Every year thousands of Australians flock to Whistler on working holidays. Some stay for a season, some end up staying for a lifetime. But what is it about Whistler and the mountains that attracts so many from the land Down Under? And what keeps them coming back?
I decided that was a question worth investigation. Now I have to admit, I am Australian. Having travelled the world and met many of my fellow Aussie brothers and sisters along the way, I've always wondered about the reasons behind the Aussie assault on the world's top destinations. Having also lived in Whistler a number of times, I felt the number of Australians who call the place home points to a shared love of what's on offer here. But was there more to it than that?
Firstly a few facts: Australians account for close to 37 per cent of the Whistler Blackcomb workforce (2010-2011), while the village's total workforce is estimated to be one quarter Aussie. Of the almost $400 million Australian travellers inject into the Canadian economy every year, British Columbia banks the highest percentage, and Whistler is the reason.
But it's not just British Columbia, or even Canada as a whole that has the sole rights to the travelling Aussie. Anybody who has trekked through Europe or even the U.S will have no doubt encountered their fair share of these infamous creatures. So what is it about this beautiful part of the world that Australians find so alluring?
: GETTING TO KNOW YOU :
Whistler Village is a place teeming with energy. It's the beating heart of a destination where, despite your best efforts, you can't help but have a little fun.
The bus ride from Vancouver left me in awe of my surroundings. The towering peaks of the Coast Mountains form a natural barrier to the rest of humanity. I felt like I'd stepped onto the bus on planet Earth, and stepped off in a totally different realm.
As any writer worth his salt should do, I set out to conduct extensive research on my subject. My background information led me to believe Australians were likely to be found in two places in Whistler; on the mountain and in bars, and since the hill had just closed for the day I began searching the many fine establishments Whistler has to offer.
Within minutes of starting my search, I found myself in the middle of an eclectic mix of people who call the resort home. Four Australians, of course, were amongst the group, which also counted two Englishmen, one Kiwi, two girls from Switzerland and a Ukrainian man who had obviously run his race a little too early, and looked worse for wear for this time in the afternoon. After the second round of spicy chicken wings with blue cheese disappeared, and the waitress, who was also Australian, had worked out our recurring drink order, I got down to business.
"What brought you guys here, is there some big secret I should be telling all my friends about?" I asked.
It was Tyler Hall, a 24-year-old Australian who first jumped in. "It's the best riding in the world." The rest of the table nodded in agreement
"This is my second season here, and I haven't explored the place. I keep hearing from local guys about different places I need to get to that I haven't been near yet. I reckon it'll take me a couple more seasons before I see most of it."
Said Saxon Farnsworth, another Aussie, "The bars are sick, always pumping.
"I actually did my first Canadian season at Fernie, and yeah, the terrain there is insane as well, but it's the package here. You get the sick boarding, sweet bars and clubs, and it's bloody beautiful here man. Best place in the world."
I decided to put their claims to the test, and for the remainder of the night I was led around Whistler like a foreign diplomat. I was the main attraction of a travelling carnival show. Australians are definitely an excitable group.
"This is what it's like when you live here, you get to know everyone really well — it kind of becomes like a big family," said Sarah Goodman, an accounting graduate from Australia. I later learned she had forgone a good job with a big accounting firm to live the "mountain life."
"I moved here after uni, I had a good job and great place to live, but it wasn't fulfilling," she continued. "I had just finished school and felt locked into this life that I wasn't sure I'd chosen. So I had to get out, see places and do things."
One thing struck me throughout the night, as we lurched from bar to bar. There is a sense of fun and real happiness hanging over the place, even the bouncers are a relatively friendly bunch. Despite my best efforts to find the real Whistler hiding behind this outwardly positive façade, I was forced into an intellectual corner. I had stumbled on a place full of happy people, but surely there was more to it. For some reason Woody Allen's famous quote shot to my mind: "Being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don't have." Maybe Allen was right, maybe it was the beer. But a writer's research is never finished.
