The dogs are tearing along a snowy track as the sun dips behind mountains. We are sliding past gnarled snow gums and the frenzied yapping of moments earlier has been replaced by the sound of a timber sled cutting through the snow.
The six pure-bred Siberian huskies have quickly found their rhythm and right behind them I'm zipped up and under cover, protected from the cold.
I'm riding along on a bed of soft cushions like a spoilt tsar out of Doctor Zhivago.
Musher Barry Burden is standing on the back, controlling things with the special language only sled dogs understand.
"Hike" is to start, "haw" is go left, "gee" go right, "on by" is to pass something (such as a skier) and "whoa" means stop.
He even has an anchor to drop into the snow to slow the eager dogs. "If I'd let them go, they'd just keep running and we'd never see them again," Barry says.
We're heading into the countryside on the edge of Dinner Plain, a pretty alpine village 10 kilometres from Victoria's Mount Hotham, where timber and stone houses with steep-pitched roofs blend into the landscape.
There are restaurants here, a pub and a Japanese-inspired spa that includes an outdoor rock pool and "mountain massages".
Barry and his wife Kathy run Dinner Plain Sled Dog Tours & Snowmobile Rides on an eight-km loop around the village and a two-km trail among the snow gums.
"Some of our tours take off in the evening and when we go to the back of the village we can see the lights of the lodges," Barry says.
"We put fairy lights on the sled and I'm also going to buy a brass bell to clang. It's an awesome sight for people in the sled and for people in the village to see a dog team running by . . . in Australia.
"We take people to parts of Dinner Plain that they don't usually see and plan to start rides for the disabled next year."
The friendly huskies (these dogs are bred in Minnesota and are noted for their work ethic), thrive on affection and if you are going on a sled ride it's likely you'll be asked to help tether them, give them water and a big hug at the end to thank them for their effort.
On weekends, Barry and Kathy also take their cuddly Alaskan husky, Princess, to Dinner Plain's novice ski slope, where children can smother her in cuddles. Princess doesn't pull sleds any more but still takes the accolades.
Dog sledding is catching on in this region. There are two operators at Dinner Plain, one at Lake Mountain and one at Mount Baw Baw. Like skiing, dog sledding is dependent on snow conditions, so it pays to check there is sufficient snow for the trips to operate.
There is no bigger sled-dog legend than the Iditarod race in Alaska each March that traverses 715 kilometres from Anchorage to Nome and includes the town of Willow, where Barry once ran dog sledding tours.
Closer to home, Australia's biggest dog sled event is the annual Dinner Plain Sled Dog Challenge, held every August, with about 350 dogs and 70 mushers entering every year.
The dogs race in teams of two, four, six and eight (the eights are the most spectacular).
Free to spectators, New Zealanders have been among those competing in the race in previous years.
But whoever wins, Princess will still be at the bottom of the kids' slope, lapping up all the attention she can get.
"Like all the dogs, she loves the praise and the cuddles and the kids," Kathy says.
Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Mount Hotham, Renault and Peppers Rundells Alpine Lodge.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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