Right now, the folk down Cooma way are walking around with a spring in their step for two reasons. Firstly in anticipation of the opening of the upcoming 2017 ski season, and secondly the prospect of Snowy Hydro 2.0, which, if it goes ahead, is expected to provide a significant stimulus to the high country economy.
Keen for a blast of the Snowy Hydro nostalgia, and eager to beat the first big snow dump of the season, earlier this week your Akubra-clad columnist headed into the mountains to Guthega Power Station. It was here that amid much pomp and ceremony, in April 1955, a switch was flicked on, making it the first power station of the original scheme to produce electricity.
These days there is no public access inside the power station, however, several vantage spots along the walking track to nearby Horse Camp Hut, one of the back country shelters built by the Snowy Mountains Authority (SMA) in the early 1950s, allow you to gain a real appreciation for Guthega's size and purpose.
"It's a bit of a heart-starter," says my walking companion, high country historian Matthew Higgins as he points on his trusty topographic map to a dense cluster of contour lines which clutter our intended route.
"Yes, the first 2.7 kilometres to Horse Camp Hut involves a vertical climb of several hundred metres along the management trail," explains Higgins.
"Oh dear, lucky I had all my Weet Bix," I think to myself.
Looking for any possible distraction to delay the inevitable climb, I re-check the contents of my back pack before trudging towards the trail head.
It's mid-morning and as we pass the commanding concrete edifice of the power station, a number of workers wearing high-vis vests are sitting outside in the sun, enjoying morning smoko. A couple give us an understanding nod. As they often drive it in their comfort of their 4WD work vehicles, they know all too well the route we are about to tackle on foot.
However, before we commence the ascent, Higgins motions to the far-side of the outlet channel. "Keith Montague, a long time snowy scheme engineer told me that authorities initially underestimated the force of the water that would flow out of the station," reveals Higgins. "During a test exercise, the force of the water was such that it washed away a couple of small buildings on the bank of the river opposite the power station!"
There's no chance of that today, for a maintenance crew are attending to the turbines, resulting in only a trickle of water flowing in the channel.
On the high side of the station are two pipes or penstocks as they are referred to by hydro-electricians, through which, during operation, water rushes down at great force to turn the turbines in the power station.
There's also a conspicuous connection point for a third penstock, along with cleared space on the hillside for it to run along.
Higgins has his own theory regarding this "missing" penstock.
"At the time of Guthega's construction there was still a constitutional cloud hanging over the entire scheme and there was concern that Menzies' conservative government might renege on the scheme which had been initiated by Chifley's Labor government," explains Higgins.
"In order for the scheme to 'get runs on the board' as the first power station, there was pressure from Commissioner (later Sir) William Hudson for Guthega to be quickly-built. This desire to promptly complete the project might account for the reduction from three to two penstocks."
Adding weight to Higgins' theory is that the original design model for the power station, which is now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia, clearly shows three, not two penstocks.
At least the clearing for the third penstock wasn't a complete waste of time. In Klaus Hueneke's classic Huts of the High Country (ANU Press, 1982, and most recently reprinted by Tabletop Press in 2008), Hueneke explains how the narrow space beside the second penstock "is sometimes used as an ultimate skiing challenge for the great masters of the Telemark," adding "legends passed on to me suggest that Steve Coleman, a wilderness guide, was the first to pull it off."
Wow! One can only imagine the break neck speed you'd reach hurtling down that slope on skis. Heck, my neck is sore just from looking up at the precipitous gradient.
Having procrastinated sufficiently, we finally start the long climb up the series of zig zags.
It's a glorious morning, although the pounding of my pounding heart and huffing and puffing for air almost drowns out the repetitive single note calls of several silver eyes flitting about in the trees.
At the first switchback, apart from a welcome breather, we also gain an expansive view down the penstocks to the power station and beyond. The thought of careering down there on skis gives me the heebee jeebies.
Further on, at the final zig zag we just make out the Accelerator Ski Run on Mt Blue Cow to the south. From here, the track thankfully levels out and it's a much more pleasant climb, and soon after we rock hop over a little unnamed creek we catch our first glimpse of the hut.
Nestled among snow gum woodland, its bright red door is a welcoming sign, enticing us closer.
With iron walls, several multi-paned windows, a steeply pitched roof, and a chimney of grand proportions taking up its entire width, it's a very smart-looking hut.
The horse shoe nailed to the front door (thankfully, right way up for good luck) provides a tangible link to the early 1950s when the SMA surveyors kept horses in the paddock in front of the hut. Abandoned in the 1960s, today the hut is used mainly for overnight ski tourers or walkers exploring the nearby Jagungal Wilderness Area.
Inside it's comfy enough. The main room has a large hearth with a pot belly stove and table and a smaller adjoining room (thought to be a later addition) has two sets of wooden platforms-come-bunks.
