Fly me to the moon.
Adventures with a flying squatter
Culture and Navigation in Cooloola
Hunter or gatherer?
Mt Kosciuszko here we come
Fish and Friends
Around the Monaro
A Call To Arms
Eliza Slept Here
Transport on two wheels
Doing its Job
Private Medicine in Australia
THE REST OF THE WORLD
Of Serpentine and Hyde Park
River of January
Have a Good Day in France - Anywhere.
Azure a Beautiful Colour
A train too far
Animal farms of South Africa
Elizabeth from Scotland
ANECDOTES AND REFLECTIONS
This is an attempt to set down some happenings in my six and a bit decades of my life in Australia. I did not keep a diary, but I did keep some essays of some events, particularly of my travels. Quite often I can slot in some world or local political events and match them with my personal experiences. I should admit here and now, that I am a very political person. I am also keen to write down things as I think they are and not be limited by “political correctness”. I do verify dates which I quote and where I am uncertain I leave them out. I also find some small matters of enough interest to describe them in details even when they appear to be trivial.. I hope that this writing will be a bit more than just a chronicle of one’s existence.
One misty morn…
1949 to 1952
In the morning of a day in the first week of January 1949 a sleepy migrant staggered onto the “A” deck and got quite a surprise to see so many people in uniform already on deck. He knew that the ship – the SS Volendam – was nearing Australia, but could not see the coast-line, it was too misty, so how did these Immigration Officers get on board? They must have come in some boat from Fremantle. I rushed downstairs to my “C” deck bunk, fished out my papers, a passport and a Landing Permit, and got processed pretty quickly. At last I will put my foot down on the smallest continent – Australia – and start to experience the next stage of my life.
We left Czechoslovakia about a week ahead of the departure of our ship- the Volendam as my father was worried that the Communist Government may close the borders and leave as in that commo cage. We travelled through Germany and got out of the train in Cologne to stretch our legs. I am talking about 3 and a half years since the war’s end, and we walked a few blocks and did not strike an undamaged building. The roads were cleared and in place of buildings was a heap of rubble. By the time we reached Holland there was no rubble to be seen – only cleared spaces where buildings once stood. When we walked out of the train in Germany there were two exits. One for “Allied” personnel and one for Germans. In Holland we noticed that the platforms at railway stations were raised so that you could step right into the train from the platform and did not have to scale steps with your luggage. Some quick impressions of Holland include the fact that residential buildings were narrow, semi-detached and rooms had no curtains – so that one could see inside from the street, the locals told us that they allow this as they had nothing to hide( I wonder if that is still the case), Street cafes were full of women who, mostly, appeared very solidly built, whilst some young and slim soldiers paraded on the street in preparation to being dispatched to the Dutch occupied Indonesia. ( Shortly after our arrival in Australia, the Dutch gave up and Indonesia became an independent state.)
In Holland we stayed at Utrecht, with the parents of a friend I had met in Prague at an International Student’s congress. I then travelled by train to Roosendaal on the Belgian border to meet my friend (who was stationed in Antwerp and I had no Belgian visa.) I did not have time to visit Amsterdam, which I regretted.
My ship left Rotterdam with me, my parents, and about a dozen Czechoslovakians, (including one still in the police uniform in which he escaped across the border) plus a few hundred others of a variety of nations, mostly “reffos” (Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and Balts; Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians) and even migrants from the free world; Holland, Malta and other western European countries.
On the way, the boat got battered in the Bay of Biscay, but little did we know that worst was to come in the Great Australian Bight. Our ship anchored in Ismailia, Suez and Aden but we did not disembark, just watched the exhibition of the local traders offering their wares and expertly throwing ropes to be caught by passengers on deck, when a sale was made. The next anchorage was at Colombo in what was then called Ceylon – now Sri Lanka, where we spent much of our petty cash, which was all our generous Czech authority allowed us – US $10. The boat did not actually come to a pier, it just anchored in the middle of the harbour and smaller boats took us to shore. Local customs officers were delighted to see that we had a passport from a communist country as the prevailing political climate was rather Marxist. We decided not to talk politics. We hired a rickshaw, a two-wheeled cart pulled by a man; that colonial contraption, which carried us through the very hot and humid city and introduced us to the tropical Asian climate with its perfume-like odours – mainly frangipani. It was good to have your feet planted on earth again, but after an inspection of local Buddhist shrines, we returned to our boat for the last stretch to Australia.
