Alpine Nature Experience founder Jean-Francois Rupp offers guests a truly unique winter experience in Victoria's snowy High Country. His low-impact eco-village on the top of Mount Hotham strives to connect guests to the land, local makers and each other.
Growing up on a ski resort in the French Alps, Jean-Francois was taught by his grandfather to ski, around the same time he learned how to walk. Since moving to Victoria's High Country, not much has changed. 'I love to say I can commute to work on skis,' he says.
'People might think that, obviously coming from the French Alps, I've settled for second best with the Australian Alps, which is not the case at all,' he says. ‘Everything I love about Europe is in Australia. You have sensational food, great wine, fantastic people, a very open community. And of course, the stunning scenery, which just has no equivalent anywhere else in the world.'
Rupp's unique experience strives to bring all these elements together, to show people that there's a lot more to the Australian Alps and a trip to the snow than first meets the eye.
On the very top of Mount Hotham, visitors strap on snowshoes to walk a snow-lined path, into the bush. Along the walkway, Jean-Francois engages guests with stories about the area's natural and man-made history, from gold-rush era tales, to facts about the increasingly rare snow gums in the area.
From here, guests emerge into a hidden clearing, in which Jean-Francois and his team pitch their off-grid eco-village . There's a central tipi and three snow domes, along with an igloo, if the weather allows.
Finding a spot to set up his eco-village wasn't easy and Jean-Francois believes that the site is unique in more ways than one.
'What I do at Alpine Nature Experience, I couldn't do in the French Alps or in Europe, but I also couldn't do anywhere else but in Victoria at Mount Hotham. There's just nowhere else like it.'
The domes are designed specially for the snow and the often unforgiving environment on top of the mountain. These wooden structures are kept snug with wood fire heaters and thermal sleeping bags. On a clear night, the stars are visible through the dome's transparent roof. 'The thing Australia has on Europe is the stars ,' Jean-Francois says. 'The Milky Way on Hotham is incredible.'
There are many facets of the Alpine Nature Experience that make it unique, but the opportunity to spend the night in an igloo, the only one of its kind in Australia, has got to be up there.
'I don't think you can quite describe what it feels like to sleep in an igloo, but the closest you'll get is if you were to fall asleep on the water. You're completely separated from the outside world.' Jean-Francois explains. 'There's no noise, there's hardly any light. You're in your own bubble of snow.'
The fragility of the surrounding environment is one reason why Jean-Francois has taken such a strict 'zero trace' approach to his business. A member of environmental enterprise 1% For the Planet, Jean-Francois knows it's possible to combine tourism and sustainability. His eco-village is dismantled with care at the end of the snow season, to give the area a chance to rest and regrow.
'What we take in, we take out, which means that we also completely minimise our footprint through the winter season. So that when we leave in spring, we leave absolutely no trace and no one would know that we were ever there.'
Jean-Francois hopes to connect his guests with each other too – and sharing a meal is a key part of this. As guests arrive at the eco-village they're passed a glass of mulled-wine, which Jean-Francois brews in his own home, using an old family recipe. 'It means my house smells like orange, cinnamon and clove for about three months of the year,' he says.
For the rest of the evening, it's all about keeping things hyperlocal. For Jean-Francois, Alpine Nature Experience is largely a collaborative project, working with the local community. Up to 90% of food ingredients are sourced 20-30 kilometres from Mount Hotham. Guests enjoy cans of beer from Dinner Plains' Blizzard Brewery and wines from nearby Rutherglen.
Dinner is delicious French fondue. Rupp believes it's important to connect to where your food comes from, which is why he only imports one ingredient, a French cheese . Even this has a personal twist, as the cheese comes from a village near where his Dad lives.
Through Alpine Nature Experience, Jean-Francois hopes to show there are plenty of reasons to visit the snow, besides skiing.
'There's nothing that excites me more than those first few winter days in the High Country, when the air is crisp and cold and everything is covered in that white layer of snow. It makes me feel very alive.'
For him, what ultimately makes his business unique is the patch he operates on. The local producers, their connection to the food they grow, and the land itself. 'There's something quite remarkable about the landscape in the High Country,' he says. 'You can feel that it's been there for a very long time and we can only hope that it'll stay there for another long while.'