New Arrivals

As the Scheme progressed, men from all over the world converged on the Snowy like pilgrims, prepared to ride the hardships in return for a new life.

Word of the Scheme filtered through to workers and men of all ranks and of all nations, and the Authority began to receive thousands of letters from men who saw it in terms of opportunity and freedom.

The spartan barracks to which such men came, initially alone, became home for thousands. At any time of the day or night the messes were filled with warm, smoky air and noisy workers sitting at long wooden trestle-tables eating or relaxing after a shift. Following initial problems at East Camp in Cooma, all nationalities were mixed in together and most of the migrant workers found themselves in this strange, harsh environment within days of stepping off a ship.

Through the wild winter nights listening to the wind biting and screaming through the branches, some men heard again the thunder of guns and thrashed on their bunks, gripped by old nightmares. Time to allow people to adjust was time the Authority didn't have.

Former Luftwaffe pilot, Hein Bergerhausen couldn't remember ever being so cold in his life. It used to be cold, freezing even, sitting in the cockpit of a Stuka before a dawn take-off in winter on the eastern front; but this felt different. This felt lethal. He was sure he was frozen to the core.

It was his first night in Cooma, early in September 1951. Outside the spartan barracks the world was encased in ice. Inside it wasn't much warmer. The walls were thin and heaters were considered a fire risk, so were prohibited. In addition, it seemed someone had forgotten to supply blankets for the new arrivals.

Hein had crawled fully clothed under the mattress and lay huddled on his bunk's wire base, gritting his teeth and wondering just what he had got himself into. It was nightmarish and judging by the noisy shivering and swearing elsewhere in the darkened barn of a room, he was not alone in his torment.

In contrast to the night, the day was bathed in brilliant sunshine. Many of the men, Hein included, gazed upwards in rapture. It was the most beautiful, cloudless blue they had ever seen.

They had also stared unbelievingly at the wooden poles fixed into the ground outside the hotels and some of the stores -- horse rails, some with horses attached. It was a paradox they didn't understand. Australia was clearly a rich country but by European standards, it still seemed materially backward. They couldn't see why anybody in 1951 would still be riding a horse instead of driving a car.

Hein was signed on as a diesel fitter at the Polo Flat workshops on Cooma's north-eastern outskirts. After lunch on his third day the leading hand, an Englishman and his offsider, an Irishman, beckoned Hein to join them in the cab of a small truck. On the back was a large bulldozer radiator. Hein grabbed a box of tools and they drove about twenty kilometres out of town on the Adaminaby road. They turned onto a rough track which wound its way through thick scrub to a small clearing where a bulldozer was parked beneath a tree. Hein deduced that they were to change the machine's radiator. But as soon as he had unloaded his tools the Irishman told him, with a blend of English, sign language and a smattering of German, that he and the leading hand were leaving. He tapped his wristwatch to indicate they would be back at five o'clock.

When the rattle of the truck had faded, the silent bush wrapped itself around the nervous German. This was his first encounter with the Australian wilds and he had no idea what perils and beasts lurked within its inhospitable, dry-looking foliage. Hein was alone and not feeling particularly brave about it. It was very different bushland to the soft green forests of Germany.

Fortunately the dozer was under a sturdy limb so with rope from its tool box he was able to rig up a pulley system with which to lift and replace the heavy radiator. He worked busily and finished the job with time to spare. Still nervous about the surrounding bush, he planted his toolbox against the solid, comforting wall formed by the massive steel blade and sat to await the return of the leading hand and his Irish mate.

Five o'clock passed. So did five-thirty. By six o'clock Hein was sitting in the dark, a lone in an alien world of strange, frightening sounds which conjured invisible monsters and beasts of the night. When a kookaburra launched into a maniacal cry in a tree beside him, the young German was terrified. He scrambled up onto the bulldozer's seat. As it got later and colder, Hein thought about lighting a fire but was already conscious of the fear that Australians had of bushfires. He also worried a fire might attract bush animals and he had no desire to confront any such creatures. So he curled up on the bulldozer seat and tried to sleep, to shut his mind from the biting cold and the bush noises ... though he later confided to friends that he was "too bloody frightened" to feel the cold: "You wouldn't believe the noises; and I didn't know what was making them," he said.

Shortly after sun-up he started to hear the occasional sounds of distant vehicles. He strode into the bush, trying his best to follow the track. Forty minutes later he emerged onto a main road, where he flagged down a lift to Cooma.