First, lets us get our feet on Terra Australis (no longer Incognita), Fremantle – here we come. Our bus took us from Fremantle to Perth, there was then still some open country between those two towns. We passed the Murdoch University and the Swan River and visited our first Australian city. We even visited a small church – a timber one – which did not seem awesome enough to encourage our faith, after being used to large stone cathedrals. Perth was just an ordinary country town, as were most Australian towns in those days ( other than Sydney and Melbourne).
Our next stop was Melbourne, where we were stuck because of a strike. To get there we had to pass a very bumpy Great Australian Bight with its Nullarbor Plain north of it. I wondered if that nice name is of some native origin only to find out later that it is a Latin word for “no trees”. The stopover was very pleasant, as we had time to walk around the City and its parks quite a bit. We even had time to go to the botanic gardens; which leads me to the time, later that day, when we explained to someone where we had been but we pronounced the word “botanical” in a Czech fashion, that puts the accent on the first syllable, which so distorts the pronunciation, that nobody could understand us. Melbourne was an impressive town with its parks, gardens, buildings and especially the monumental Exhibition building, which I later found to have been the venue of Australia’s first Federal Parliament.
I read a lot about Australia, but nothing could prepare me for the majesty and beauty of Port Jackson – Sydney town. Once we passed the Heads we entered the calm, beautiful and very rich looking place with lots of bays, posh houses and of course – the Coathanger – the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which spans the old Sydney Town and the North Shore with its prominent amusement park named Luna Park on the North Shore. Circular Quay had a quaint attachment to it called Bennelong Point, with an unsightly tram depot, which had to wait another 25 years to be graced with that wonderful building shaped like a sailing boat and called the Sydney Opera House. No sooner did we lift our foot off the gang plank to step onto Australian soil, were we were asked the question: “How do you like Australia” We had a bit of fun trying to convince people that we have not as yet been able to make a judgment.
Our sponsor and benefactor was an accountant, a mister Schrotter, who came to Australia from our home town Olomouc just before the war, and established an accountancy practice in Sydney. He pressed a couple of pounds into my hand and suggested that I have a haircut. I had one just a day before landing, but that must have been in the European way and still too long. The fashion of the day was “short back and sides”. Mr Schrotter also arranged for us to have a worry free fortnight by booking us in at a fashionable motel at Edgecliff. My tennis hero Lew Hoad was staying there with his wife Jenny. There, I was also introduced to a breakfast food previously unknown to me – namely cornflakes. I liked it instantly. The motel was very close to Double Bay a very up-market suburb, which had a very nice little swimming pool: The Redleaf Pool. I spent many a day in that pool where I learnt to appreciate the “scenery”, or do I have to spell it out – the girls. My parents went looking for a place to live – a flat or a house. There were not too many flats or units available at that time. There was some kind of price control on existing rented properties, the ruling price being 2 pound ten shillings ($5 in today’s’ currency) per week. Any property not previously rented could be rented at market price – which was double that price (($10). The average weekly income paid to unqualified labour was around $15-18. There was still a form of rationing of tea, butter and petrol (Australian cigarettes, which were cheaper, were hard to get), three and a half years after the war. It was explained to me that this was intended to protect the British pound sterling, to which the Australian dollar was tied at 1 to 1.25. We rented a house in Ashfield, practically next door to Pratten Park, which was the ground of one of the Sydney rugby league clubs’. It was obvious that more than one member of the family had to work. My mother “decided” that as I was not quite 21 I had to empty my pockets and give her my pay. I could have argued that the laws of most countries declared maturity to be at the age of 18. Never mind, only ten months to go, and mother supplied all the food. I washed the clothes with the help of a wash-board, which became a musical instrument of some modern bands. . In those days there was plenty of overtime to be had – and that extra money was my pocket money. My first substantial purchase was a radio. I indulged in jazz, Bing Crosby and Artie Shaw, whose tune “Frenesi” was played every day at midnight on the only station which was “never off the air” (I think it was 2 UE). Jazz was, and still is, my favourite light music, all the other genres leave me quite cold, but there are the occasional good tunes that stick. I did maintain my liking of classical music. I even summoned some courage to go to the “Trocadero” a public dance venue where I got knocked back a few times much to my disgust; in most other places I had been to, you could not be knocked back in a public hall.
