Dry skiing: Onion grass, seaspray and toothbrushes

Two members of Snow Revellers at Long Reef, 1936

Two members of Snow Revellers at Long Reef, 1936

by Wendy Cross

The history of dry skiing in Australia is a chequered one, with almost every type of ‘dry’ surface promoted at some stage and new ones invented almost every decade.  Some forms of dry skiing, such as the classes held on grass during the 1920s and 1930s and the various artificial slopes of the 1960s, enjoyed modest success for a time but on the whole, Australians prefer the real thing.  Furthermore, despite the short season by comparison with most other countries, Australians ski by the calendar.  They dust off their equipment on Queen’s Birthday Weekend in June, regardless of how early or late this moveable holiday has been gazetted, and they put it away again after the long weekend in September or October, regardless of how much snow may still be on the slopes.  As a general rule, only a skiing holiday in the Northern Hemisphere will entice them to don skis during the Australian summer.

It is not surprising that Britain, with less skiable snow than Australia despite its colder climate, should pioneer artificial ski slopes.  The Guinness Book of Records states that the world’s first artificial ski slope was installed at the London Ski School in 1926, by an enterprising lady named June Boland.  Unfortunately, the famous record book does not provide any details of the slope, the ski school or Miss Boland.  More is known about the indoor ski school established in 1931 by the leading English sporting goods firm, Lillywhites.  The so-called British School of Skiing was on the top floor of the Lillywhites store in Piccadilly.  The room, previously a dance hall, was converted into a facsimile of a ski resort, with wooden slopes covered with a mixture of washing soda and an unnamed but presumably benign acid.  The walls were painted with scenes of St Moritz and heading the teaching staff was the famous Vivian Caulfeild.

(Editors note: Caulfeild is correct spelling.)

Australia’s first attempt at dry skiing was nowhere near as sophisticated.  One day in 1926, around the time that the mysterious June Boland was setting up the London Ski School, Ski Club of Victoria member Stan Flattely cast speculative eyes at a grassy hillside near his home in the Melbourne suburb of Eaglemont.  On a whim, he decided to try a quick schuss – with pleasing results.  Other SCV members were enthralled by the prospect of being able to indulge in their favourite sport so close to home, and the club’s committee pronounced skiing on grass to be the ideal way to train for the winter season.  The club had already initiated indoor classes with exercises oriented towards skiing, but the slopes of Eaglemont obviously held much more appeal.

Regular training sessions on grass continued until interrupted by World War 11.  As a rule, the training sessions began in April or May and were conducted every second Sunday until there was skiable snow on Mt Donna Buang.  Really keen grass skiers, of course, continued their activities on an ad hoc basis, all year round

‘Mt Eaglemont’ had slopes that varied from 10 to an exciting 25 degrees.  Cows grazed there often, so the turf was very short and regulars soon discovered that onion grass provided the best running surface for skis liberally coated with beeswax and, occasionally, cow dung.  A few skiers even foreshadowed the advent of ski lifts by arranging to be towed back up the hill by horses or motorbikes.  Behind a motorbike, it was possible to reach speeds up to 55 kph but the inevitable falls tended to be so painful that the fad passed quickly.

Needless to say, all this rather odd behaviour attracted considerable attention from the Melbourne press and large crowds began turning up to watch the skiers’ antics.  On one Sunday during May, 1933, the crowd was estimated at about 400.  By this time, other groups had joined the SCV members in using grass skiing as a means of dry training and space was soon at a premium.  Among the copycat groups were the Melbourne Walking Club and the Rover Scouts.  The Rovers began taking ski lessons on grass in 1932 and the following year, extended this activity by taking their skis as well as their swimsuits to a weekend camp at Anglesea, on Victoria’s Surf Coast.  They had discovered that the sand dunes there were almost as good for skiing as the hillsides of Eaglemont.

Grass skiing lapsed during the war years but was resumed by the SCV in April, 1946.  Since the Eaglemont paddocks were no longer available, a new venue was found near the Maribyrnong River.  This time, attendance was disappointing, as petrol rationing was still in force and many SCV members lived too far away to contemplate juggling ski equipment on public transport.  Later, when rationing was lifted, the club’s members were more interested in joining work parties at the newly-built Ivor Whittaker Memorial Lodge at Mt Buller than in pre-season skiing on grass, so the training sessions were discontinued.

