Skiing at Soho Basin is as good as it gets.
There are nine of us, and a couple of guides, being transported up and down the mountain in between unleashing ourselves on the rolling slopes below.
Most had paid near on $700 for the day. That is more than a season pass for most skifields. Expectations were high.
Climbing from the snowcat to collect our gear and head for another run.
“My face is hurting from smiling so much,” puffed Libby, the snowboarder from Tasmania, after only two runs.
Why? Powder, a bluebird day and a personal snowcat. These lucky punters had each bought themselves long expanses of fresh, ungroomed and untouched snow on a day of sunshine with no wind and transport to the top of each run. No one was waiting for a chairlift. No one was walking to find a summit.
By lunch time we had completed seven runs. We had moved from the expansive Big and Little Willow basins to Soho basin itself. There was more untouched terrain, more powder.
Everyone got to know each other in the snowcat.
I wobbled from my skis onto the deck of the Soho hut. I was buggered but happy. I needed a lie down. But wait! What’s this? Bubbles and fresh Bluff oysters? Don’t mind if I do.
The refresher was followed by a three course meal supplied by chefs from the much celebrated Amisfield restaurant and finished in a tiny back country hut with no power or running water.
They had a barbecue to cook the roasted pheasant, a beautiful cheese board, garlic bread dripping with butter, wild nettle, ricotta and parmesan lasagne, macaroons, every option of wine, beer or non-alcoholic beverages and s’mores to finish off. ”
A gourmet three-course lunch and wine in the middle of nowhere.
S’mores?” you might ask. I did not ask, for fear of making an egg of myself, again. S’mores, it turns out, is a north American term for toasted marshmallows, dipped in chocolate sauce and squished between a couple of biscuits. Quite honestly, they are fantastic.
As my new snow buddies raved about the food and kitted up for the next run, skifield operations manager Mark Dewsbery told me the lunch was a big part of the product: skiing, views and amazing food. And they don’t bother when the weather is bad.
“We’re not out there trying to get thousands of people. We call it the Soho experience.”
A fire for keeping warm and toasting marshmallows.
There are clients who do multiple day trips from Queenstown and there are those who see it as a once in a life time opportunity.
“I think if you’re a good intermediate skier you’re going to have a fantastic day and if you’re advanced you’re also going to have a great day.
“If you compare it to heli skiing – we try not to guide you around, once we’ve shown you and you know where the boundaries are the day is pretty much yours. If you want to go ski some wide open bowls and cruise for the day that’s totally up to you….if you want to find something a bit steeper and go jumping off things that’s totally up to you can do that too.”
An aerial view of the lunch deck.
You might also conk out at lunch time, but you’ve got a spot on the deck booked with the best food and wine available and a view to die for. With a pair of binoculars I’m pretty sure I would be able to see my home in Frankton from the composting toilet.
It is an experience you can do anyway you want. Buy your $685 day pass and be one of up to 24 people in total, travelling in two snowcats, making the most of the basin. Or book the skifield for the day for the fee of $15,000. People do it, Dewsbery assures me, mostly wealthy overseas families but he sees a good opportunity for the annual kiwi work do as well.
For quite a few more dollars you can also organise a helicopter ride of about 10 minutes from Queenstown to avoid the hour long drive. I’m pretty sure (though I don’t know for a fact) that’s what owner John Darby did before he dropped into the basin and I spotted his smooth S turns swirling down a steep slope. It looked like James Bond was calling in.
Soho Basin owner John Darby has been skiing the terrain for more than 30 years.
Darby has been coming here for more than 30 years now. He arrived in the region to build The Remarkables in the 1970s and this site was considered as an alternative option. In the 1980s he set up Southern Lakes Heliski and used Soho Basin. In 2005 he bought it. In the last few years the current operation was developed and just recently it was announced, he was partnering with neighbouring Cardrona Alpine Resort.
This seemed a bit odd to me, considering he is also a shareholder at the nearby Treble Cone ski field. Is he shooting himself in the foot?
“Not at all,” Darby/Bond replies.
Soho Basin offers suitable terrain for expert and advanced intermediate skiers.
“With the demand for ski terrain with the growth of visitors, it’s time now to expand what we have on offer in Queenstown for ski facilities and also to bring it to a higher standard, which you need to do to attract the international market.”
We are at risk of losing keen skiers to the likes of Japan and we need to give them more options to keep them coming, he says. Darby knows, he has already done the same with golf courses in the region. Nobody is yet complaining of having too many golfing options – or not attracting enough visitors.
Which begs the next question, what will become of this luxurious, almost obscenely good back country experience, once the hoards arrive?
Well, it will likely be another three years before that happens and the “Soho experience” will continue to operate in the meantime. After that, there is the Darby promise.
“This is a very special place and I’m a keen back country skier so there’s certainly going to be a lot of terrain still available for the enthusiasts who prefer to get out on their own.”