Sydney is really graced with some wonderful beaches, and probably the most famous one is Bondi Beach. Some people seemed to have waded into the water only knee high – and of course – I could do better than that, although I am a poor swimmer. Only later did I find out how dangerous the sea could be, with its undercurrents and gutters. At one stage a friend urged me to re-enter the water and I forgot to take my sunglasses off. I lost them in the surf, and in those days you could not get optical sunglasses in this country. If you imagine Sydney Harbour – Port Jackson – to be a basin – well on the outside of the basin are dozens of beautiful beaches From Bondi to Cronulla in the south and from Manly up to Palm Beach in the north. Other venues were the Hawkesbury River estuary and Coal and Candle Creek in the Ku-rin-gai Chase in the north, to say nothing of the Blue Mountains to the west and a national park actually called “National Park” in the south. Plenty of weekend outings there.
My family was very lucky to get permission to immigrate legally and father had to do a lot of leg work to get me a passport, as I was due for military service. He not only got me off but he also obtained permission to allow us to take some household goods with us and also a 250cc motor bike – a Jawa.
We sold that straight away to get some capital but very soon afterwards I did purchase an identical motor which allowed me to scoot around the countryside and in the jargon of the day – so become a “temporary Australian”. Some refugees in Australia thought that we were Russian spies to be able to get out, when at the same time, thousand were escaping illegally. I think that we might have been allowed to leave, as my mother was of Hebrew origin and the communists were getting rid of them. Shortly after we left, there were some “mock” trials involving Jews and in Russia they had a go at Jewish doctors (Stalin feared that they tried to kill him).
My first job was that of a dispatcher in a dry cleaning business. In January days are pretty hot in Australia – and a dry cleaning workshop was even hotter. To cool us down, the firm had a large tray to which a great slab of ice was placed every couple of hours. The melted ice could then be drained into a glass and some cordial added. I did not stay there for very long and dashed off to The Ford Motor Company. When I fronted with my CV they advised me that they only employ people aged 21 or over (I was under a year short of that). The clerk hesitated a bit when he pointed it out to me, which gave me the idea that perhaps I could just change the date of my birth, I did that – no problem. I was just surprised how lightly such formalities were treated. My dad, having been a Ford dealer in Czechoslovakia where he sold a record number of tractors to farmers, had a letter of recommendation from the European area centre in Debenham to the Australian branch of Fords, who offered him a job – namely that of car-washer. That was very harsh on a proud man of fifty, used to have some position of authority previously. He did accept though. At that time, 1949, non-British migrants just had to wear the fact that only menial factory jobs were available to them. I could not use my Commercial High accountancy qualifications either, but luckily I did not wish to use them. With hindside, I would say that Australia was more disdainful of non-British trade and professional qualifications than the English themselves.
I injured my back trying to lift a frame off a trestle, on the assembly line at Fords’, before I released the press. I injured my back, and took my pain to a first aid station, but they declared me to be an immigrant bludger. The RAP ( Regimental Aid Post – a wartime jargon) man actually said that and thought that I could not understand him. I then went to my foreman and asked him to let me go home. He said he could not do that if I was injured at work, and told me to go and rest in the paddock. The factory manager came along, quizzed me about my injuries and called an ambulance. I, the bludger was off for the rest of the week with an injured back. I discovered that the ordinary workers on the factory floor were very pleasant and helpful, but the middle class – being the first aid station people, were snooty and prejudiced against newcomers. Strangely, I also discovered that the office middle class, very much to the political right, declared that communism was probably the ideal system. Nothing was further from my own philosophy having just got out of the real communists’ clutches. The union workforce was, in the meantime, fighting the incursion of communists’ officials in their union. Very soon, in my first year in Australia, a Labor Government sent troops into coal mines as the communists tried to stop coal production. The communists got beaten and the Prime Minister, Mr Chifley prevailed. The same PM tried to nationalise the free enterprise banks, which was the last attempt of The Australian Labor Party to socialise any enterprise and that platform was later abandoned by the party. Chifley failed in that attempt and Robert G. Menzies, who appeared to be discredited as he lost his job in 1942 and had a nasty nick name (Pig Iron Bob). That election in late 1949 brought in the renamed conservative party – now called the Liberal Party, which stayed in power for 23 years.
There were some tensions between management and the unions on the factory floor. The unions obtained a concession, namely a 10 minute pause for morning and afternoon tea, but did not stipulate that the workers could sit down. I did not know this and when the break came I sat down as my body was not yet used to standing all day on a concrete floor. My co-workers warned me not to sit down but I did not see why, till a management person came along and motioned me to get up.