Before leaving Canberra, Hueneke had told me that he spent many a restless night in the top bunk which "was so close the ceiling" that when sleeping on his back, his "nose would constantly touch the ceiling".
The good news for Hueneke is that as part of the total rebuild of the hut undertaken in 2016 by volunteers from the Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA) and national park staff, the gap between the top 'bunk' and the ceiling was increased by several centimetres. Even the most dedicated Pinocchio impersonator should snooze in comfort now.
In fact, despite the odd critical comment in the visitor's book about the hut losing some of its original character, the rebuild team have masterfully employed a sensitive blend of traditional and modern workmanship and materials.
Another recent visitor's book entry from a Wendy, Sharon and Fi reports that "a native bush rat gnawed at the bottom corner of the door all night trying to get in," and warns "he is nearly there, nothing will be safe!"
For the uninitiated the bush rat is a dogged denizen of mountain huts, under the cloak of darkness spoiling or eating any food not securely stored. It appears that a later camper has blocked the hole with a piece of firewood, but I agree with the pragmatic trio that it's only a matter of time before the persistent rodent breaks through.
Although my first visit here, it's Higgins' tenth and he seems at home seated on the front step soaking up the view, and as a keen twitcher listening to the plaintive, descending trilled call of a nearby fan-tailed cuckoo.
We linger for an hour so, enjoying some sustenance, before tackling the much more enjoyable descent back to the car, stopping only for a closer look at the colourful scarlet and blue abdomen threat display of female mountain grasshopper.
It's heartening to know that Horse Camp Hut, one of the few surviving original snowy scheme back country huts is being so sensitively conserved. Hopefully, it will continue to be an effective refuge for many more generations of walkers and cross country skiers, for I doubt the shipping containers which will no doubt be rolled out into remote areas by Snowy Hydro 2.0 workers will have the same architectural appeal. Relics like this hut contribute as much to the fabric of Kosciuszko National Park as the wonderful fauna, flora and landscapes which it protects.
Getting there: The 9km (return) walk to Horse Camp Hut leaves the Guthega Power Station (also called Munyang) car park. The walk is on a trail but is not signposted. Hiking in the high country even on formed tracks can be dangerous at any time of the year. Take care and be prepared.
Did You Know? While it is generally accepted that the Snowy Mountains Authority (SMA) built the hut in the 1950s, a number of pre-World War II era nails recently discovered under the hut suggest that there may have been an earlier hut on this site which the SMA simply modified. More: https://khuts.org
Guthega Power Station: Power generated is transmitted to the Murray Switching Station for distribution to NSW and Victoria. Guthega Power Station has a generating capacity of 60 MW. The turbines are powered from the water in two large pipes that form part of the Guthega Pressure Tunnel, fed by Guthega Dam. The dam is about 260m higher than the power station.
Snowy 2.0: In March this year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced $500,000 towards a detailed feasibility study into building the first stage of an expansion of the current Snowy Hydro Scheme, a 2000 megawatt project, christened Snowy 2.0. The results of the study are expected before the end of the year.
Vale Graeme Barrow
This column was saddened to learn of the recent death of Graeme Barrow, aged 80. A good friend of this column, Barrow was a prolific author, penning almost 30 books, mostly about exploring the Canberra region, either on foot or by car. Many of these easy to read, matter-of-fact books were published by Dagraja Press – his own self-styled publishing house, which was named after the first letters of the names of each of his three children: David, Grant and Jane.
Writing was Barrow's passion. "I'll never stop [writing], I'm just not sure how many more books I've got time to finish," he prophetically told this column in 2014. In fact, just a week before his death Barrow sent me an email to express his disappointment that he was unlikely to finish two of his pet projects – a book on the Kings Highway, and his personal quest for Lake George to be recognised by its indigenous name 'Weereewa'. "I am unlikely to get much further, a pity because I think I could have pulled it off, even as a dual name," he wrote of his Lake George crusade.
Barrow was a true gentleman, a gentle giant of the publishing scene and an author who inspired a generation of Canberrans to explore beyond their backyards. I bet there's hardly a household in the ACT without at least one of Barrow's books crammed into their bookshelf. Barrow's memorial service was held earlier this week and he is survived by his wife Nora and three children.
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Cryptic Clue: 22 kilometres from a 'small' place.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Sian Finch, of Amaroo, who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as a sign outside the Snow Goose Hotel in Adaminaby. The clue related to Tony Abbott who last month, while passing the landmark drinking hole on a charity bicycle ride, stopped to pour a couple of beers for thirsty locals. This year, the Snow Goose marks its 60th birthday and the new publican is scrambling to uncover why the hotel was so-named. One theory is that it is named after one of the original Snowy Hydro Scheme aircrafts, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver which was called 'Snow Gander' and featured the logo of a Snow Goose. Someone must know.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 27 2017 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.