Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis

Temple Basin

Temple Basin indeed turns out to be a surprise. Here is a complete list of the area's base facilities: a small gravel parking lot. That's it. No lifts. Not even any snow. But a few other cars are around, so I know something must be somewhere. I shove a day's worth of clothes into my backpack, grab my board, and walk to the far end of the parking lot, where I discover the entrance to a hiking path. A quarter mile in, I come across a decrepit cinderblock hut. It looks like it's been here for centuries. There's a rusty cable running in and out of the hut's broken-down door, but no sign of any lift apparatus attached to the cable. The cable, I notice, is about the thickness of a pencil. There's no way, I'm thinking, that this thing could support a human weight.

A woman's voice suddenly comes from within the hut, startling me. Even more startling is what she's saying; it's a string of expletives worthy of Andrew Dice Clay. I peer inside. The woman, whose name, I soon find out, is Natasha, is struggling with the lift-engine's starter cord, cursing and spitting after each unsuccessful pull. I have a real soft spot, I must confess, for girls who aren't afraid to sling around a few f-words. Natasha sees me and asks, "Are you strong?"

Well, I'm no Hercules. But with my manhood on the line, I'm capable of some pretty impressive stuff. So I show Natasha a confident little nod, take hold of the starter cord, squat down, and give the thing a grunting, virile pull. Absolutely nothing happens.

For my second try, I go all out. The engine does indeed sputter to life (my hero!) but I find out the hard way that the end of the starter cord is not attached to the engine. The force of my heave sends me flying backward against the far wall of the shack. This is somewhat less than a suave move. It is clear that I am not going to get a date.

A few minutes later a large basket ambles its way down the cable. It turns out that the Goods Lift, as it's called, is used solely for hauling gear to Temple Basin's lodge, which is 2,000 vertical feet above. Humans have no choice but to hike—the slog takes at least an hour, Natasha tells me.

The hike is actually a joy. The path ascends from the jungly valley, overrun with ferns and succulents; past dozens of trickling waterfalls; above tree line; and across a glacier-like expanse, shrouded in fog, where it ends atop the Goods Lift. The basket is waiting for me. I grab my gear and make my way to the lodge, which, after such effort to reach it, is disappointingly spartan-looking—just a drab, boxy building with all the architectural elegance of a Kmart.

Inside, though, there seems to be the early stages of a boisterous dinner party going on, with a bunch of people cooking pasta, a few more making salad, others setting the tables in the large dining room, and a big group playing some sort of raucous drinking game. Kids are running everywhere. I'm welcomed like an arriving head of state; before I can get my jacket off I've got a beer in each hand, two more in my pockets, and I've been introduced to all 40 people in the lodge. When I meet Martyn, Temple Basin's 33-year-old manager, I ask how much it'll cost to spend the night. He quotes me the equivalent of $34 U.S., which I think is a fairly reasonable deal. Then he mentions that the price includes three full meals, all the hot chocolate and snacks I can ingest, and an all-day lift ticket. I give him an incredulous look. "Haven't been to a club field before, have you?" he asks.

Club fields, I learn, are a secret New Zealand phenomenon. There are 11 of them scattered about the country, but hardly any of them advertise. You just have to know. The areas, which are open to the public, keep costs preposterously low by operating as nonprofit hills, constructing only low-tech lifts—rope tows, mostly—and hiring only the bare minimum number of employees. At most club fields, there's no such thing as snowmaking, or grooming, or even ski rentals. Accommodations are in bunkhouses; showers are communal.

I'm placed on dishwashing duty (so much for being a head of state) and assigned to a room with three other boarders, Simon, Matt, and Nikki. My roommates feel compelled to acquaint me, the only American in the place, with every available variety of New Zealand beer, and then with several of the fine and not-so-fine local wines. The Temple Basin bar is actually nothing but a big refrigerator. You help yourself to what you want and jot it down in a notebook. By the time I haul myself into my bunk, the notebook entry beneath my name reads like an epic poem composed by Hunter Thompson.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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