The following morning we met for breakfast.
Despite the previous night's work, spirits were high as the weather gods predicted another beautiful day on the hill. Time was ticking, so I jumped in.
"Would you guys still come back if there wasn't the village?" I asked.
"That's tough," said Clare Hunter, one of the stragglers who joined us the night before. "It's definitely the combination of both that got me. I've been to places where you party all the time, I've been to places where it's just good snow, but this place is like the best of both worlds. There's something for everyone."
The others at the table nodded in agreement, I realized I had heard this before. Could it be that the same things that attract millions of tourists every year, are the reasons behind the Aussie invasion? Powder, terrain, bars and clubs certainly seem like a valid reason. I knew I had a piece of the puzzle, but I needed more.
: CULTURE SHOCK :
Breakfast finished quickly as nobody wanted to miss the first gondola. As we walked towards the base of Whistler Mountain, I spotted an Australian flag sticker on the back of a helmet. I knew I had to be quick, the lifts would be opening any minute.
"It feels like home," said Jay Fowler, a two-time seasonaire, and owner of the stickered helmet. "You get here, and although the terrain might be different, the same rules apply. Surfing and snowboarding are like brothers."
Fowler is your quintessential Australian traveller. He's a university graduate who grew up on the east coast of Australia an hour south of the Gold Coast — arguably Australia's premiere surfing destination. We chatted as we both waited for the lifts to open on a cold January morning. He said growing up within the surf culture of Australia prepared him well for life in Whistler.
"Really, when you think about it" he mused as he took another quick glance to see if the gondolas had started moving, "It's pretty much the same as back home. I mean, substitute the surf for snow, and waves for the mountains and everything else is the same. You still go for the best lines, scope out the best breaks or runs, and at the end of the day it's about being in nature with your mates that seals the deal."
One of those mates is standing right beside us, nodding in agreement at the pearls of wisdom being unearthed in the early morning haze. Just as we are about to delve into his Whistler experience, the line starts moving. "Interview over mate," he says with a smile eyeing the runs above.
It's this ability to dive head first into the Canadian mountain culture that sets the Aussie seasonaire apart. Without batting an eyelid young men and women will be out of bed before the sun rises for fresh tracks, leave degrees, family and friends behind, and be totally consumed in the lifestyle on offer in Whistler. It was then that I noticed none of the Aussies looked any different to the typical Canadian. The language they used was slightly altered, their mannerisms had changed, and they looked nothing like the bleached, beach bodies they once may have been. They had committed to the life, for their own reasons, and it's the similarities between cultures, and their Australian upbringing that allows this to happen.
The beach culture of Australia is eerily similar to the scene that attracts so many from around the world. Both are steeped in history as cultural icons — the surfer lifestyle calls to both the young and old, as does life at the peak, thousands of kilometres across the globe.
: ESCAPING REALITY :
Thanks to Australia's position of relative isolation on the world map, international travel is a big deal for anyone on a budget. Seeing the world requires dedication, perseverance, forward planning and, of course, a whole lot of money. There are very few overseas destinations that don't require a long-haul flight, meaning that when an Aussie decides to see the world — they've got to get bang for their buck, and do it right.
This has given rise to the globetrotting Aussie — a person who is intent on travel and experience rather than visiting destination holidays.
Another Australian flag flew past me, this time draped as a cape behind an overtly Aussie group, as I continued my fact-finding mission.
"You can't just pop over to see the States, or drop in on Europe — it's a massive trip," says Tash Kelly — another Australian living in Whistler. "I had to save all through my degree to see the world, everyone in Europe and America have it so easy they can just take a bus."
"Was it hard to commit?" I asked.
"Yes!" she said excitedly, making it clear the decision wasn't an easy one. "I really just want to keep it going now, this is the best time of my life and I don't want it to end. Hopefully I can come back next season."
For the travelling Aussie this is the most important question in their life — how to keep the dream of living abroad alive, and Whistler provides the answers. There is seasonal work, a great nightlife, great culture, and of course, the snow. But the fear of losing the new-found freedom to travel has to be one of the major motivations behind the Australian invasion.