Oddly, Sydney’s skiers were slow to follow the herbaceous example of their southern cousins and it was not until the summer of 1936-37 that the Kosciusko Snow Revellers discovered what they described as ‘ideal’ grass skiing at Long Reef, 20 kilometres north of Sydney.

The main Long Reef slope had a vertical descent of more than 30 metres, most of it at 20 to 25 degrees, and there were easier beginner slopes nearby.  The hill was covered with couch and kangaroo grass and since the slope faced the sea, ending on a sandy beach, it received a liberal coating of salt spray.  This dried on the surface of the grass and the Revellers discovered that skis well waxed with paraffin could carry them down to the sea at speeds up to 50 kph.  These activities, like those of the SCV in Melbourne, fascinated the press and photographs were published as far afield as the USA, while Movietone immortalised the Reef Revellers on film.

Coincidentally, in the same year that the Revellers discovered the delights of skiing on grass, Australia’s first indoor ski school – as distinct from exercise classes – was opened in Sydney by Wally Reed and George Aalberg.

The ‘Ski Studio’ was located initially in an old factory in Rushcutters Bay.  It had a miniature jump hill and out-run covered with coconut fibre matting which proved surprisingly fast.  An ascent path was fitted with rubber strips to prevent skis sliding back.  And, taking a leaf out of the Lillywhites book, Reed and Aalberg had the interior walls painted with Australian snow scenes.

Soon after Aalberg’s death in 1939, Reed moved the ski school to more spacious premises above his shock absorber business.  With nearly 500 square metres of floor space, Reed was able to set up a jump hill almost twice the size of the old one, with a longer out-run.  Equipment could be hired on the premises and a ski repair service was available.  The Studio was open from 8 pm to 10 pm on week nights, with private tuition available by appointment.  With George Aalberg gone, an important change was the introduction of the Arlberg Technique.  The first instructor at the new premises was Michall Polya.

The Ski Studio finally closed its doors in 1951.  It would be another 12 years before Melbourne could boast of anything comparable.  However, ski-oriented exercise classes, generally advertised as ‘dry ski schools’, were much in vogue in Victoria for nearly two decades.

 Pre-season classes had been run at Melbourne’s Railways Institute by the SCV as early as 1925 but like grass skiing, these lapsed at the outbreak of war.  They did not resume on cessation of hostilities but prior to the 1946 season, Maurice Selle gave twice-weekly private lessons at another Melbourne address.  It was the go-getting Ollie Polasek, however, who established Victoria’s first commercial dry ski school, in 1954.

At the time, Polasek was working as an instructor at the Mt Buffalo Chalet during winter.  Never one to let an investment opportunity go by, he had also purchased a Melbourne hairdressing salon and started off by holding evening dry skiing classes in the salon (surely the only dry skiing school to have been located anywhere as grandly named as the Regency Room) but these were so embarrassingly successful that he had to relocate to the wider spaces of South Melbourne Beach.  There, for three summers, Polasek gave classes in general fitness, skiing technique, equipment selection and maintenance, safety and prevention of accidents.  Among his regular clients was champion jockey Jack Purtell, who had taken up skiing.  He often passed on racing tips for which punters elsewhere probably would have given their eye teeth.

Polasek closed down his dry ski school in 1957, leaving a hiatus lasting until 1960, when a group of SCV members including Ken Box and Jim Logan-Bell opened the Dry Ski School of Victoria in the Caulfield Grammar School gymnasium.  Polasek was enlisted as an instructor and the 90 pupils who undertook the first 13-week course learnt basic gymnastics, the correct use of ski equipment, skiing theory and simulated skiing.

The SCV took control of the Dry Ski School after two years, and appointed Logan-Bell as honorary chairman of the administrative committee.  However, patronage would decline after the opening by Bruce Bretherton of the Vaydln Ski School in the upmarket suburb of Armadale.  This featured a large artificial slope of plastic bristle matting resembling giant toothbrushes, which gave eager skiers a chance to do some ‘real’ skiing instead of just simulated movements.

(Editor’s note: Vaydln is correct spelling)

Tasmanians also had a brief fling with pre-season dry ski lessons.  In 1962, the Northern Tasmanian Alpine Club conducted classes at the Launceston YMCA on two nights a week from May until the end of August.  The lessons were supervised by Ben Lomond instructor, Eddy Hausegger, but were discontinued when Hausegger returned to the mainland.