Within a year my parents purchased a house in Top Ryde, with finance which was easily obtained. We had a lodger, a Czech named Vladimir Nanka, who helped with the repayments and also went to work at Fords’ with me.
Before leaving Europe I used to attend sporting venues on the weekend, but the weekend in Sydney actually meant Saturday as Sundays were a practical “shut down” on entertainment activities. The culprit were the protestant churches, who banned all Sunday commercial activities. I used to be in the habit of going to see a football match and I went to see a match between a Sydney team and a Scottish team – Dundee. The result was 10 to 1 and it was obvious that the standard of Australian football was quite poor and I gave up being interested in it for just about half a century. I found out that the “world game” was called “soccer” here and that it ranked fourth in the various football codes after rugby league, Australian rules (also called “aerial ping-pong” by its detractors) and rugby union ( incidentally the number of players in the various codes is 18,15,13 and 11).
I found out that in the Domain in Sydney, there was a speakers’ corner, where anybody could spruik about their philosophies, preferably whilst elevating their stature by standing on a butter box. There were some truly amazing ones. One, proclaiming himself to be a Viennese migrant, announced that he came to Australia in 1905 and “there was no “workers’ constipation” here and the “borassic wage” was two pounds ten. He further advanced philosophies, such as referring to military matters – where “the only fighting to be done on weekends was to be done by officers” and – that “there should be light beer for light drinkers and heavy beer for heavy drinkers”.
Scores of very attractive beaches with plenty of “talent” parading in not that much clothing and all this very accessible by a good system of public transport. I was fortunate to join a social club called the Ngannugan Club, full of Europeans and some Australians, which met on Sundays for an interesting talk by prominent people, including artists and the Mayor of Sydney. On alternate Sundays we organised bushwalks and on public holidays we went to youth camps, one of them being at Narrabeen Lakes where we had some minor confrontation between wartime foes.(Germans, Poles and Jews – mainly)
I made some very good and close friends, with whom I am still in touch, but who refused to migrate with me to the warmer climes of Queensland. One of them, Henriette, five years my junior, whom I treated as a sister and confidante during my period of grief when I lost my first wife; hotfooted it to the UK with a journalist and later to la Belle France with an artist/painter. We are still in touch and she and her family had hosted me in Sydney, and in various towns in The Provence in France. She in turn visited us in Australia. Another friend, George, is firmly anchored in Sydney town and we meet nearly every year.
I was a spoiled middle class boy when I arrived here and whilst quite determined to do some physical work, my constitution was not up to it and I felt quite tired and unable to study at night. I became a member of the Ford company’s soccer team and I did join the NSW Tech College Bushwalkers club. Our first major outing was to the Mt Franklin area at the back of Canberra. To my surprise, bushwalking here was more like bush-running. Progress was at a very past pace and to cross creeks one did not take ones shoes off. My experience at the hinterland of Canberra made me keen to get to know more of the Snowy Mountains, which started not very far away. I did in fact have my first holiday in the Snow country at the Kosciuszko Hotel. Very soon afterwards I took the plunge and left the comfort of my parents’ house to venture into the Snowy Mountains.
Before departing for the Snowy I had a three months stopover at Jervis Bay south of Sydney. The place, near Nowra, had a Naval Base, and was not part of the state of New South Wales. It was in fact part of Australia’s’ Capital Territory although not contiguous to Canberra. I applied for a job in Sydney with a Federal Department which looked after rehabilitation centres. To get the job I had to swear allegiance to the King of England (it was before Betty got the job) so that he would permit me to be his “useful” which entailed washing dishes and cleaning the floor and also helping disabled sportsmen to run between wickets – by running for them. Somehow, I got interested in cricket – a most unusual thing for a non-Britisher to get to like. I blame this addiction to cricket for a final breakdown of my correspondence with my girlfriend in Czechoslovakia. I actually spend a whole evening writing to her and giving a full description of cricket, right down to “bowling the maiden over” and she just dismissed it. She liked the Communists better anyway.
