Driving in snow, Polish meat and more skiing (Zakopane, Poland)

It’s snowing when we wake leaving a fresh layer of white on the ground everywhere. The roads are coloured white and I need to use the scraper to clear the car windows. This must be a niusance to locals but for us it is a novelty and exciting start to the day.

Paul has a ski lesson booked at Male Ciche for 11am. We set off through Zakopane and up the mountain. The snow plow hasn’t been through yet. We’re not sure whether or not we should be driving in these conditions but there are other cars on the road. I take things slowly but conditions get progressively worse. Nerves get the better of me as we reach the turn off to the Male Ciche ski resort because that road is covered in thicker snow than the main road up the mountain. We call an abort and head back down.

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But not without stopping to check out the snowy woods on the way down. You need a permit to hike in the High Tatras National Park and we don’t have one. So we don’t venture into the woods proper. We just stay near the entrance (there is no ranger but still we don’t want to break the rules). That’s actually enough for us to have a really great time.

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The snowy woods are gorgeous.

Here’s a short video to share what we saw.

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We reluctantly return to Zakopane as the snow steadily increases. It’s Sunday in Zakopane so the shops are closed and the church is calling the faithful to prayer. In Poland the faithful are high in number. We see many people enter the church, both old and young. This is different to at home where the Catholic Church rarely fills its pews and to Holland where church buildings are often used as restaurants and converted into apartments. Everywhere we’ve been in Poland there are people praying in the Catholic churches and the churches seem to be open to the public at all times (that’s not the case in Australia where churches are locked).
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The doors to the churches here are often amazing. The wood carvings and locks and metal work are so decorative. At first we thought it was because the churches were old but we’ve since learned that most churches have been rebuilt after WW2. Such craftsmanship.
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Religious statues abound too. No church is left standing without at least one statue of Jesus or another religious figure. I think they look pretty in the snow.
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We take lunch in a Polish bar. I think they are meat bars because that’s what they seem to serve most. We share a roast pork knuckle. The crackling is fantastic and the meat tender. I love Polish food. Especially the fact that pork is the main protein available in restaurants and shops. I miss it when I’m in countries where pork is not served. I can assure you that I ate my fair share of pig in Poland.
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All that’s left to do after an afternoon of work is to hit the slopes for a few hours. Paul drops me off and goes back to the guesthouse to relax. The slope at Harenda is not a beginner slope so it’s not much fun for him to ski here. But it’s perfect for me now that I’m gaining some confidence.
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After a few runs off the t-bars (there are three that go up the left side of the photo above), I dare to head over to the chair lift. The chair lift leads up to a 1.25km (3/4 mile) red run. It’s fairly steep with no flat sections so it will be a challenge for me in all respects: mentally, physically and skills. But I know that I can always snow plow sideways if I have to. Somehow I will get down in one piece. It’s just a question of being methodical and patient.
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The initial drop is a little scary but the slopes are quiet so there’s no pressure to race along. I snow plow my first couple of turns and then get comfortable. There’s a lot of ice out on the snow tonight so I have to be careful to pick my turns (I’m not that good at edging that I can turn on ice).
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But I make it down and have such a ball that I end up taking the red run four times. Every time I improve that little bit more until I don’t feel like a total gumby heading down the slope. I don’t know it yet but this will be my final chance to ski in Poland because tomorrow it will rain and I’m not that excited to ski in the rain.

Going to the snow (Krakow to Zakopane, Poland)

I always feel so Australian when I get excited about the idea of “going to the snow”. But it’s what many Australians grow up dreaming about. To be able to afford even just one day skiing in the snow. That’s exactly what we want to do when we go to Zakopane at the foot of the High Tatras in Poland’s far south. For the past week I’ve been anxiously watching the snow reports for the Zakopane region. There has been no snow at all but two days ago the snow cams showed white stuff and the black dots of people skiing on it. I don’t care if the snow is rubbish, so long as the lifts are operating and the slopes are open I’ll take whatever I can get.
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After driving along the highway in snowy weather for about 1.5 hours, I follow some signs just outside Zakopane that show advertisements for skiing. Up and up and up we drive. Ever higher in to the mountains. To places where some trees are covered in ice and their branches are almost ghost-like in appearance. We keep driving until we see this stunning vista across the border into Slovakia where we cannot venture (because it’s a condition of our car rental contract that we remain in Poland).
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A short time later we come to Male Ciche ski field up in the mountains on the Polish side of the border. There isn’t much snow but there’s enough to ski and the views south are divine. I am in love already and it takes all my self control not to rent skis then and there.
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This is Male Ciche. Like all the Zakopane ski resorts it is relatively small by global standards. It has a t-bar and three quad chairs that allow access to four runs: one short beginner run and three longer blue runs of about 750m – 1,250m. The ski resorts in Poland do not cooperate with each other. Rather, competition is fierce and the resorts are not linked in any way. You just have to choose where you want to ski and pay the relevant fees. Good thing it’s not too expensive.
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We drive down the mountains through forests of pine and fir trees, and past cute alpine cottages. Zakopane hits us almost like a storm of people. It’s pretty but the streets are a little hectic, mostly because cars just park anywhere and people are carrying skis across roads to access the fields in town. It does grow on us though once we get used to its ebb and flow. The photo above was taken from the balcony of the room we rented. Not a bad sight to wake up to every day.

