You never know who you'll sit next to

"You just never know who you'll sit next to," Frank says, shaking his head, his west coast Kiwi accent as strong as ever. He smiles, then takes another bite of his lamb and chews thoughtfully.

Frank's right. He and his friends at the table hadn't seemed too remarkable an hour ago when they'd introduced themselves modestly as "a bunch of broken-down old skiers". But as pre-dinner drinks morphed into entrees, and entrees into mains, they'd let slip enough to prove they were more than that - much more.

These broken-down skiers are from a club field near Christchurch. They've made the short road journey to Ohau in search of more of the white stuff, with a few drops of the red stuff thrown in.

It's a tiny ski resort, Ohau, little bigger than Frank and co's club field, which boasts a single rope tow. At Ohau, when they say "all lifts are open", they mean both of them. It's the kind of place where, if you accidentally crash into someone in the morning, you'll invariably end up sitting next to them on the double chair in the afternoon.

Everyone seems to know everyone, and that's not just because they're locals who've been carving these runs their whole lives. Some of the friends chatting on the piste got to know each other only the night before while they were getting on the, um, piste.

If you ski at Ohau but don't come from Ohau, you invariably stay at Lake Ohau Lodge, the small hotel run by the Neilson family, who also run the ski hill, the canteen and just about everything else around here.

The Neilsons run the lodge as though they're hosting a social mixer each night. There's a large common room in the middle of the hotel, the kind of place where you can picture snow lovers standing around a log fire in ridiculous knitted jumpers trading war stories from a day of skiing.

You can picture this, of course, because it's happening.

Breakfast is a staggered affair, like the guests, who stagger in at different times to fuel up for the day ahead. Dinner, however, is a formal group event, where the kids eat first at a table all their own, and then the adults are seated according to a plan that exists solely in owner Jock Neilson's head.


You sit there in your silly jumper drinking a Speight's Ale by the fire until Jock fronts up: "OK, are you ready to sit down now?"

Then you're placed at a table with strangers - and you never know who you'll sit next to.

Everyone has a story; you just have to tease it out of them. The first night I'm sitting with a guy called Mike, who lets slip that he flies planes. For a living? Yeah, turns out Mike flies planes for a living.

What sort of planes? Hercules planes, he says. Mike flies Hercules for a living. That sounds like something you would do in the air force, someone comments.

Well, yeah, Mike admits, he is in the air force. Mike flies Hercules in the air force for a living.

Been anywhere dangerous?

Well, Mike says, he just got back from one of several stints he has had in Afghanistan.

So there you have it: Mike, the Brisbane dad who's learning to ski, also flies Hercules planes in Afghanistan for a living.

Interesting guy.

On night No.2, Jock summons me from a fireside reverie and places me on a table with a bunch of ageing Kiwis, the broken-down old skiers. Frank is the first to crack: he's a priest, he says, who once did a 30-year stint spreading the good word through Brazil.

He's also a mountaineer.

Turns out he and his mate Keith, from across the table, used to do some serious climbing together. They worked as alpine guides on Mount Cook, and one year spent 100 days having a crack at Everest, but fell agonisingly short.

Keith eats some lamb, then reveals he didn't always work on Mount Cook, but did a bit "down south", too. Down south? Invercargill? He grins. Antarctica.

Keith used to do a bit of work in Antarctica. Right.

What sort of work? He was in search-and-rescue, he says, based at McMurdo Station.

Ever have any big missions? Well, yeah, Keith admits. He was first on the scene when an Air New Zealand plane carrying 257 people crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979.

He led the recovery.

Keith led the recovery of the Air New Zealand disaster in Antarctica. You want stories? The guy has hundreds of them.

And this, I'm thinking, while Keith launches into yet another tale, is what travel is all about: the people. The fascinating people you would never usually meet.

It doesn't matter if you're at a dining table at Ohau, or on a bus in Moscow, or at a bar in Lima. You just never know who you'll sit next to.