The management also send a couple of us to Huskisson to collect some weird slimy creatures called oysters. That was not such a good idea, as I got to like eating them and that is not exactly a cheap pastime. The Bay had some small penguins and a lot of sea life and we had an aboriginal fishing village nearby at Wreck Bay. On the northern end of the bay we had Pt. Perpendicular – a very steep headland with a lighthouse. The locals are very particular about the pronunciation of Jervis Bay – which is pronounced “Jurvis Bay”. Our place also had a tidal swimming pool. I tried to impress some visitors by jumping in once without making sure that it was safe enough (as it was a tidal pool) and I came a’ cropper by jamming my head in a sand bar. Luckily it was only my pride that was hurt. My dentist in Europe warned me that conditions in Australia were not very good for maintenance of ones’ teeth (lack of calcium) and during my 2nd year in this country I lost 5 teeth which I left with a Mr Christmas, the Nowra dentist. The place attracted a lot of visitors, but I did not succeed with any conquests at that time. It was quite amazing how short sighted these girls were.
Whilst in this area I decided to become a hunter. I purchased a .22 rifle to help the country get rid of bunnies. When driving along the countryside one could not help seeing dozens of ears popping out of the vegetation – good old Aussie rabbits – millions of them. Sadly, I did not do any research. What happened was this: Primary producers pressured the Government to do something about this pest, which was consuming large quantities of vegetation and the government did just that, came up with something called “myxomatosis” which eliminated the poor bunnies practically overnight. I had no scalps whatever to show for my great capital investment (in buying the rifle). The good old Akubra Ozzie hat needs about 14 rabbit skins (one problem not foreseen by the inventors of myxomatosis). And what about my poor testosterone fix? All is well for the bunnies – they are back – nearly in full strength (but I don’t have a rifle any more).
My mate – Nanka and I arrived in Cooma, the headquarters of the Snowy project early in 1951. They sent us to Spencer’s Creek which is only 2km down the hill from the Charlotte Pass near the Chalet Kosciuszko. The idea was to ascertain if the ground was stable enough for the construction of a dam which would have been practically beneath the Summit itself. The Authority engaged an American contractor to undertake diamond drilling across the valley – and that job was accomplished very efficiently. I was, however, engaged by the Authority itself, as a percussion driller’s assistant and my foreman, a New Zealander with pretences of being an ex NZ prime minister’s relative, was in charge of a percussion drill (such drills are also used to drill for water in the inland). We managed to lose the drilling bit by driving it into the ground sideways. This particular testing was managed by the SMHEA (Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Authority). The management was quite shambolic as they gave us – two workers – picks, shovels and gelignite sticks to dig an adit through very hard granite. At least the gelignite was very useful for trout “fishing” in our (Spencer’s) creek. That did not last very long, and this venture was abandoned and the dam was never built in that place. Wisely, the Authority later used contractors, mostly foreign, for sections of the projects. The major contractors were Utah Constructions from the USA and Selmer Engineering from Norway, who had nearly completed the Guthega dam for the supply of power for the next stages of the Snowy Scheme.
The Snowy Mountains scheme was one of the largest constructions ever undertaken in Australia. It was planned to take 25 years to built – and it did, and it was to cost $ 800million – and it came on budget. The project was initiated by Ben Chiefly, the Labor PM, before he lost power and it is a monumental one, comprising 16 dams (one holding 9 ½ times the volume of the Sydney Harbour) 8 power stations (of nearly 4 million kilowatts), 90 miles of tunnels, and it diverted some millions of hectolitres of water for irrigation from the Snowy River into the Murray and Murrumbidgee. Over the quarter century it took to build the project, 100.000 workers were employed there, most of whom were migrants.
I learned, that hydro-electric power was for peak hour use, as it was easy to start and stop; simply open the water flow when you need it, whereas coal-powered power stations have to keep going 24 hours per day. In off-peaks you could pump the water up-hill from the storage below – and re-use it later. Magic. To this date it remains a masterpiece of national and political achievement.
It is worth mentioning that the projects was legislated by a Labor Government, but was completed by those who initially opposed it – The Liberals. Sixty years later, another monumental project, a National Broadband Network, could well have a similar political fate.
To get to Spencers’ Creek one travelled from Cooma to Jindabyne (one of the towns later flooded – the other major one being Adaminaby) then up to Hotel Kosciuszko, Smiggin Holes, Perisher Valley and Betts Camp, Our group was quite a small one – about a dozen men – Poles, Czechs, Maltese, an Australian, an Irish and Germans. The Authority paid for the cook and we paid for the food. The cook was a Scotsman and his standard breakfast food included some goo called burgoo, a form of Scottish porridge. His son who also worked with us, left to join the army, then fighting in Korea. I was not eligible for the draft as I was not a naturalised British subject then. Only about a fifth of us were British, we chose our own food and the choice of food was not too strong on steaks, much to the disgust of the Australians, who could have eaten steak three times a day in those times. I was the mess organiser and the union rep.