We walk around town for a few hours, exploring the main street and it’s tourist shops. Dinner consists of pizza and calzone at a little Italian restaurant. I love that Poland’s restaurants make fresh tasty meals at reasonable prices. It’s not cheap like Hungary or South-East Asia but it’s fresh and tasty.
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The Harenda ski slope is near our guest house. It’s a bit steep for beginners but I cannot resist. We rent some snowboards and book a lesson. Let’s just say that there’s a reason the photo above shows me in skis. I gave snow boarding a crack and can confirm that it’s not for me. Especially since I love to ski more than any other sport I have ever participated in. Regular readers might have picked up on this after my impromptu ski sessions in Victoria and Japan.
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One of the best things about Zakopane is that you can ski at almost all the fields from 9am – 9pm. And there are discounts on night skiing with entry after 5pm being about 30PLN ($AU12) and after 6pm it’s about 25PLN ($AU10). With ski rental costing 10PLN ($AU4) for 1 hour, 15PLN ($AU6) for 2 hours or 25PLN ($AU10)for 24 hours, it’s really quite an affordable exercise. I rented a set of skis and boots. For once the boots actually fit and the skis were a good size for me (in Australia they always give me 1.6m skis but here they gave me 1.5m skis, which felt much more comfortable for me). After the failed snowboarding lesson I still have two hours of ski time and made the most of it. I was a bit wobbly at first but soon got the hang of it and managed to get down the two easiest slopes consistently without falling over. I even managed a few parallel turns and started to reduce the angle of my snow plow. It was a good start and not too bad for someone who only took lessons as a child and rarely skis (though I have been three times since September 2014).

Takayama to Marunumakogen (Honshu)