: DIGGING DEEPER :
Surely that can't be all there is to it, something as mundane as a good culture or Australia's isolation. Surely the tidal wave of young men and women choosing to live and work amongst the mountains is a result of more than just a keen sense of travel acumen. So instead of proliferating the blasphemy of generalization, I went to the source. Fresh tracks on January 26 — Australia Day.
There are precious few sights more empowering for an Australian in Whistler, than a sea of boxing kangaroos hurtling down untracked beds of fresh powder. Nowhere else in the world will you see people wearing swimming trunks, skis, flags and full-length marsupial onesies gliding down groomers. This is the Aussie traveller in their natural environment, among their own people on their national day. What better time could there be to find the secret behind the yearly mass migration.
A broad-shouldered, bearded, red-head brushed passed me.
"Sorry mate," Trent Aitken said with a broad smile... A perfect target I thought.
After minutes of rigorous questioning in typical Aussie fashion he had already laid bare his life story. "These are the best years of my life, and I don't want to waste a second of them," he began.
"Why wouldn't everyone want this, we board every day that we want, all our mates are here... this is heaven on Earth man."
He was beginning to make sense, and I found myself struggling for answers. Had some stoned, red-headed lout from Lismore given me the keys to the Universe? I had to find another subject.
"What's going on here?" said Chris Fredericks, a fellow Aussie traveller. "You wanna know why we're here, in Whistler? Geeze man look around. Does it get any better than this?"
At the time we were sitting in the Roundhouse, surrounded by racks of bacon and eggs, waffles and pancakes, so I wasn't entirely sure if he meant the buffet or the mountains that awaited outside.
I pressed on.
"What made you leave home?" I asked sheepishly, afraid of the Earth-shattering, conscious-altering answer I was sure to get.
"Why did I leave home? This is home to me. I do what I love here, and that's my life. Yeah I miss my family, but they can wait," he mused as he broke off into a nervous giggle.
Just as the drug that is fluent conversation kicks in the alarm is sounded, the bells are rung and the horse begins to bolt — or should I say the herd of kangaroos begins its charge. The Roundhouse empties in a flash with a chorus of yelps and cheers a distinctly Australian twang. That's one thing you can never fault this travelling band of brothers and sisters from the land Down Under for — they truly embrace the mountain lifestyle, and it's exactly that attitude that sets them apart from the crowd.
You don't find many Aussies around the village who haven't integrated into what is a quintessential Canadian culture. The cultural similarities between the countries provide a platform from which this can happen that just isn't there with most other countries. It allows them to seamlessly enter the reality of Whistler, and embrace all it has to offer.
: LIFTING THE VEIL :
You can dress it up any way you like, but the big reason most Aussies come to Whistler is to escape the boredom of their reality and enjoy life. These guys and girls just want to get away, and Whistler offers them a chance very few other places on Earth can provide. Here their life revolves around the pursuit of fun. For the first time, that generation of Australians is experiencing life on their own terms, in a way so different to what they've always known.
Add to the mix the things that put Whistler on the map and you have a perfect storm, a vortex that captures free spirits with a voice as powerful as the sirens of the Odyssey. It would be unfair to claim that one part of the Whistler experience was responsible for the entire Aussie invasion. In fact the mountains, the scenery, the nightlife, the culture and the people all play their part, but it's not what brings them here that is the most important part of the question, or what keeps them coming back. It's what Whistler provides to the people that sets the place apart.
We, as a society, are moving on the momentum of previous generations, and every year hundreds of young Australians choose to opt out, at least for a little while, and come here. The desire to leave the mundane world behind exists here in Canada too, but the deep wilderness surroundings keeps that beast at bay for most. But for all those who pass through this special place, the lifestyle on offer can turn into the circuit breaker they were looking for, and will always yearn for, once they head back along the Sea to Sky — and back to reality.