Awakino: Who’s been there?

Awakening Awakino

Awakino Ski Field is the place you’ve meant to visit, if you’ve heard of it.  The mysterious ski field, hidden high above Kurow and the Waitaki valley.  For the past year, I’ve kept in touch with David Campbell, a council planner from Oamaru and Awakino-enthusiast.  My delay to ski Awakino was worth it, as August’s series of moist easterlies had the place primed.

David arranged for us to meet volunteer hut and ski field custodian Nathan Meikle and jack russell Shelly, halfway up the road. A 4WD with decent clearance would be necessary to get to the 1175 metre hut.  We had been dubious about our mission in pouring rain but our spirits lifted upon arrival at the 35 bed lodge.  Nathan’s partner and fellow custodian, Hannah Denny, had coal ranges going in the kitchen and our bunk room.  Old ski race posters from the 80’s reminisced of the August holiday ski weeks of yesteryear when the lodge would be full and a busy weekend meant 40 skiers.  Those were the heydays for Awakino.

“The hut was built by the telephone exchange,” explains Nath.  “NZ Post [who handled telecommunications before Telecom] let it go.  The Waitaki Ski Club shifted here (from near Dansey’s Pass) after WWII and NZ Post let the skiers use the facilities.  For awhile, it was the world’s highest telephone exchange.”

It seems that Nath and Hannah have found their niche here amongst the tussock and speargrass of North Otago.  Living in nearby Otematata, Nath can turn his hand to anything whether it’s splicing the tow rope, fixing the old Ford tractor engine that drives the tow or taking care of snow safety.  They speak admiringly of folks who have put their heart and soul into Awakino, like Croatian immigrant Arthur Tschepp who was a member from 1964 and bought much of the equipment that is still used today.  Although Arthur died a few years ago, his son Chris carries the torch for his family, remaining a member and the provider of much of the equipment needed for running the field.  “The club is very casual.  We are just trying to get the place going again for our own agenda and provide more recreational options around here,” Nath says.  “We want Awakino back to it’s former glory without it costing much.  So we put in hours rather than dollars.  The beauty of it are the tow fees; they are $45 per person and it’s an unlucky bastard who pays full price!  If you work a few days, you’ll get a few days of free skiing.”

It’s been raining ever since we arrived and being a snow geek, I’ve done the maths to figure that it’s snowing up at the base of the lift at 1400m.  The following morning our son Obie (5) piles onto the snowmobile with Hannah, Nathan and Shelly while Scott and I skin 20 minutes to the base of the lifts.  We spy the nutcracker tow but the WWII Nissin aircraft hangar base building and old red phone box (with phone) distract us from the ski terrain.  Obie is ecstatic at his adventure and wants to show us everything.  Again, Hannah has lit the range in the hangar and shows me the workshop.  “There’s this 73 year old guy, Jack Parks, who drives everything up here.  He’s a legend.  The old GMC truck down the road is his.  It still goes.”

The easterly lingers and clouds lift and descend as Obie urges us to ski.  The rope tow, powered by a Ford 3000 engine, has been tenderly cared for and whips us to the top.  The old Ridge Lift is partly visible through the mist (awaiting it’s next life no doubt).  The skiing is superb on creamy damp snow with long, consistent runs.  You know you’re onto a good thing when arriving at the top of perhaps the least known ski field in NZ, you run into no other than Katie Deans (a ski legend whom I wrote about earlier in the season).

As the light improves, we seek runs further from the lift and find wide open terrain in the aptly-named Glacier Basin.  It’s a big Tuesday with four paying customers and Obie. Dave the Oamaru planner shows up to ski and tend to the tow, mirroring the passion of  Tschepp and Parks.  Those who live in small towns close to ski fields claim to have the best ski options in New Zealand.  But Oamaru and Waitaki snow riders have the best-kept secret at Awakino.