As I pack to leave the michi-no-eki, more local Japanese campers start to talk with me. I love the fact that most speak little or no eigo (English) because it is refreshing to be in a place that hasn’t been totally colonised by the English-speaking world. Using sign language, a few known phrases, some guesswork, the map and Google translate (which sometimes makes strange incomprehensible translations) we manage some conversation. A man and his wife insist on buying me a drink from the vending machine. This is cycle touring at it’s best. When your guard is down and you are open to meeting new people with whom conversation is a challenge.
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And with a few sugoi‘s behind me I am off to explore the unknown that lies ahead (including the huge mountains I saw in the distance yesterday). My first stop is this strong statue. I leave an offering and ask for a safe journey. I don’t know whether that’s what one does at a statue like this but I just follow my heart to see where it leads.
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I enter yet another area of Japan’s agriculture industry: apples. The apple blossoms are flowering on these old trees. Many look like they’ve seen decades of seasons come and go with their thick espaliered branches. Oh how delicious it must be to come here later in the year when the apples are ripe and selling on the road side. I love to eat apples when I ride.
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There’s a high school baseball match being played. I watch as the boys throw fast and frenzied pitches, heckle the batters from the outfield and slide between bases. It looks like the nation’s baseball credentials are in good hands for the next generation. Like school sports everywhere, parents watch from the sidelines with picnic lunches while younger siblings look bored playing games on mobile gaming devices to pass the time.
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Like all who cycle Japan, I am becoming used to tunnels. They take the edge off climbs and are not as scary as I first thought (though they are crazy loud). The amazing thing about tunnels is that sometimes you can see the light at the end from a long way off. In this photo, the light is more than 800m (half a mile) away. In a tunnel earlier on my ride I could see the end from more than 2km away.
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I have not read any guides about what to expect along the way so am pleasantly surprised to come across Fukare Falls. The first I see is a gorge visible from the road. It’s stunning. The water surges between the rocks and trees, forcing its way every towards the sea. There is also a sea of people around walking along paths near the gorge. Men hold parking signs at almost every shop or stall on the road. I stop to buy an ice cream and am given a map. It’s in Japanese so I am still unsure as to what’s here but there are walkways shown on the map and the guy who gives it to me is insistent that I check it out. He lets me park my bicycle in his carpark for free (well, I did buy an ice cream). The falls are amazing! There are layers of them cascading loudly. The first one I come to is about 25m high and thundering. As I walk upstream I come to lower but more complex falls where water fans out across the river bed only to come together in a meeting of multiple drops. It’s spectacular. Like everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the people who created the pathway are more trusting of their visitors’ common sense than are our Australian officials. There’s hardly any railings or fences so it would be easy to fall in but no one is pushing or shoving so there’s little risk. If this were at home, I suspect a large mesh fence would prevent anyone from truly appreciating the beauty of the place (if we were allowed to enter at all; what with the ridiculous safety focus my country has). I watch the water closely. Eddies are clearly visible, ripples show shallow sections and I enjoy the sight of my first ever standing wave. No way am I ever going to be a white water paddler … that surge of power is frightening in it’s beauty.
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Leaving the waterfall behind I continue my ride. The road is climbing now towards the alpine mountains. But the gradient is not too bad because this is a major road that has been well-designed. I stop for a snack in a park overlooking snow capped peaks. A look at the map proves that these are not the peaks to which I am headed. I am going further east to where no snow is visible and I cannot help but feel worried that I might still miss out on seeing the white stuff. Though a quick refocus reminds me that whatever I find will be what I am meant to find, regardless of whether or not it includes snow.
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The weather has changed since I first arrived in Osaka almost three weeks ago. The days are now long and hot. With sunrise before 5am and sunset after 7pm there is plenty of time for the heat to sink in. The road is now winding along a cool mountain creek so I have to stop. I consider swimming but prefer just to watch from a rock and then soak my hat in the water to cool off. This would make an amazing place to camp with plenty of flat ground. But I am still not so sure about Japan’s bear situation. Later I will see signs warning hikers to wear bells and carry whistles to warn the bears away. If I came back, I’d want to do some research into this animal that is as much a mystery to me as some of Australia’s snakes and spiders are to foreign visitors.
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And then it happens. About 20km into the climb I come to my first proper patch of snow. I am as excited as a child unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. It’s just a small melting lump of white frozen water on the side of the road but it represents so much. It means I have traveled far from my home to a vastly different climate. It means I have climbed higher than I believed possible. And it means that there is a possibility I might get to go skiing (only my favourite sport of all time). The cars and motorbikes driving up the mountain with skis and snowboards strapped to them only add to my excitement. But I still have about 10km to go until I reach Marunumakogen.
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And then I arrive. There is only one run open because most of the snow has melted but the resort is working hard to keep the money rolling in until the end of Golden Week in three days time. I hand over a wad of cash to hire skis and buy a lift pass. The guy at the information desk has told me that the run is 4km (2.5 miles) long and the longest I have ever skied is about 400m (1/4 mile) and it’s not like the money will still be in my wallet next week. So why not.
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I take the gondola to the top of the mountain. Yes, a gondola. This is a real proper ski resort with a real proper gondola. It takes about 15 minutes to even arrive at the top of the run. For someone whose skiing experience is limited to tow ropes and the odd quad chair where you are at the top before you finish blinking a fifteen minute gondola ride is out of this world. As are the views. No photo can do them justice. I can see everything for miles: mountains, lakes and skiers making their way down the run.

