour we danced ourselves into a frenzy. It was a peak moment in my fun-deprived life.
In that short time the snow had fallen thickly over everything. On the way back to the hostel, on car window screens I finger-drew faces and scribbled a name for each car. My love affair with the snow continued as I stuck out my tongue and gathered the crisp snowflakes while my hands continually caressed snow-laden surfaces. I delighted in my hair being covered in snow. In the spontaneous outpouring of my love for the falling snow I expended so much energy I suddenly became weary and longed for bed.
All night I coughed. Sips of water mixed with honey didn’t help. Despite feeling haggard I still wanted to go skiing. Again I was placed in the beginners’ class. We walked up-hill, snow-ploughed, turned, lifted skis as we practised our exercises. With skis on, after my lesson I took the chairlift. It was a truly memorable experience. When it was time to jump off I nearly fell over as I got my head bashed by an on-coming chair.
‘Girlie, you bloody well take your skis off when you go back on the chair!’ shouted the attendant. Once I had recovered I skied into the open slopes; it was surreal. Gone were the gentle slopes of the beginners; I was right in the middle of a fairyland. Half an hour later, the bar stopped. That meant shortly the chairlift would be unavailable.
The attendant showed me how to carry my stocks and skis while on the chairlift. I was the last one to go down the slopes before the chairlift stopped for the night. Back at the hostel I contributed my share of the ski events that happened over the day. At last I was a fair dinkum ski bunny and was accepted by all as a genuine skier.
We booked into the Candlelight Lodge for dinner. The food was delicious. That was my first experience of fondue cooking. Just as we were finishing off the final course snow fell. Due to the clever lighting arrangements in the room, the fluffy snowflakes were lit up for at least six feet as they fell past our huge window. How soothing to watch the flakes silently fall. We didn’t speak as we watched the spectacular sight.
Next morning someone banged a frying pan to wake everyone up. Two hostellers had offered me a life to Canberra. By the time we left the Village, snow was falling at an even greater rate making it impossible to see where the road ended and the guttering began. We had only travelled two miles when we were halted by a long queue of cars waiting for a snowplough to clear the road. A further delay was caused when a bus lost traction and slipped off the road. Many cars conked out completely on the way and delayed the traffic flow by stopping in the middle of the road. Around 1:30 the snowfall eased. Finally the snow gave way to sleet and rain.
On the way to Canberra the barren countryside appeared absolutely fantastic – another surreal world. The mountaintops were magnificently dressed in freshly fallen snow. The further we advanced, the more snow lay on the sides of the road. Just as well a snowplough had recently cleared the area, making it easier to drive. Soon the daylight waned ever so gradually and the snow reflected the sun’s glowing rays prior to nightfall.
After arriving in Canberra we dined at the Olympic Bowling Alley. That was my first visit to our capital. We drove through tree-lined streets that were straight, spacious and snow-covered. I was deposited at the ‘Y” and straightaway booked accommodation and crawled into bed. For the remainder of my holidays, due to my hacking cough, I mostly stayed in my bedroom and completed my Russian essay. As I was so ill I saw very little of Canberra. I shared the room with a delightful girl, infinitely preferring her light-hearted company to my mother’s guaranteed hostility waiting for me at home. It was just as well I experienced that week of fun in the snow because the following months proved to be the most disastrous in my life.