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High Spirits

Going over the Falls

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Children are inscrutable. immutable car critics. You never know which cars they’re going to love, or why, but when they do find a vehicle they like it’s a bond of immeasurable passion.

My son, Connor, a seven year old whose smarty pants have been parked in more than 100 cars, is smitten instantly with the Hyundai Santa Fe we have borrowed for the epic journey from Sydney to Victoria’s Falls Creek, and not just because he knows it will deliver him to skiing.
“That car is so cool, big, black and awesome… have you seen the glass roof? It’s h-u-g-e,” he enthuses.

When I point out the fact that he and his school friend/girlfriend will also be blessed with two-stage heated seats in the rear, his excitement reaches Night Before Christmas levels.

These seats, an absolute rarity in any car less expensive than a limousine, will prove a hugely popular boon over the next few days, not just for warming tiny buns as we leave Sydney in a chilly dawn, but for their ability to soothe hands snap frozen by snowball making and painstaking snowman construction.
It takes what might be a record-setting 35 minutes of our eight-hour journey for the sentence that has tortured parents since our cavemen ancestors headed out onto the savannah to be uttered: “are we there yet?” I was going to attempt to count how many times this question was asked, but my sanity failed me. In the modern world, of course, this query is followed by another oft-heard one, “can I have the iPad now?”

After encouraging our two young charges to enjoy the view out the giant moon roof for another hour, and to try out the retro-thrills of playing “I spy”, the other Dad and I fold, and the kids are soon creating their own mobile cinema, raising their handy window blinds and requesting that we close the roof. The centre armrest, with built-in cup holders, also wins rave reviews.

With the music from the excellent stereo system faded entirely towards the front seats, we proceed to occupy two different worlds and settle in for the hum-drum Hume Highway commute south. One thing the demanding children haven’t demanded is that we increase their legroom, although this would be an option. With the capacious boot swallowing all of our ski gear, we could easily slide the rear seats back to give them a more executive experience, but little legs have no need of such luxury. Nor did we need to pop up the sixth and seventh seats that fold neatly away into the boot floor, much as the kids wanted to try them out.
 
On the highway, the Santa Fe’s 2.4-litre diesel engine is smooth, whisper quiet and blessed with just the kind of mid-range torque you need (436Nm of it, complemented by 145kW) for overtaking the several thousand trucks we will blast past on the freeway.

It’s only past Albury-Wodonga that the drive actually becomes involving and enjoyable, particularly on the climb from Mt Beauty (where we top up with some Alpine diesel, after averaging under 8 litres per 100km on the trips down) to Falls itself; a winding, upwardly spiralling selection of 30km of back-to-back brilliant corners that’s an unrestrained joy in summer. 

In winter, with sleety rain turning to big, chunking snowflakes as we climb (iPads are down now - “looook, snow!!!”), and the possibility of black ice, it is a more intimidating prospect. It’s still possible to build a bit of flow between the bends, however, and the big Santa Fe simply dances around them, showing none of the top-heaviness that can blight some SUVs.
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Nearing the top of the climb, the snow starts really pouring down, making big white splotches on our glass roof, and we stop for a play and a few verses of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”. 
I’m hoping the snow will actually sit thick enough on the ground for us to press the button locking the car into serious four-wheel-drive mode, but there’s just no need. As slippery as the mush and sleet surface is, we simply never struggle for traction and are soon parking outside our accommodation, the spectacular QT Falls Creek, where we unload two frenetically excited children and all their gear.

The QT, an architectural masterpiece of peaking steel and sympathetic timbers, looms right over the main lift up the mountain at Falls, making the morning struggle with both your skis and all your kids’ gear almost a breeze. The trendy, stylish rooms offer plenty of space, spectacular snow views and a hot tub on each balcony, which we all take full advantage of.
Perhaps the hotel’s most impressive trick, though, is turning the idea that all food at the snow is overpriced and overly stodgy on its head. The Bazaar restaurant offers all-you-can-eat feasts three times a day that are the equal of anything you could find in Sydney or Melbourne, only cheaper.
Our three days of skiing features plenty of laughter and grinning from our kids, and just one trip down the hill on the back of a Ski Patrol’s banana boat with a suspected broken leg (it wasn’t, thank goodness). 

We make the most of every hour, only pouring our sweaty, exhausted selves back into the car late on the last day for the long, slightly less exciting trip home.

Once again, the Santa Fe handles the slightly treacherous conditions down the mountain with ease and we shoot out into the green and verdant valley below Mt Beauty as the sun begins to set, bouncing tangerine and purple light off the receding snow caps behind us and bathing the dairy farms around us in gloaming gold.
 
The kids are soon sleeping soundly - no “are we home yets?” tonight - in the back as my co-Dad-pilot and I face the long, dark and featureless trip home. Fortunately we soon get into a long and detailed debate over what the 100 greatest songs of all time are, helped out by a Triple J list on my phone, which streams them through the stereo. 

We make a plan to swap drivers every hour and find the trip surprisingly easy - helped by health-giving injections of KFC, soft drink, coffee and chocolate.

Impressively, our 1400km journey uses less than two full tanks of fuel - we’d easily have gotten more than 800km from each fill-up.

The Santa Fe, which is about to be given a facelift, has coped with the classic ski journey with ease, and won plaudits from my in-house junior critic. I can’t wait to drive the new one.