Somewhere only we know: The road to Perisher

A winding drive through 20 years

The Snowy Mountains Highway The Snowy Mountains Highway

Most years, in late July or August, my family drives to the snow. My first trip down was as a two-year-old, which I don’t remember. There is a picture of me from this early ski holiday, taken outside our ski lodge: I am balancing on a wall, a puffy faux-fur bundle gripping my mother’s hand. It’s snowing and you can see Perisher’s ski slopes in the background, grey rather than white.

I have made the drive down nearly every year since. It takes five-and-a-half hours, six if we stop for breaks. We promise ourselves we’ll leave early, but 6.00 am usually turns into 7 or 8. Out of Sydney, down the Princes Highway. Sometimes, we stop at Sutton Forest—a highway-side McDonald’s. Soon after, Lake George looms up by the side of the road—a swathe of grass, usually empty of water. It was last full in 1988, one of my parents will remark.

We pass through Queanbeyan, detouring around Canberra. The Princes Highway’s dual carriageway gives way to two narrow lanes, one in each direction. We pass more farmland, more side-of-the-road fruit sellers.

Soon, the speed limit drops and the highway reinvents itself as Cooma’s main street: each shop awning is crowned with a smiling snowman, a plyboard cut-out. They are an alpine guard of honour, watching over this liminal town. There is a mountain chill in the air, snowgums by the side of the road. A sense of anticipation.

We drive out of Cooma, and crest a small hill. There is a petrol station on the right—and, in the distance, as sharp as if they were windshield stickers, are the mountains.

My mother sometimes tears up when they come into view.

The road winds through a field of boulders, granite deposits left by a glacier during the last ice age. From there, it traces the outline of Lake Jindabyne, which covers the remains of an old town, also called Jindabyne. Old Jindabyne was flooded when the Snowy River was dammed. Sometimes, its church steeple pokes out above the water line.

We drive through new Jindabyne, relocated to a hillside high above the floodplain; then, along a serpentine road, past horse paddocks and alpine gin distilleries. Finally, we leave the car at Bullocks Flat. An underground funicular railway carries us through the mountain and into Perisher itself.

Of course, this isn’t always how it happens. I’ve scripted out the drive in my head, a distillation of the 18 or 19 times I have made this trip. When things depart from the script, it’s jarring. But it also lets me reflect: the script becomes a standard against which I can measure other changes in my life.

The first change was the passengers in the car. There are three of us in my household—my two mothers, Claud and Ching, and me. For the first seven or eight years of my life, all three of us would drive to the slopes. Then Ching tore a ligament in her knee. She stopped skiing, so Claud and I would do the drive alone.

Those twelve hours, an annual there and back, have traced our relationship. At first, Claud was the responsible adult—navigator, driver and decision-maker. Then, one year, she told me it was my job to keep her awake: I offered her snacks, and what I thought was riveting conversation. Over time, my share of the responsibility increased: I started operating the pump when we stopped for petrol, and choosing where to have a pit stop. Then, as a 16-year-old L-plater, I took the wheel myself. Claud sat in the passenger seat, supervising me the whole way down.

This year for the first time, I left Claud behind in Sydney, driving down with a friend instead. We reached Cooma late and a fierce rain had set in by the time we left town. There was an inky light, and the road had a treacherous gleam. I tried to remember how Claud handled these corners, and what speed she used for this stretch of road.

And I have changed as well. The drive is shorter now. Six hours used to seem so vast, full of books to read, CDs to play, the inevitable McDonald’s breakfast. Now it’s just a stretch of time to traverse, as quickly as possible. Increasingly, it is a necessary road, the only way to the slopes and the ski lodge my grandfather founded and the snow.

Until climate change melts it all, that is.