At the top of the gondola there is a large red shrine and the summit of Mt Shirine. A sign declares that we are at 2,000m above sea level and that the summit stands at over 2,500m. People carrying packs with pick axes and crampons are walking down from the summit trail and taking the gondola back down the mountain (well, some have special short skis that they are using instead). It’s all very adventurous and wonderful.
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Not so wonderful is my skiing ability. But that’s to be expected when you’ve only skied half a dozen times in your life. And that’s before you factor in the 55km mostly uphill bicycle ride I took to arrive here (my legs are pretty knackered). But if skiing is like surfing then the best skier on the slopes is the one having the most fun. And in that class of skier I am probably way out in front. I laugh and smile all the way down the slopes. This is happiness to me. And to get to do it for 4km is seriously unreal. I even open my wallet to purchase a second gondola pass (I misunderstood and thought I’d paid for three rides up the mountain when I had actually only paid for three sectors or one gondola ride) so I can go down again. My second run is much better than the first though I do fall over on one section. I am the only person in shorts and t-shirt and probably the only one on rented skis. The children ski faster than me and I don’t just mean the fearless helmets on skis children; I also meant the slightly more cautious 6-10 year old children. This two-and-a-half hours on the slopes is probably the highlight of my trip so far. Happiness is having a set of skis on a snow slope.
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The lifts stop as I reach the end of my second run and everyone is coming down the mountain to end the day. Signs show that the slopes close at 4:30pm and that’s pretty much what time it is. I still haven’t found a place to camp but spotted a disused carpark from the gondola. I decide to head there though I probably could have got away with camping in the resort carpark after hours (there are a few minivans and motor homes here that I am sure will be staying the night). But I am still a novice at this so start riding. The carpark that looked so close by is actually another 5km up the road. Along the way I pass two stunning high altitude lakes that I cannot reach (well, I could reach the second but it has no shores for camping and would require some downhill cycling and we all know what that means in the morning).
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I make camp in the gravel car park near the road. There are many deer up here eating their way through the spring grasses. At first I am confused at the sounds they make. It sounds like a high pitched whistle. But I guess you learn many new things every day when cycle touring, including the sound that deer make.
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The sun sets over the alps, I cook a feed and then retire to my tent to sleep. It’s been a huge and happy day.

Cross country skiing day 3 (Mt Baw Baw)

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It’s my final day at the snow and, if I am honest, I am fatigued from the past three days of skiing and staying up late working and writing a university paper. That whole burning the candle from both ends holds true even if you are lighting one end with fun. But fatigue doesn’t stop me from waking early to see the sun peek over the mountain, grabbing the skis and heading out for one last foray into the white stuff.
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No sooner am I out on the trails than I start to relax into the stunning scenery.
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And not just the big things like forests of snow gums or views from lookouts. It’s also the small things that make me feel so happy. There’s more birds out today than there were earlier in the week including a large flock of black cockatoos.
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The only downside is that I have to carry the skis more than on previous days but that’s just part of being out in nature; seasons change.
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I find myself able to ski some of the sections of trail that were too challenging for me on my first day and I spend time in the Pudding Bowl skiing down increasingly larger and steeper slopes. The cross country skis don’t snow plough, turn or bite into the snow as well as the downhill skis that I hired the first day but I am starting to get used to them. I decide to “go to the snow again” but next time to book a cross country tour or series of lessons so that I can more confidently tackle the trails.
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A thick fog rolls up the mountain as I make my way towards the resort village. By the time I return to the carpark to change and wait for my bus home there is a white out. In the safety of the carpark the white out is pretty and reminds me that this is an alpine environment where anything can happen.
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I am glad I decided to come to the snow. It’s been a fantastic and memorable experience. Not only has the skiing been fun and the scenery amazing, but I have also come to realise that I don’t need to stick rigidly to a cycle touring itinerary. I can deviate from my trails, lock up the bike and try different things. It has given my future travels a new dimension that I didn’t anticipate when Ileft home. A dimension I ponder excitedly on the long three hour bus and train journey back to Melbourne.

Cross country skiing day 2 (Mt Baw Baw)

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I wake early and am on the cross country trails clipping my feet into my skis before the first downhill lift has even started turning. I have decided to test myself today by heading towards Mt Gwinean, some 12km (8 miles) return from the resort. Over half the trail will be an ungroomed black cross country run but I decide to take a calculated risk. Besides, if the trail is too challenging I can always walk as most of the snow is firm and icy so I won’t destry the trail.
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I feel in tune with nature and aware of the season changing around me. Small shrubs poke through the snow. While it signals the end of the ski season, it is also a tangible reminder that the winter cold, like challenging periods in a person’s life, are impermanent. If you just go with the flow you too can poke your head out of the snow to bloom and grow in another joyful spring and summer.
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Ice and snow form gorgeous shapes in the cold morning air. I am mesmerised for ages taking photos and generally admiring Mother Nature’s handiwork before continuing on my travels.
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At Baragwanth Flat I turn off the groomed trails and head into Mt Baw Baw National Park. I feel excited about the upcoming adventure. I have long dreamed of heading away from the crowds in snow capped moutains and now the dream is becoming a reality. I still remember my first childhood trip to the snow when Dad took us up to the top of the chairlift and pointed out the snowcapped peaks to us. That was when I decided one day I was going to explore those peaks rather than being stuck going up and down the lifted runs with the crowds. And here I was, heading off to Mt St Gwinear to do exactly that.
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While the trail is ungroomed and challenging, it is well signed and stunningly beautiful.
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And stunningly beautiful.
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The further I travel the more confident I become. While I walk most of the first section of the ungroomed trail, by the time I reach the summit of Mt St Phillick the snow is starting to soften and I am no longer as scared by the trees that stand closer to the trail than they did on the groomed trails. I still take it easy and only ski where I feel it is safe; walking some of the steeper downhills.
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The last kilometer between Camp Saddle and Mt Gwinean is unskiable because the snow has pretty much melted on this section of the mountain. But the bursting of spring is stunning and something I’ve never witnessed before. The sun is shining and it’s warm. T-shirt skiing … something super cool.
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On my way back to the resort I have some practice runs in each of the bowls and flats I pass. These are great opportunities to get comfortable going fast down small hills without the risk of running into trees. I try some gentle turns and get a better feel for the skis. It helps and I am able to ski back in sections of the trail I had to walk on the way out. By the time I return to the lodge I am pleasantly exhausted, having traveled more than 13km.