One Sunday we prepared ourselves for a great expedition: horse riding for the unable, continental sausage sizzle and the conquest of the Peak (that’s Mt. Kosciuszko). It all started with four of us (Pole, Czechs and a German) hiring horses from the Kosciusko Chalet. A German made a spectacular start in that he wore jodhpurs (don’t know where he got them). He was a smaller fellow and the horse is much higher than you would think at first, so he took a mighty jump into the saddle, but the jump was too mighty and he finished up on the ground on the other side. We all made it eventually and proceeded to ride to a small lake Albina at the bottom of Mt Townsend where we planned to have a sausage sizzle. Now, the continental way is to build a fire, sharpen some sticks, pierce the sausage with it on one end and hold it over the fire. A good theory in Europe, but we had only Australian sausages – also known as snags, and these are very thin and have very soft ingredients inside. When we pierced them onto a stick, the ingredients just poured out. That was the end of that. What we needed was something like a knackwurst which is firmer and larger. We did “conquer” the summit at about lunchtime and proceeded to pull out some tins of meat. Problem. We did not have a tin opener. After some searching around we did find a horseshoe and proceeded to lever the top open and poured the contents into the palms of our hands – as we forgot to bring some cutlery. We celebrated the fact that we actually got to the top of Australia’s highest mountain – the smallest of any of the continents – a mere 2228 m. We were not assimilated enough to bring supply of beer with us. On the way downhill, my horse spotted a tuft of some green grass and despite all my efforts to stop him, he could not resist the chance of a free lunch on it. Now the side of this peak is not really made of marshmallow (it is in fact granite) and as the horse stopped I described a rather inelegant curve over his head but managed to miss any sharp rocks when I hit the ground..
Spencer’s Creek had a State government hydrological station built of stone, but our Authority only had only built a timber hut for a kitchen and tents to sleep in. There was a water pipe running from the side of the hill which the hut leaned against. It was not insulated, and when the frost started it was essential that nobody turn the water flow off. But someone did and the water froze and cracked the pipe. We had to dig the pipe up, replace it and insulate it so that it would not happen again. In the first weeks of autumn it was quite fun to crunch the ice with our feet as we walked to the outdoor shower – but we were young and tough (ha ha). The good Authority decided to put up some temporary dwelling and bathrooms and to this purpose invited a group of German builders to erect it. The Germans had a look at the plans and went on strike. They were not going to construct such rubbish! It took some convincing to make them accept the fact that these were purely temporary structures and eventually they did. So, now we had a bedroom each and we also got a kerosene heater each. That created some mirth the next morning, when my neighbour saw me and started to laugh. The reason? My face was charcoal black from the fumes emanated from the heater. But I was the lucky one. In the neighbouring camp workers still lived in tents and an unlucky Irishman made sure that there was no drought entering the tent (and hence no air). The poor man is still asleep.
On the other side of the valley we had Mt Sugarloaf, which was a base of hydrologists and also a base for a very spectacular pack of dogs, allegedly, but doubtfully – huskies. When the bigwigs arrived for an inspection of our area, Johnny (who had previously been a ski instructor of our troops in Lebanon in WW2) harnessed the huskies to a practically empty sledge, cracked the whip, shouted “mush” at the dogs and made a very effective impression. What a spectacle – Alaskan huskies, a sled moving up and down gullies, quite un-Australian. The whole thing was a complete farce. When the snow came and I had nothing to do (and get paid for 6 days of work) before the Authority invented a job for us, I volunteered to accompany Johnny on a trip with the sledge and dogs to a nearby camp to deliver a battery charger. This was a pretty small item, but the dogs could not pull it up hill and I had to do the pushing and shoving from the rear.
The Authority picked a date in April in anticipation of a snowfall isolating us, to transport our vehicle to a lower place – Jindabyne. I still had my bike and together with others we ploughed through the snow which started to fall, got safely to Jindabyne but got snowed in by a blizzard on the way back only 500m from our Spencer’s Creek hut. By the time we managed to walk to the camp most of our Australian mates just about “lost it” and when we got to our huts they headed straight for a hot water tap. We, the foreigners managed to stop them. It could be quite dangerous, because the proper way to fight frost bite is with cold water.
