For most Australians, driving in snow and ice is a bit of a novelty.
After all, it’s only really in the Alpine regions of NSW and Victoria, or down in Tassie, that we occasionally have the opportunity to brush up on our winterdriving skills.
The first time I experienced harsh winter conditions was in South Korea in 1985. There was so much ice on the roads that my mate and I could barely walk down the street to grab a bottle of Soju without falling arse-over.
Driving was an altogether different challenge, with thousands of cars, buses and trucks scrabbling for traction every time they turned off one of the main roads and attempted to tackle a frozen back street. But Koreans are used to harsh winters and their cars are equipped with studded winter tyres that are (mostly) able to gain purchase on ice.
I’ve since driven in several European and North American winters but would hardly call myself a snow-driving expert, which is why I exhibited extreme caution when the white stuff started falling out of the sky on a recent trip down to the NSW ski fields.
On the way to the ski fields the roads offered plenty of traction, but it was a very different story on the return journey. There was no visible snow on the road, but the temperature had dropped markedly and there was soon a distinct possibility of black ice forming.
As I rounded a gentle left-hand bend I noticed a 100 Series Land Cruiser on the opposite shoulder with hazard lights ablaze. Further around the bend, off the left side of the road, was a Ford Mondeo in a ditch. Fortunately we just missed all the action – and the occupants of the Mondeo were only shaken, not stirred. After checking everyone was okay I headed down to the next bend to alert oncoming traffic of the hazard ahead. Initially drivers were heading up the hill at a pace suggesting they were keen to go off-piste but as the snowfall became heavier, everyone settled down to a more sensible crawl.
We eventually continued on our way and saw countless cars pulled over with their occupants hastily fitting snow chains. I’ve had to do this myself in the past and it’s not a task I relish, so I was glad to have the security only a four-wheel drive can provide in such conditions, as well as decent tyres and a somewhat mature attitude.
The whole episode reminded me of a trip to the snow when I was still in my teens. I was with a few mates and we were heading to Perisher in my old Subaru. I’d proudly engaged four-wheel drive and gloated to my mates about not having to fit snow chains. Soon the snow was getting quite deep so I did pull over and fit the chains, but I was still feeling the confidence that only inexperience and bravado can build.
Never one to miss the opportunity for a piss-take, my mate Steve (aka Molar) goaded me off the edge of the blacktop: “Go on Deano, show us what she’s got!” Of course, what looked like a level shoulder was a deep ditch buried in snow, and over we went. While there was no damage to the Suby, my teenage pride was seriously dented. We eventually flagged down a bloke in a Land Cruiser who dragged the Suby back onto the road, and I’ve never had an incident in snow or ice since (touch wood).
Anyway, back to my latest snow trip. We copped a pretty significant amount of snow overnight and it was an effort to just unlock the doors of my Navara the following morning, let alone open them. The canopy glass was frozen to the tailgate and I’d neglected to lift the wiper blades the night before, so they were frozen to the windscreen, hidden beneath big chunks of ice.
After about 20 minutes of de-icing, I headed off for a play in the snow, driving up familiar tracks that couldn’t be seen for the snow that covered them. I had a ball (it was my birthday, after all) but we had to get going and I knew it’d be a long, slow trip on icy roads before we’d get home back on the coast.
Sure enough, we saw a couple of minor incidents on the way home, but to my surprise most of the drivers we witnessed were sensible, cautious and courteous.
Despite our relative lack of winterdriving skills, I reckon most Australian motorists do a pretty good job of dealing with snow- and ice-covered roads.