It must have been quite a sight around the Fairlie area in 1976. People knew from the newspapers that Peter Foote and his bulldozers were up to something up there on the hill – actually, there’d been a fair bit of controversy. Now they could see him inching into sight as he and his workers crawled up the hill, creating a road that would lead to what would be known as Mt Dobson Ski Area.
“Before that they couldn’t see me and were probably saying, ‘What’s that silly fool up to?’” chuckles Peter.
It took him, with his three bulldozers and drivers, seven months just to cut through a 700m, rocky, steep part of the road. But once they got through that, Peter knew the next 5–6km would be “easy going”.
The physical part of cutting the road was the easy part. A man and his machine can get a lot done, but a man up against a bureaucratic machine can achieve far less. When Peter came up with the idea of establishing the Mt Dobson Ski Area, he found himself doing a merry dance around government departments. But Peter was not deterred by such things. If anything, it simply fuelled his resolve. So, he sent a telegram to the then South Canterbury MP Rob Talbot to sort things out.
“Everybody had their finger in the pie but no one had the authority to say yes, so I went to him to get the consent started and he took it to Wellington,” says Pete.
That was the first hurdle. But back then, there were catchment boards, which had the purpose of minimising and preventing damage to land by floods and erosion. However, if you ask Peter what their purpose was, he may have a vastly more colourful answer for you. Suffice to say, he says, they “kept shifting the goal posts”.
“Because they were convinced I couldn’t do it,” he explains. “They wanted extra work done and I had to do an extra planting of 26,000 trees. I was accused of causing erosion in the newspaper and all these sorts of things.”
But again, instead of dissuading him, it had the opposite effect.
“It was never on the drawing board to stop. We were going to do this, even if it was going to kill me.”
More than 45 years later, as he recounts the story, you hear the steely determination in his voice. You almost feel sorry for the bureaucrats. Almost.
Before the road
Peter Foote was a young man who loved machines and was not really all that fond of the “boring weekends” in Timaru, where he lived. On one of his weekend expeditions with the Scouts, he visited Fairlie’s Fox Peak Ski Area and after a few visits found himself roped into being on the committee. At that time, he was an apprentice with Massey Ferguson tractors, so his skills up on the hill, where tractors ran rope tows, were invaluable.
Ask him what his fondest memories were of that time and he’ll give you a list of machinery – the valve on the petrol motor that drove the ski tow that he fixed; the international tractor with steel wheels he used to get up the hill; an old Bedford truck the work parties used; and the wartime bulldozer he bought for $600 to build the top half of the road.
Peter and his family moved to Fairlie into a house bought off a farmer for $300, in which sheep had been the previous inhabitants. By that stage, he and his wife Shirley had two children, Richard and Allan, while the youngest, Bruce, was born there in 1973.
It was during this time that Peter decided to build his own ski field. He had been running Fox Peak for about three years and was getting itchy to create a ski field his way – without the input of a committee.
A local farmer took him up in his airplane to scout the area and he pinpointed the basin that would become Mt Dobson Ski Area. And after four years of red tape, he finally got the green flag in 1976 to begin work.
The brothers and their ‘Tonka’ toys
If you ask Bruce Foote and his brothers who built the road, they’ll tell you they did.
“I’ve got this memory of me and my two brothers, with our Tonka toys up on the road. We’ve always maintained we built the road with our Tonka toys – it wasn’t our father,” he chuckles.
School holidays were spent camping by the road, so Peter could get straight to work.
“We had two caravans: one my parents slept in and the other one my mother did the cooking in. Then my brothers and I slept in a hut that had no door on it – every time it blew, you would have to snuggle down into your sleeping bag. Occasionally, possums would visit you in the middle of the night,” he says.
Then he recalls the story of the “best toilet with the best view”. “You had to sort of go over the bank and climb down a fence to get to it, but you had a view across South Canterbury while you did your business!” Bruce is speaking more quickly now, as if the young boy in him has come alive once again.
The road was a family effort. Shirley made 700 culvert pipes for the 70 culverts discovered on the road.
Though times were hard financially, Peter always found a way, doing his own tractor repairs and earning enough to resume work on the road. Bruce remembers the day the ski field opened.
“A lot of people turned up because this crazy bugger had spent four years building this road up the side of a mountain and wanted to see what was at the end of it that he was so hell-bent on doing!”
Nearly ‘out the back door’
Peter had proven he could navigate the obstacles thrown at him. But the 1980s were determined to test him.
There were two terrible ski seasons in 1987 and 1988, he says. On top of this, the family had to pay back a large loan they had used to put in a platter lift, which had an interest rate of 26.5 per cent.
“They were pretty desperate times,” he says. He picked up some work putting in a water scheme and another job clearing tracks, while Shirley worked at a shop in the township. Bruce remembers his parents pumping the petrol out of the tanks up on the ski field and selling it to local transport companies to try to keep food on the table.
“The community was raising funds for us, so this place didn’t go out the back door. Food was arriving at the back door to tide us over,” says Peter.
Finally, it arrived. The “freak season” that was 1989. “There was no snow down south and these Aucklanders, who had flow down to Queenstown to find there was no snow there, came to us. We had a record season and we paid off our debt.” Peter vowed never to take out a loan again.
Shirley was an integral part of the Mt Dobson Ski Area. From building the culvert pipes to helping Peter run the ski field, including the ticket office, she is woven into the very fabric of this story.
In 2001, Shirley died age 57 of cancer. You can hear the slight catch in Peter’s voice as he says it.
“It was very sad,” he murmurs. Peter, faced with running the ski field by himself, looked to sell.
“After she died, there was a lot of pressure. I couldn’t do it on my own. But then the boys approached me and said they wouldn’t mind having a go running it,” he says.
Bruce is now general manager and Allan a board director. Richard, having seemingly picked up his father’s knack for machines, is a diesel mechanic on the West Coast. (Actually, all three boys are handy with machines – Bruce was a panel beater and Allan an engineer. Must have been those Tonka toys.)
Peter has “retired”. But, in truth, he’ll never be parted from his road and his machines. Once he’s hung up the phone, he’ll be off up there again, to improve the carriageway, he says. During the ski season, Bruce can’t drive two snow groomers, so he’s the “back-up driver”.
You can’t separate that man from his road, chuckles Bruce. “He’s a bit of a stubborn bugger, but he’s got where he is because of it. Once he started the process and dug over the first bit of dirt on the road, there was no going back.”
Ask Bruce how he feels about what his father has achieved and he’ll say without hesitation: pride.
“It is a lifetime’s achievement – it really is,”says Bruce.
So if you pop up to Mt Dobson this ski season, make sure to take a long look at the road that took Peter and his bulldozers 10,000 hours to build. See if you can visualise the spot where Bruce and his brothers played with their Tonka toys, the culverts complete with Shirley’s pipes, and the ‘bathroom’ with a view. Because in every nook and cranny of that road there is a memory to be found – all linked to the family who created a lasting legacy on a hill, so people have a place to play in winter.