The Snowy's Women

The figure of a stout, fair-haired woman sped through the snow gums, her ski stocks flaying the fresh snow. Strapped to her back was a small haversack, a medical kit. By modern standards it was perhaps little more than a first-aid pack but Dr Ina Berents had used it to effect on more than one occasion to save lives in the remote construction camps in the Snowy Mountains.

Based at Cabramurra, a small town built as a base for the mammoth Tumut stage of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, Dr Berents was the only medical provider in hundreds of square kilometres of isolated mountains.

She had been sommoned on this winter morning 1955 by an urgent call from within a tunnel being blasted to link Tumut Pond reservoir with the Scheme's main storage, Eucumbene reservoir (today known as Lake Eucumbene) at Adaminaby.

There, deep within the bowels of the mountains a worker Jack Roden known by his workmates as 'Kiwi Jack', had leaned from the locomotive ferrying his shift from the tunnel and struck his head on a steel roof stanchion. When his workmates had gently removed Kiwi Jack's helmet the top of his scalp came away, exposing his brain.

As Dr Berents skiied cross-country to render what emergency medical aid she could in the conditions, the injured man was removed from the tunnel on a stretcher jeep which took him to a primitive first-aid post to await the doctor and an ambulance. The ambulance had to come from Cabramurra, slowly behind a snow plough and then descend a narrow, treacherous track. It was one of the reasons Dr Berents preferred to ski. It was often quicker and usually a lot safer.

As she pushed past the exposed, leafy tops of buried snow gums the doctor, however, had more on her mind than just the injured man, who from past experience she knew would quite likely be dead by the time she arrived. Before the urgent summons from the tunnel she had already been about to leave for the Tumut Pond camp to tend to the pregnant wife of one of the workers had gone into labour.

Consequently she had two emergencies and the weather was worsening. It was going to be a difficult day. Just just how difficult she didn't discover until she arrived. The injured tunneller and the pregnant woman were husband and wife.

She examined the woman and did her best for the man, issuing instructions that on no account was the woman to know the identity of her fellow passenger in the ambulance. She rigged a screen betwen the two patients.

However, the trauma for all was only just beginning: half way up the steep climb out of the gorge, the ambulance skidded and slipped onto its side in a snow drift. Doctor, patients and equipment finished up tumbled against each other inside.

Dr Berents disentangled herself and with the help of the driver, lifted the patients from the vehicle and laid them on stretchers in the snow. Fortunately the man was unconscious, making it easier to devote her attention to the woman, who still didn't realise the injured man behind the mask of bloodied bandages was her husband.

Leaving Dr Berents huddled in the snow with her charges, the driver lurched off down the track to fetch a bulldozer to pull the ambulance free and tow it the remaining distance to the top of the mountain.

It was many hours before it finally wheeled into the casualty entrance at Cooma hospital. Despite their ordeal, mother and child were the next day reported healthy and well. Even more amazingly, Kiwi Jack was back at his old job in the tunnel just seven weeks later, the top of his head stitched firmly back in place.

The story of Kiwi Jack was just one episode in the amazing saga of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. But while people speak of 'the men of the Snowy' its unsung heroes were women like Dr Berents, a Rumanian who migrated to Australia with her engineer husband, Derek.

The women were crucial in establishing communities in the alpine wilderness where they endured not only isolation and a harsh climate but also repressive attitudes and restrictions imposed by the lore of the day. The few women who did get jobs in the mountains were strictly segregated, often even from their husbands.

Guiditta and Alf Fabbro had been married only three days when Alf left Italy to look for work in Australia in 1954. Guiditta followed two years later after Alf secured for her a cleaner's job in the Cabramurra staff mess. As Alf wasn't eligible for a house they were forced to live in separate barracks.

The separation when so close was a source of great anguish. Guiditta had no one to explain away the strangeness of everything about her. The strong aroma of eucalyptus, which hung over everything ... and she was a trained nurse. The lack of stimulation in the hard cleaning work was mentally as well as physically draining.

The only times the couple spent together were short periods after the evening meal, when Alfredo was allowed to visit Guiditta at the women's barrack. He was threatened with instant dismissal should he fail to return to his own barrack.Guiditta, for her part, was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near the men's barracks.

Young wives like Guiditta had been plucked from homes, families and familiar cultures and brought across the world to an alien environment in which they were expected to build homes.

Many came from large cities to isolation in primitive townsites. Most were unable to speak English and their husbands were away working long hours for six and sometimes seven days a week. Often they were frightened by the bush noises and the blizzards and all the men around them, but they had no one to whom they could turn. They simply struggled on, uncomplaining, in the face of their fears, the isolation and endless domestic problems caused by the extreme climatic conditions.

In winter water pipes froze and burst leaving a house without water for washing or cooking. Mothers with babies had a terrible time.

Sheets had to be cut up for use as nappies and when these ran out, nappies which had only been wet would simply be hung up to dry before being re-used: "The smell was enough to make your eyes water," recalled Guiditta, who after more than a year in a barrack did finally get a house to move into after Alfredo was promoted to leading hand.

"Nappies and sick babies and no water made life very hard.

I only had one baby but some women had two or three. They were always getting wet in the snow -- not that it was much drier inside. Water condensed on the inside of the walls in the day and froze at night so you would wake up every morning surrounded by ice.

"The conditions were hard; but it made us strong. We had to cope because the men were away working."