At the workshops, Hein discovered the Englishman and Irishman had spent the previous afternoon in the Adaminaby hotel, rollicking on into the night; by which time they had forgotten all about the German they had dropped off in the bush -- or so they claimed.

The locals just laughed and congratulated the former Luftwaffe ace for so stoically handling his first night in the Australian bush.

East Camp, where the first migrant workers at Cooma were stationed, was a bare windswept hill just outside the main townsite. The camp comprised rows of wooden barracks, Nissen huts, a mess and an ablution block which was served with only cold water, even in winter.

Apart from his night in the bush, Hein's first taste, literally, of Australian living was his first meal in the mess. "There was so much meat ... something everybody talked about ! I'm not a big meat eater but I thought 'oh well'. So I held out my plate for some lamb. When I got back to my table I found it was still joined by a big tuft of wool ... I lived on desserts for weeks afterwards and have not eaten lamb since."

The Italians, though, had the hardest time with the English-style cooking. Spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti, they demanded.

The Australian cooks didn't know what they were talking about.

Finally, the Italian contractor employed to build houses for the management staff, set up its own mess and had spaghetti sent from Melbourne.

"We got on well with the Italians. Their mess was opposite our barracks. They were a rowdy bunch. My God, in the night time you thought they were killing each other. They were celebrating ... every bloody night. The noise was unbelievable.

Hein hadn't known what to expect when he arrived, either at Cooma, or on his sojourns to the mountain camps. After his experiences with the cold nights, it was a shock to discover men were living in the mountains in tents. As the population of workers in the camps grew, it seemed to Hein that he was surrounded by every nationality on Earth.

"Everyone seemed to get on. The Hungarians especially made us laugh. Most of their public records in their country had been destroyed, so suddenly they were all counts and barons.

Hein had been warned before leaving Germany that he was likely to encounter bitterness towards Germans but he found nothing but friendship:

"For the first few days I was worried ... but you could see almost straight away there was nothing to worry about.Everyone just seemed to be glad to be here. Czech and Polish workers helped the Germans learn English. At nights we played cards and shared our experiences. Everyone had plenty to talk about -- how we had come to Australia, our plans to start a new life and how much we were looking forward to being reunited with our families. The main goal was to work hard to be able to bring out our families as soon as possible.

"It was a happy time though. The war was behind us ... we were all starting again."

The morning sun was barely above the horizon as Mario Pighin pedalled the thirteen kilometres from his family's small farm to the nearby village of Berteolo in the north-east of Italy.

Had a passer-by been about at that early hour he or she may have wondered why the young man was dressed in his best suit.

But it was all very simple. Mario was on his way to get married -- at six o'clock in the morning. The unusual hour was necessary because he and his bride-to-be wanted to make the most of the only day they would have together as newlyweds.

On 9 May, 1952, Mario had received a phone call from the local municipal offices telling him it had been contacted by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority representatives in Italy to advise that he would be sailing on 14 May, just five days time, for Australia.

Mario rode immediately over to the home of his fiancee, Angelina, in Berteolo to break the news: "So if we are to be married it will have to be the day after tomorrow," he told her.

After a simple ceremony, they and the best man, caught a bus to the provincial capital, Udine, twenty kilometres away, where the three took lunch and enjoyed a movie. It was the only sort of honeymoon they could realistically expect.

Early the next morning Mario left to spend the day farewelling friends and neighbours, while Angelina went out to begin her new life working on her husband's family's farm.

The following day Mario caught a train to Naples and boarded a ship to Australia, where he had been engaged to work as a painter in the fledgling Snowy township of Cabramurra -- the highest settlement on the Australian continent. They didn't know when they would see each other again but under the conditions of his contract it would be at least two years.

Just a few kilometres away in the same province another young couple, not known to Mario and Angeliana, had the same intention and were anxiously awaiting word from the Authority.

For childhood sweethearts Guiditta Miane and Alfredo Fabbro, the call came just a fortnight later. They were married on 29 June, three days before Alfredo sailed, also for Cabramurra, where he had secured a job as a carpenter.

The couple's plan was for Alfredo to take advantage of the high wages being paid and return with the savings in about five years. It was a tough way to start a marriage but reliable work was hard to find in post-War Italy.

After their wedding, Guiditta went with Alfredo on a train to Udine then immediately rushed back home because the train with Alfredo and other emigrant workers would pass back through the village on its way to Naples, giving her the opportunity of a final glimpse of her husband-of-one-day on his way to a far off land.

Just kilometres apart but yet to meet, two young brides began the same ordeal of separation as their husbands sailed to the other side of the world to build their futures.