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Feature - Winter walkabout

Reflections on the travels of Antipodeans and the lure of Whistler



"What are so many Aussies doing here?"

Keeping the wheels of Whistler turning, is what I want to say. I don't, after eight years of being hammered with the same question week after week, for fear of not being able to keep a note of defensiveness out of my voice.

On telling one resort staffer I was trying to find out how many Aussies were working for Whistler-Blackcomb, she quipped, "Too many."

Web bulletin boards contain postings from hill-bound Aussie boarders: Where can I go where I won't be Just Another Frigging Acronym? And the answer to that, my son, is nowhere. In every ski hill in the West, the little cogs that wash the dishes, direct the cars and load the lifts, have a distinguishable broad-accent and a penchant for beer. So I swallow my rant and instead, earnestly try and explain how it is that so many Antipodeans congregate in a Canadian ski town, to feral it out in staff housing, earn minimum wage doing mind-numbing jobs in a climate entirely alien to 98 per cent of them, and pay inflated costs for a pint of beer.

Why do they come? Well, why does anyone come - to ride a BIG hill. Out in Ontario, teaching skiing one day a week at Camp Fortune and moving into an active semi-retirement, my father-in-law tortures himself on a daily basis checking the WB Web-cam: "I'm not doing this anymore. It's -25 today. The HIGH is -17. The hill is 10 turns down sheet ice. I want to be in mountains that scare me. And the skiing inspires. You guys can expect me out there next January."

If a 52-year-old eastern farmer goes to sleep counting the moguls on Shale Slope, then why wouldn't a twenty-something Australian on their world wanderings be drawn here by a cosmic pull? Lisa Weekes, an Australian vet working in the UK, returned this season for the second year in a row - to ride for a few weeks at Red and stop briefly in Whistler to visit mates. She explains the lure of Canada. "I think we feel an affinity with Canadians. We both hate the Yanks and Canadians are just so bloody nice, we love them! And it's beautiful. Big mountains and snow are a big deal for us. We usually know a few people over there, so it's easy to go and wing it."

The Wanderer's Lust

Why then do they come in droves? Australians travel. They live and work overseas in astounding numbers. As of December 2001, 858,866 Australians were working overseas. (This is the equivalent of 4.3 per cent of the resident population. It's also the rough equivalent of the total of winter visitors to Whistler in 2001-02.) A staggering 200,000 of these nomads can be found in London, 100,000 in Athens, 46,000 in Hong Kong. The district serviced by the High Commission in Vancouver has the highest concentration of Australians in North America, at 30,000. The North American cities you're next most likely to stumble upon someone eating a Vegemite sandwich are Los Angeles (25,000), Washington DC (17,000), San Francisco (17,000), and New York (15,000). Money, opportunity, exposure, a central place in the world from which to base one's adventuring. All these things are offered in spades off-shore, compared to what is available in a country with a population of 19 million and a GDP of less than half that of Canada.