He's a man of few words, Tom Dunbar. This Kiwi skiing pro lets his hair do all the talking.
Mention the guy with the big bouffant styling and South Island Cantabrians will nod and say, ‘‘You must be talking about Tom’’. You will find Master Dunbar, his hair and his band of merry men at the bizarrely named Neon Pompom ski chalet.
It’s surrounded by a golf course, on Terrace Downs estate, an hour from Christchurch. The four-bedroom wood and riverstone chalet sits in the foothills of the Southern Alps and boasts mountain peak vistas from almost every room. There’s the comfort of open fires, fine bed linen and en suites with heated floors. Think of it as your private home, only this one comes with staff. It’s groaning under a huge fresh snow dump, and ready for a bumper ski season.
The eccentric Guild family, together with Dunbar, host exclusive groups of skiers and snowboarders in the luxe chalet. There’s Simon Guild, a former Lion Nathan beer marketer-turned-hospitality host at High Peak Station (more on that later). He does the driving and the hosting of Neon Pompom clients.
Then there’s Amelia Guild, actress, artist and foodie who adds the little touches, from a sequinned deer head over the fireplace to retro laminated place mats on the dinner table. Amelia fell in love with Dunbar’s hair and married him to be close to it. As for Dunbar, he provides the ski guiding and instruction. As a former New Zealand free-ski champion and global pro athlete, he is well qualified. Plus he makes a mean martini and tells a good dry joke.
Neon Pompom is based on the European chalet experience, where groups of friends and family book in to the one lodge or chalet and have their own private chef, private ski instructor and private driver to take care of everything. Staff live in a neighbouring chalet so guests have complete privacy and simply wake up to fully cooked breakfasts (Amelia), are driven to the snow (Simon) and guided by qualified instructors (Tom).
We spend our first night dining on home-cooked venison from the Guilds’ own farm, with alcohol-soaked stone fruits and fresh custard to finish, and never-ending glasses of local wine. Simon has promised us a choice of Mount Olympus, Craigieburn and Broken River local club fields on which to point our skis.
Trouble is he didn’t let the weather gods know, so next morning after breakfast we reconvene in the hot tub on the deck, with its views of Mount Hutt. Despite our best efforts, we have neglected to ‘‘drink the sky blue’’ and are tempted to spend the day at our base camp instead of heading for the ski hills.
But our hosts have other plans. We head up the switchback shale road to Mount Olympus. This members-built ski field features a nutcracker rope tow, where skiers lock in to a moving cable by a hinged tool attached by rope to their belt. For first-timers like us, it’s not easy.
The locals heard the Neon Pompom crew was coming and have cleared a patch of frozen pond ice at the top of the first lift. A dress-up box is produced and grown men and women don tutus and tartan and head for a spot of mid-mountain curling. There’s an impromptu ice bar and shots of Scotch to numb the cold.
By the time the local lads bring out the kerosene to set fire to the ice pond for their version of extreme curling, it is thankfully time for us to head back down, skiing by headlamp, for an evening of dinner and dancing.
The beauty of New Zealand skiing is that when the resorts don’t open – and because of wind and weather that happens more often than one would like – there are other adventures to be had. The next day, with resort skiing on wind hold, it is time to meet the real Guilds.
High Peak Station is a working deer farm and hunting tourism operation owned by Simon and Amelia’s parents, James and Anna. Like all good farming families, even ones with a croquet lawn and private lake, hospitality is in their veins. Anna dishes up a feast of home-cooked delights, including fudge, and James proudly shows us his trophy hunting beasts mounted on a wall, surrounded by Amelia’s original artworks.
The only beasts we manage to cull after lunch are some clay pigeons, as we take to the high country in four-wheel-drives and gasp at the snow-laden mountain landscape. High Peak valley has no through roads and is completely private, making us the only folk for miles.
High Peak Station’s 4000 hectares were settled in 1856 and purchased by the Guilds in the early 1970s.
Almost half of the station is dedicated to a game estate for horse riding, hunting, mountain biking and four-wheel-drives. The remainder is pastoral farming and the homestead’s landscaped gardens - and guests of Neon Pompom have access to it all.
The question remains - why Neon Pompom? When entering the Neon Pompom chalet we are confronted by Neon Leon, the patron of the chalet.
The perfectly coiffed store mannequin is not dissimilar to Master Dunbar in the hair stakes. Dressed in retro neon ski gear and bright beanie with regulatory pompom, Leon doesn’t say much either.
- Sydney Morning Herald