Cross country skiing day 1 (Mt Baw Baw)

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The ski lifts are not yet open when I set off on foot down the cross country ski trail for the first time. I am carrying a long pair of skis with free heel bindings. For the first 400m (1/4 mile) there is insufficient snow cover to ski. Truth be told, I am a little relieved because it means I will be in the privacy of the bush when I make my first attempt at what is, for me, a new sport: cross country skiing. I have no idea what to expect. Will I be able to stand up, stop, turn or navigate along the trails? Will there be enough snow out there given that the slopes are almost bare? I have lots of questions but will find the answers as the day goes on.
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I clip in my feet and take some tentative “steps”. The snow is still icy here in the early morning on the shady side of the mountain. It’s not the ideal conditions for my first time but if I waited for conditions to be right I might never try anything new. I watched a few YouTube videos last night about cross country skiing and I try to put what I watched into action. The start of the trail is mostly uphill so I so the reverse snow plough and press my weight down on one foot then the other to force the skis to grip. It works and I am soon able to ski/walk uphill. On the flats I push forward with one leg and glide with the other. I am soon reasonably comfortable doing this.
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I am taken by the beauty of the snow gums with their red, green, grey and gold bark that changes colour as it peels off. I’ve seen them in summer but their colours are amplified by the sparkling white snow. Being out here, listening to the drip of melting snow turning to water, the swish of new shrubs forcing their way through the thinning snow and the crack of trees I know I have found another sport to fall in love with like I love cycle touring, hiking and paddling.
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I stop along the way to make a snowman. I just can’t help myself. I place him away from the groomed trails where he won’t get in anyone’s way. He’s not pretty but I find myself chuckling the whole time. It makes me feel like a kid again.
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Things don’t always go to plan. I mean: this is my first time on cross country skis and it’s not like I have any real downhill experience either. There are downhills that are too steep for me to attempt, so I walk my way down them carrying my skis. There are sections of trail that are so icy that I fall off my skis even when I am standing still. And then there’s the point where the groomed trail and the markers go in different directions, resulting in my attempting to ski through a section where my left ski is on a lump at knee height while my right ski drops into an equally deep hole. The result is the photos above. I’m unhurt because I anticipated what was going to happen and was prepared, despite being unable to stop the stack.
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It’s a tough workout, both physically and mentally. But the views and scenery make it magnificent. I can’t imagine being anywhere else and can’t believe that it was just a few days ago that I was out in the mallee.
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I feel content and happy as I explore the mountain.

Skiing at Mt Baw Baw (Victorian Alps)

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If I am honest, I was a little anxious about whether I would enjoy “going to the snow” as much as I thought I would. I really didn’t need to worry: I arrived at the snow today and had the most fantastic time.
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I was nervous as I walked out of the ski hire sho. What if I couldn’t remember how to ski? What if I fell straight over as soon as I clipped in? Or worse, what if I lost control and crashed into a tree? But I pushed these anxieties aside and eventually clipped in. I felt oddly comfortable as I skied up to the T-bar lift for my first run on an easy green run. The T-bar was slower than I expected so that helped me get a feel for the way my skis moved over the snow.
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The view from the top of the run took my breath away. The mountain is so high compared with the lands that stretched out before me.
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While the snow was slushy and only three out of six lifts were operating, the ski fields of Mt Baw Baw are beautiful. The colour and shapes of the snow gums are more amazing against the white snow than I have ever seen them in the summer months. The patterns really stood out.
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It was very quiet at the resort today and I never had to wait for lifts; often having whole lifts and runs to myself.
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It’s pretty awesome to have uncrowded ski fields.
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But the real treat came at the end of the day after I hung up my skis and went out for a sunset walk around the resort. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more visually captivating sunset.
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It was a happy day.