Saturday, February 20, 2016

In the Snowy Mountains

We booked in for three nights in a cottage in the village of Khancoban on the eastern slopes of the Snowy Mountains and near the headwaters of the Murray. We were at the river's mouth just over a week ago, and now here we are near its origin. It has felt a bit like tracing the Fraser or the Columbia Rivers in BC...similar stories of navigation, resource extraction, irrigation and agriculture, hydro power, fisheries, and environmental impact.

We are definitely off the tourist track here in Khancoban. Constructed in the early 1960s to provide accommodation and services to the people building the Snowy Hydro dams nearby, Khancoban is a shadow of its former self. In its heyday, the population was well over 5000 people from all over the world (much like Kitimat, BC attracting workers from war torn Europe). Now it's way less than 500 ("including the cats and dogs!", said my informant with a grin). There is a large hotel complex which has been shut down and abandoned (across the road from our cottage behind the rose garden)...

...which had been built to provide accommodation to single men working on the dam.  There are empty store fronts, and large grassy expanses with no buildings (where there might once have been?) The general store has recently closed, and there's a sign in the window of the cafe next door that they now sell bread and milk. The next town of any size is Corryong about 25 km away, and this is where people shop and find other services. There's a small elementary school (called "primary" in Australia) for kids ages 5 to 12 and it struggles to stay viable, and the high school kids are bussed to Corryong. Once a dam is built it doesn't need a lot of workers to run it. There was probably hope that Khancoban could reinvent itself as a tourist hub because a big ski hill is about 75 km away, however we went over that narrow, twisting road (The Alpine Way) yesterday and I would hate to do it in snow! Apparently coach tours used to stop here,but that road proved too dangerous. It is extremely popular with motorcyclists.

Hydro electric power is the big deal here in the Snowy Mountains. Just like on the Columbia River in the BC Kootenays, in the 1950s and 60s dams were built on rivers, and other rivers were diverted through long tunnels into the two main watersheds on the western slopes. There are several power stations that are mainly used to provide peak-demand electricity. Towns that were once on the riverbanks were re-established on higher ground next to the new lakes. Snowy Hydro is required to release a certain amount of water to be used for irrigation each year--this is stored downstream behind a series of dams and weirs and is controlled by the irrigation authorities.

On Friday we drove right up into Mount Kusciuszko National Park in the Snowy Mountains and had a pleasant walk beside the Thredbo River.

A fire swept through this area about 13 years ago, killing the Snow Gum trees but causing their seeds to germinate. The white snags remain and there is abundant growth coming up around the trees. This is yet another reason these mountains are named Snowy! (At least IMHO)

This has been a relaxing three days, complete with knitting on the deck every morning and evening.

An added bonus are the kangaroos which come hopping through the grassy stretch beside the cabin around sundown. I had hoped to include a photo of them but you'll just have to use your imagination!

Next stop, Canberra, the nation's capital where we will indulge in museums and galleries.

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