and now they've seen the snow!

Snow is probably not the first word that comes to mind when people are asked to think about Australia. Beer, cricket, surf, spiders, kangaroos or koalas definitely . Leathery men with large knives, felling street criminals with well aimed cans a distinct possibility. But not snow. Here the wisdom of the crowd would fail, for snow is important to Australia. Maybe not in its extent or depth, but because it is a reminder of where Australia is from, and how much it is still connected to the snowy continent to the south - the Big Pav - Antarctica.

As Australia moves north, away from its southern roots, it’s easy to forget that it was once part of a greater southern land, ages ago in the distant past. The breakup of Gondwana, Australia’s ancestral home changed the present in ways we can still see, feel and understand. The Earth has the climate it does because of the fridge in the south - if Antarctica was ice free, the world would be a very different place. For Australia it has been 80 million years of movement, heading north. Antarctica, the stay at home member of the southern family, was isolated from its brothers and sisters as they started to wander the globe. And in its isolation it sat, surrounded by an encircling ocean, growing colder, colder and colder. Sail west at 40 degrees south and you could keep going until to you return to where you started. A merry-go-round of sea and salt, wind and waves. The white of the continent cools the air and drives weather systems that echo around the world. Many ocean currents have their birth in the cold waters of the Antarctic; the push of cold saline waters drives the water around the world. So, how is the white continent linked to the red one? Hobart - the southern-most of the state capitals – no further from the coast of Antarctica than it is from Fremantle. And the waters of the Southern Ocean lap along the south coast of Australia. Sitting near the end of this southern boundary is Melbourne, the largest city in the world on an east/west shoreline. Our weather is pushed by pressure systems born in the Antarctic boundary zone. They bring cold in the winter and refreshing cool in the summer.

For many, both continents must represent the ends of the Earth, the last truly great landmasses to be explored. I live in one and hope, one day, to see the other. Chance brought me here and I hope history does not rob me of the chance to see the other. But water is running on the white continent where it has never been seen before. The clock is ticking.
Much closer to home it has been nose drippingly cold. Air rushes west as Antarctica sighs out one last winter breath, cold, bringing rain to the coast and snow to the hills. The window on the mountain world - the snow cams - have been icing up invitingly, and the temperature stayed has stayed low. The weekend approaches, and local snow becomes a possibility, a probability and finally a plan. Excitement grows in the small people. Snow is frequent in their books, but to them is it also an unknown. It could just as well have been the dark side of the moon, known but unreachable. Snow ball fights, snow men, snow angels, sledge runs; a winter that actually looks like the ones in the important imported books.

We headed for the hills, departing from home before 9am was a Sunday novelty. More than normal the kids wanted to be there as soon as we had left. “Are we there yet?” The hills that flank the north west of Melbourne are not impressive by world standards, but they are the first to be buffeted by the wind from Antarctica, and snow falls. As we drove further from home the temperature slowly fell, dipping into single figures, falling, falling, falling. We were in the forests before we were in the snow lands. Damp and mossy, with streams rushing with welcome winter rain, branch drips smack the windscreen, the road dark and shiny even in the dull light of a grey day.

Then a sharp turn, and the climbing began in earnest. Mud splashes, the singing hiss of wet roads, the tyre rumble of unmade roads. And then by the side of the road were the remains of snow ploughed piles, and my kids had seen the snow. But this snow was nothing like the pictures, dark and angular, thick with road surface stones and dirt. It was melting in ways that were both angular and curved at the same time. Strange snow sculptures. Soon patches of snow sat back from the road's edge and nestled in the crooks of tree branches. Icing the trees and ferns like sugar cakes, the faint sparkle of winter decoration. This was the snow we had come to see.

