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For Steve Manunui, noticing trivialities may be a matter of life and death. Minor details count while working on the side of a mountain, where a little too much wind, the wrong clothing or a moment’s inattention can have dire consequences. But the Whakapapa Ski Area manager is an observer of small moments, too. That’s why he quietly enacts a ritual of appreciation every time he drives south towards his vast, magnificent alpine workplace.
While the commute from his riverside Taupo home to Mount Ruapehu is peppered with beauty spots and glorious vistas, he always takes a mental snapshot at the same two locations. The first is near the start of his drive, where the road rounds a curve and mountains appear across the lake. Depending on the time of year, he will often reach his second favourite viewpoint just as the rising sun bathes the slopes in pink and gold.
“When you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain and you can see the top, you can’t help but be in awe of it,” Steve says. “But, because I’m driving from Taupo every day in summer, it would be quite easy to take it for granted if I’m not careful. So I always make a point of just looking.”
Steve was a 19-year-old rugby-playing architecture student from the King Country when he first set foot on Ruapehu in 1988. It was winter and he and a friend had driven to the ski hill during their university holidays when they spotted a ‘staff wanted’ sign on the door of the customer relations office. They both started work the next day, helping to operate the ski lifts.
“l’d never skied before, I’d never been to a ski hill before. But I loved the place. The buzz, the environment, the atmosphere – there was a real family whanau feel with all the workers.”
The following winter he returned, architecture studies forgotten.“And I never really left.”
He says working alongside international staff cemented lifelong friendships, broadened his horizons and drove him to travel, chasing snow seasons around the world. The mountain also introduced him to Canadian wife Kim, who was finishing her business and marketing degree when she arrived as a young traveller, to work as a snow school administrator. The pair criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean several times before settling in New Zealand; they now live in Taupo township with daughters Stevie, Charlie and Kona.
At Ruapehu, he quickly learned to embrace other cultures and developed newfound pride in his own heritage. “Both my parents were extremely hard workers and I had a very loving family so I think I already had some good work ethic and people skills when I started. But yes, the maunga has shaped me.”
He describes the particular bond that comes from working alongside good people in difficult conditions, the lessons learned in effective communication, in making difficult decisions and backing himself on hard calls like whether or not it is safe to open for skiers.
“I was never the toughest guy in the class but it’s a physically challenging place to work and it keeps you physically fit. I was taught by the last of the old school guys, no harnesses or safety gear. Being out in those conditions, even for a short time, it also makes you mentally tough. You’ve got to be able to adapt to survive on this mountain, got to have a thick skin. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
These days, he is responsible for managing the entire 550ha Whakapapa ski area and the people who work there. And he has learned to appreciate Ruapehu, in all its moods.
“There’s the ever-changing picture of it. There are never two days that are the same in my whole 30 years there. Some days it can be a little more ominous and it likes to test us a bit with the weather."
“Then, in summer, with the snow gone, you kind of see the rock formations, that real silhouette from the pinnacles up to the crater. The colours of the rocks change every day, depending on the light and you can see how harsh and rugged the terrain is. It’s iconic. And it is also a sacred place.”
Steve’s ties to the mountain run deep, back beyond three decades of work and play, through generations. He is still learning about his own ancestral connections; the stories from his home marae that link to the maunga and a grandmother who spent time at Papakai Marae, at the foot of the mountains. The two older Manunui girls attend a Maori immersion school in Taupo, where they are becoming fluent te reo speakers with a sound understanding of their culture and the significance of local landmarks such as Ruapehu. Steve says his daughters’ knowledge is rapidly outstripping his own and that pre-schooler Kona will no doubt follow suit.
Stevie was six days old when she first visited Whakapapa, tucked into her car seat capsule alongside her parents and their workmates. All three girls were on the snow before they could walk and each began ski lessons with their mum at around age three. During peak winter months, Steve lives in Whakapapa Village for part of each week and his family join him there every weekend.
“My kids have given me another kind of love for the mountain. When they come up to ski, they cut through the office and stop with the crew on the way in and out, all the staff keep an eye on them. They just love it.”
Back home in Taupo, Steve and his family live in a recently-built home on the banks of the Waikato River. Over summer, the children open a back gate and slip down the river bank to dip in and out dozens of times a day, while Steve uses it to train for the swim leg of IRONMAN competitions.
His favourite training runs begin at the house and follow the river to the lake and his pick of waterfront trails. On sunny Sunday afternoons, the whole family often takes the same route on bikes.
“I always thought if I couldn’t live at the foot of a mountain, I’d live on a lake and here we’ve got the river on the doorstep, the lake in our back yard and the mountain just a little over an hour’s drive away. We have the bush walks, the biking, it’s endless really."
“This is our lifetime home and I dream of our children and their children being in this spot. And skiing on the mountain. It’s a bloody awesome place.”
Steve's life is one of contrasts; the bright blue bird days of winter snows versus the rugged volcanic landscapes of summer. He shares his favourite winter and summer activities with us.More info
“They say a photograph tells 1000 words, but for me, a photograph only tells part of the story. When you look at a photograph, you are missing out on the sensation of the area, being out there in the cold and the wind.Find out more
Whakapapa is one of NZ's largest ski areas & boasts the country's premier beginner facility Happy Valley along with vast intermediate and advanced trails. Explore everything from cruisy groomers to exhilarating chutes, bumps & drops, made all the more exciting by the natural volcanic terrain.