Our camp was only 1.5km from our watering hole, namely the Koszciuszko Chalet, just below Charlotte Pass. The road actually followed a ridge and then dropped down to the Chalet. The other way to go was to cross a swampy gulley, which was covered by snow in winter. It was a lot shorter. The two of us, who had skis, had no problem. The length of the ski straddled the patches of snow and avoided the little rivulets of water; spread the weight and let you get through. Not so good for the ski-less people. What appeared to be a patch of snow only lightly covered the surface. When those on foot stepped on it, they went right through to the swamp much to the amusement of the smart arse Europeans.
Newcomers to Australia feel quite unsympathetic to local trees, which appear scrawny and uneven. After some years, this actually gives them a pleasant charm, as the European trees are too straight and appear to be like soldiers in a military formation. When you travel to the summit along the main road from Cooma, rarely do you have an impression of entering some mountain massif. You seem to see only an elevation of 200m at a time. That feeling changes if you travel in other directions. When coming from Tumut and Talbingo towards Adaminaby you are conscious of a steeper climb and again if you are coming from the Victorian side and through Khancoban and Thredbo you know that you are in the high mountains. When coming towards the summit from Charlotte Pass, or Thredbo, or over the top from Dead Horse Gap or on a wild track from Scammel’s Lookout the height also becomes quite evident.
Once travelling on my small 250cc motorbike with my mate Nanka riding pillion, we tried to overtake a utility on a dirt road just out of Jindabyne but he appeared to be blocking us by driving from side to side. We did overtake him eventually, just below The Creel and as we passed him my pillion driver gave him a familiar two finger sign. Wouldn’t you know it, but 3km up the road the bike conked out, the utility caught up with us and stopped and my mate and the other man proceeded to have a very animated discussion. After some minutes of my fruitless effort to revive the beast I declared: “we’ve had it”. The moment I said it, the utility driver stopped arguing and said “You better put your bike on the back of my ute”, that sure was a beautiful gesture – one could say: “a typical Australian gesture”.
When you walk from Charlotte Pass, or when you join the track from Thredbo you get to cross the Snowy River and around there- in spring – you see a beautiful spread of bush flowers such as buttercups, heath, alpine daisies, and orchids and taste the cool waters of the Snowy. Most of its waters were diverted inland to the Murray and Murrumbidgee and they take a long detour inland. You also see patches of snow on the side of the mountains, which, sometimes, never melt. A hut was built near this spot in memory of a skier who perished there – Seaman’s Hut, which has emergency stores for anyone who could get stuck there in winter. In my days one could drive a car to Seaman’s Hut and I also drove a bike (and rode a horse) right up to the summit, Today you have to walk from Charlotte Pass or the top of the lift from Thredbo. In my younger days it was a rule in those mountains to make sure that you were returning downhill by lunchtime, but at the turn of the century a small group of young men took of from Thredbo late in the afternoon, armed with gear that would allow them to breathe even if snowed under. Well they did get snowed under by a blizzard, hunkered down but their gear – some kind of tubes - was not long enough to let them breathe and they all perished as the snow drift was too high..
When Spencer’s Creek closed down I was transferred to Munyang and later to Island Bend. I was promoted to a clerk recording disposition of heavy equipment, most of which consisted of TD24 and Caterpillar tractors. I found the food so distasteful that I decided to buy my own food and heat it on top of my kerosene heater. The Authority eventually decided that in those camps “batching” was not allowed and I had to either conform or go to another camp. I surrendered. In those days cooking in the canteen was truly woeful and cooks were referred to as being tucker f….rs. To call a bastard a cook was very offensive, much more so than the other way around. I am not sure whether the following was planned or not, but one night the whole camp woke up and rushed out and along the duck-boards, which were the communication path in this muddy area. We were all heading one way – and many of us just did not make it in time. Did anyone add something to our dinner? This mystery was not solved.
I was always interested in games, but not until I came to the Snowy, did I take any interest in gambling. Did I fall in a big way!. Firstly, I invested twenty pounds in “unders and overs” and I doubled my stake. After that I proceeded to lose many of my pays and when it came to decide if I was going to Sydney for Christmas with my parents – I had to say no – I shall be working right through. Two nights before Christmas I sat in on a poker game and having been dealt 4 Jacks I betted all I had, doubled my stake and I was off to Sydney after all. From then on I was very cautious with my gambling.
On paydays I travelled to the Hotel Kosciuszko, where a friend of mine deposited my pay with a Savings Bank the following day when a representative of the bank came after each pay day. That night the hotel went up in smoke and my pay and my friends pay was lost. My friend was actually too busy saving the hotel management’s valuables rather than worrying about his and my money. We had another bit of excitement when some armed robbers took a whole payroll for our area and disappeared. How they managed to disappear is a mystery, but at least the workers did not lose their money that time.