When warned of bad weather the women in the mountain construction towns soon learned to fill baths for emergency washing water. For cooking it became almost the norm to trudge outside, fill buckets of snow, and sit them on the stove to melt.

"But we enjoyed ourselves. Everybody was poor and in the same position."

The first organised support for the migrant women came from one of Australia's oldest institutions, the Country Women's Association. Under the driving force of Merle Mould, a young woman from Middlingbank, down on the Monaro Plain, the CWA moved in to try to improve the lives of the construction town women.

The CWA put libraries in the camps and towns, started English classes for the women and also brow-beat the contractors and the Authority into providing rooms and equipment for child health centres. When Merle Mould first raised this with the Kaiser consortium she was shown the door. As she exited, she promised that the Women's Weekly magazine would be up the next week to see how the Americans treated their workers' wives.

The following day the senior American engineer telephoned to offer a car, driver and a house for the first child health clinic at Happy Jacks, then Australia's highest township.

Often she was in a town when there was news of a serious accident: "It was awful, seeing the looks on the faces of the women, none of them knowing if it was their husband who had been hurt or killed. "They just stood around silent, waiting and hoping. Then the men would start drifting back. It was terrible. They also just stood around, no one talking and if a married man had been killed or hurt, his mate or an engineer would seek out his wife and lead her away. It was a terrible moment."

Because of the dangerous work and the isolation of the towns, the people inhabiting them lived life to the full. They also needed each other much more for social activities, whether it was a film night, a stage show or even darts and cards in the wet canteen.

When people needed each other to create a community isolated from the rest of the world, their nationality or employment status was not so relevant. Even so, life still looked a lot different when seen through the eyes of an engineer's wife.

"We were young and we danced and partied hard at every opportunity. We would go out into the snow in strapless ball gowns and feel no pain," recalled Betty Mattner, who thought she'd come to the end of the earth when her husband, Dick, brought her and their young baby from South Australia to Tantangara in 1958. Dick had secured work there as a tunnel engineer with Utah.

As the wife of an engineer, Betty had a house to move into and didn't have to endure separation in barracks. But on arrival at the fledgling little town, the advantage of being an engineer's wife was not immediately apparant.

Betty had never been in the mountains before and didn't know what to expect. When they arrived it was to a stark settlement of unpainted prefabricated houses. They rounded a corner and he pointed to one particularly ugly dwelling sitting on high wooden stumps.

"That's ours," her husband announced proudly.

Betty looked up at it in horror: "I can't live in that."

Her husband was taken aback: "You've got to Bet. That's our house."

"But how do we get inside ?"

The builders had yet to give the house a porch and steps. The front door was nearly three metres off the ground.

"That's okay, I'll find a box," said Dick. Dick was fired with enthusiasm for his work and for the Scheme and was tolerant of its imperfections. He didn't see the structure in front of them as an unfinished building but rather as their home, with all the ideals which that embodied.

He found several large crates, stacked them and climbed to the front door, brandishing the shiny new key. Betty looked around in despair. She felt like following the example of the baby in her arms which was wailing loudly.

Inside, the house was bare: no floor coverings, no curtains, no light fittings, no cupboards and the builders had left the kitchen sink and bath full of dirty brown water and cigarette butts. Betty dragged down a mattress that had been left stacked against the wall dropped onto it and cried herself to sleep.

At Tantangara the wives manned the fire brigade because the town was eleven kilometres from the two construction sites -- the dam site one way and Providence Portal (Murrumbidgee- Eucumbene tunnel entrance) the other.

The women were rostered and called to action by a siren on the Utah safety officer's house. As soon as they were assembled, they sped off in a four-wheel-drive fire unit. They trained often and with great enthusiasm but found it needed at least four of them to hold the nozzle of the hose steady. The only time they had a real fire on their hands was when a practice run got out of control and they nearly burned down the women's barrack.

It was a time when people's lives ran the full gamut of shared hardships and happiness: "The wives cried when they arrived and then cried even harder when they left," said Betty.

"The communities which were forged in the construction camps and towns were unique. You became involved in every facet of life and the friendships, associations and characters that became part of your life were an experience you knew you would carry with you forever."

One of the more endearing personalities in Snowy folklore was Georgina McQuade, the accommodation officer at Cabramurra. On the day she arrived in the settlement it was snowing heavily and the wet canteen was packed elbow to elbow with hard-talking, hard-drinking workers, boistrously unwinding at the end of a shift. The atmosphere was thick with noise and tobacco smoke. Suddenly into their midst glided an apparition in a long flowing dress and stiletto shoes. A pin falling would have been distinctly heard.

Georgina believed a lady should maintain her standards, whatever the odds. She dressed up for every occasion, dyed her hair every possible colour and accrued a lifelong nickname as 'The Duchess'.

She dressed formally for each evening meal, crossing the snow and mud between her hut and the mess in gumboots with her high heeled shoes tucked under one arm. Once inside, it was gum boots off, high heels on, before every meal.

Her quest for elegance in adversity set an example that others followed. Engineers started arriving at social functions in dinner jackets (but still in gum boots) and their wives would appear in the latest city fashions, turning even a celebration for a tunnel breakthrough into an evening of haute couture.

People like Georgina made the mountain camps and towns happy communities despite the hardships and demonstrated that the pioneering spirit In Australia did not die out with the nineteenth century.