The car park was covered in hot chocolate mud and was not a pleasant place to be, stirred by the wheels and feet of Sunday visitors, cars like mine, boots like mine. The kids - fully equipped from shin height to wrist - jumped into the snow with both feet and soon regretted it. The chinks in the clothing armour soon resulted in cold hands and wet feet. In books children play all day in the bright white snow, but the reality for the casually dressed and wearers of gum boots (or Wellingtons, or more often wellies as I still think of them - a cultural marker as plain as the nose on my face and the accent in my voice) is that they are soon cold and need some TLC and dry socks.

The snow slopes are rich with footprints and the calls of children - some happy and some not so happy. Chilled feet and sausage fingers are par for the course. The sun refuses to shine, and relief is found in hot fruit juice and chocolate. And then a little bit more chocolate.

Wildlife is not abundant, but if you stand still and wait things become clearer. On the edge of the forest a single Crimson Rosella sits in the snow, claiming scraps from a picnic. From a distance it looks like the ground is bleeding. The white of the snow seems to cut back all shades with its reflected light. But under the trees there is a change; even the snow looks green, from the reflection of the leaves. Looking back out from the trees to the open land the snow seems grey, but when you arrive there it looks blue. A single eucalyptus leaf sits on the snow, and in the lea side shelter of rock, moss and ferns push through the snow. Ice coats the base of the trees, fingering its way along lines of bark. Under the trees there are far fewer footprints - the myth of the deep, dark forest, that will baffle and confuse, seem to be alive and well.


I was born in the spring of a cold winter. I was carried through deep snow the like of which had not been seen for years, and would not be repeated until this year. My mother always claimed that’s why I prefer cold to heat, as if some element of cold had been taken in during that long winter. The snow lingered under the hedgerows, in the dark of a shadow. In the sun it was spring, but in the shade it was still winter. If you turned away from the sun you would have been looking into the past, with the future now behind you. If you walked in a circle you would have seen both past and present in a single journey.


But my mother may have had a point, snow brought with it a cold that would seep into each and every corner of the house, and you either embraced it or you fought it. And to fight against such a force is futile. But what does remain is the abiding sense of surprise that can come from a warm house on a cold night.

My kids began to lose interest in the snow at about the same time they began to lose contact with their fingers and toes again. I think about the layers and layers I used to wear as a kid, and the layers I wore in the mountains in winter. Both out of necessity, but one much more fun than the other. Snow on the hills gives a place a real sense of depth, and it stays white as it melts, it does not turn grey, or worse, like city snow. It does not become decorated with the wreckage of Friday night fights or splattered with the excess of Saturday. Snow on the hills, with clear air and warm feet, it’s just about as good as it gets.

Sometimes you can come to snow as a guest and it lays a kind of veil over what you can see. So, for me at least, Ohio is a place of snow, pale trees and, sometimes, stunning blue skies. I have little idea what lies beneath the winter cover, as I have only seen the place in its winter clothes. How does it dress when winter is over, when it puts on its flush of spring colour? It seems a place where snow heaps against the back door and raccoon prints loop around the barbeque. It is a place where birds gather round winter feeders and icicles drip from buildings under clouded skies. Because I have not seen anything else, Ohio is winter and snow and coffee on the way to school. Inside the white house I stayed in (a white house – not THE white house!) it was many other things, but outside it was winter.

I’m glad my kids have now seen the snow, but I’ll make sure that their feet stay warm next time.

Now for some mountains ……………


Mary said...

After reading your latest posting I quickly forget the week I just spent in sunny QLD and head to the nearest cafe for a warming hot chocolate!

Garry said...

Your kids are lucky. I have only seen snow fall one day in my entire life. I was on the trail to Base Camp on Macchpuchare mountain in the Annapurna range of the Himalaya. It snowed unusually low on the mountain, forcing us to change our plans and descend beneath the snowline as our porters had no shoes and slept on bare ground beneath tarpaulins. I've rarely seen anything more beautiful than the snow falling that day. I hope it's not the only time I will see this happen. As always, I love your photo sets.

Anonymous said...

which mountains are these pictures taken on, because i think i recognise that wooden cabin, i think it was buffalo I was on,

good read as well