All my experiences and memories of the Kosciuszko region are unforgettable. I could describe them as the pinnacle of my youthful experiences. Tearing up and down the dirt roads on my bike, ripping up the surface of the snow with my skis and body, and miraculously getting over my spills (no doubt using some of my cat’s lives), surviving great card games which nearly beggared me, and getting over my inelegant departure from that four legged beast. I returned to the region as a tourist many a time after I finished my 14 months stint there as a worker.
Buckenderra holiday village near Eucumbene dam sits on top of the old village of Adaminaby. This was a meeting point with friends from Sydney – Honza Kodet, and Henry Karas from Melbourne. Both of them were keen fishermen and I just came for a ride and company. They each had some spare fishing rods and on successive night I caught a trout on these borrowed rods. After such dazzling success I thought it was time I had my own rod. I bought one, fished for a week and caught nothing. The worst is to come. Both my friends told me about a place in Cooma which was good at smoking fish and how such a preparation is superior to eating fresh fish, and how, after that treatment – they would air-freight it to me in Brisbane. I fell for it. Cooma had an unexpected power failure and that was the end of the smoking and my fish. I had to wait a long time before I ate a fish caught by me.
I travelled past Dead Horse Gap a number of times. Once, over Christmas period, I camped there overnight whilst the temperature was zero centigrade. Another time, coming back from a fishing trip and heading towards Thredbo, I had to turn back because of a bush fire and do a great circle route past Khancoban and Cabramurra. But my greatest “solo” hiking trip was to walk from there to Seaman’s hut and Charlotte Pass. I thought I could beat the drivers who went via Jindabyne. It should have been – and luckily it was – a piece of cake. When I left Dead Horse Gap, I only had to go up- hill and reach either Lake Cootapatamba, the summit, or the Seaman’s Hut. I first looked across the country in the opposite direction and tried to memorise the shape of the hills on that side. Then I took off and decided not to look back for 45 minutes and just power up the hill. I was very fit at that time and I did stop after 45 minutes and looked back and the sight nearly frightened me. There were no hills on the other side at my level. I just walked over the height of them and I was nearing the plateau leading to the springs near Seaman’s hut. The ground was very soggy and soon I could see that I was between the lake and the hut. For a while, it was quite scary and lonely. Seaman’s Hut is merely 198m below the summit and 12km from Charlotte Pass and in those days there was a road all the way (now you can’t drive past Charlotte Pass). I caught a lift back and easily beat the other travellers.
In 1999 the Snowy Authority decided to have a celebration, that year being the 50th since the beginning of the construction and Vera and I decided to attend it. We took a long circle route, driving from Canberra via Gundagai and Tumut. We saw a lot of a purple weed called Patterson’s curse and unusually large numbers of kangaroos or wallabies on pastures beside the road. We stopped at Tumut for the night and next day continued via Talbingo and up the hill to Cabramurra (which used to be the highest worker’s camp on the Snowy) and on to Khancoban were we stayed overnight – in a most beautiful part of the country. The next morning we stopped in the village to see if we could get some accommodation in Jindabyne. They did arrange one for us and surprise surprise when we walked into the establishment we met Olga and John Sharman who were acquaintances from my Mt Co-otha Rotary Club.
Next day was the start of the festivities and the organisers tried to separate groups into the time periods of the years when they worked there. My years on the Snowy were 1951/52. There was a blackboard there were I scribbled my name on and very soon a young child took me by the hand and lead me to me to his grandfather, an old Irish friend, Dick who worked with me at Spencer’s Creek. When I faced him, he looked me in the eye and said; “I remember Henry Zehr” – but he did not recognise me as his memory was gone (Alzheimer’s I presume).
,When we were leaving Czechoslovakia we managed to exchange – illegally – about 200 pound sterling. I was not game to carry that money on me in case customs officers searched me, and an Irishmen, whom I befriended, promised to deliver it to me in Australia as he made frequent trips there. He never returned that money, and Dick, the friend mentioned above, visited him on one of his trips to Ireland, pleaded with him to return the money – but to no avail. We lost the money.
There were 3 brothers from Malta named Grech and when I said that I worked with two of them at Spencer’s Creek, they denied ever having met me. I wished that I had never come to this “celebration”.