I was off the boat at last! Unfortunately, it was Agricultural Week in Sydney and only the most expense hotels still had any vacancies. I was very lucky to get a room. I immediately starting looking for jobs in Sydney newspapers but didn’t see any for which I was suitable. Someone at the hotel front desk mentioned to me that there were jobs available on the Blowering Dam construction site in Wereboldera, New South Wales. With only a few Australian Pounds left in my pocket, I went to the front desk to see how much I owed, and it was plenty! Much more than I had.
I told the Manager I was perfectly willing to pay but, at this time, was short of funds. Whereupon he told me that I was an unusual person. He said that everyone else who couldn’t pay would sneak out the back door, they never came to the desk to say they couldn’t pay! He asked me where I was going and I told him that I planned to buy a train ticket to Tumut to look for a job on Blowering Dam. The manager asked me if I had enough money for the ticket and I said that I thought I did. He handed me twenty Australian pounds and said, “When you get to the dam, and you get your job, send us the money.” I thanked him and told him I would. I was very grateful to this trusting Australian and returned the money after receiving my second weekly pay packet, even before buying an extra blanket for my bed.
After changing trains at Wogga Wogga, and finally arriving in Tumut, I filled out and handed in my application form and stood in a long line at the Blowering Dam recruiting hut. The contracting consortium, Morrison Knudsen Utah McDonald, provided high paying jobs driving heavy machines such as front-end loaders, bulldozers, and cranes which operated 24/7, as well as for hard manual labor. The black and white picture is a ‘dozer working below the spillway which is shown many years later in the color picture.
Blowering Dam is one of 16 dams in the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. This scheme is one of the most complex integrated water and hydro-electric power schemes in the world. It collects and stores the water that would normally flow east to the coast and diverts it through trans-mountain tunnels and power stations. The water is then released into the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers for irrigation.
It was hours before I got in to see the recruiter. I had given my qualifications on the form, listing the fancy school I attended in England and was hoping to get an office job in the main hut. When I was called in, the recruiter told me, to my great relief, that they had “just the job” for me based on my resumé. Exhilarated by this news I asked what my duties would be. His exact words are still imprinted on my brain, “We have 4 latrines in the camp and they get a lot of use. We need someone to clean them out twice a day.” I tried not to look surprised, but as it appeared that this was the only job they thought I was qualified for and lucky to get it, I gratefully accepted!
On my first day on the job, I came across a strange sign in the latrines: “Any employee caught kangarooing on the seat will be fired.” My mind boggled as I imagined various strange activities that would qualify for instant dismissal. I was too afraid to ask what this sign meant. At the end of the week, when I went to collect my first pay packet I finally asked someone in the office how I would report any kangarooing violations not knowing what this meant. To my relief, he gave me the following explanation. It turned out that, in many of the poorer countries in Europe where almost 99% of the men on the dam came from, the bathroom facilities not only had no toilet seats but no toilet bowls either. They had just a hole in the floor. They were so used to squatting over the hole rather than sitting to do their business that they tried to assume the squatting position by standing on the toilet seats. This left muddy footprints all over the seats and, in some cases, damaged the seats since they were not designed for this use. So, in the correct parlance, I could say that I was relieved by this news! Even though I did see marks on the seats, I just cleaned them off and as I never actually caught anyone doing this, I never had to do the dirty, so to speak, on my fellow workers.
It was lonely being the only person in camp apart from the sleeping night shift workers and it wasn’t the job that got me down but the loneliness. By the end of two weeks I had had enough of being alone all day, every day except in the dining room where there was no conversation anyway. I did get 4 square meals a day, 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners, instead of the 2 meals each of the shifts got as I was around for both the day and the night shifts. However, the next time I went to get my pay packet I asked if there were any other jobs available. It turned out that they needed another chain-man for the survey team. I was extremely lucky as being on the survey team was probably the only job that I could possibly have handled! Whilst the surveyors were doing their calculations in the warm survey hut – it was often below freezing outside – the other chain-men and I sat around playing chess and checkers. When we did have to be outside, we worked on different worksites, all of which were very interesting. There was the quarry where the rocks were blasted for use in the upstream and downstream faces of the dam and on the roadways; the gatehouse, the powerhouse, and the spillway.
The gatehouse controls the water supply to the powerhouse
The most important building was the powerhouse, situated just below the dam. The water would pour in from the gatehouse to drive the powerhouse’s turbines. This provides enormous quantities of both water and electrical power to the remote Australian hinterland as well as towns and cities.
The interior of a Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme powerhouse
One of the noteworthy things was that there were very few Australians working on the dam. There were 840 men, one doctor, two female nurses and a small office staff. Apart from one other British guy like me, almost everyone else was from countries like Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Albania. They had, like me, come to the country with little or no money. On the dam, the work was dangerous and definitely qualified as hard-labor but it paid well. I met a man who had worked there since the beginning and who had invested all his earnings in property – some said he was a millionaire. He never even bought shoelaces, putting all his money into his properties. There was another man who went crazy and started shooting bullets into the work area. He apparently spent most of his time on mathematical calculations as to how much gunpowder he needed in each bullet in order to precisely lob the bullet over the hill into the work area. He was caught when people started finding bullet holes on the sides of the cabs of the cranes and the shacks. It was easy to go crazy up there. It was a cycle of hard work, sleep, hard work, sleep six days a week with nothing else to do.
When I had spare time I would go for walks on my own into the wild forest which spread from the mountain slopes down into the valley. I never saw another person there but it was nice to get a change of scenery. It was on one of these walks that I came upon a small, slow-flowing stream. I got the shock of my life when I saw a weird looking animal swimming along the surface of the water. It was only when I got back to camp and spoke to one of the surveyors that he told me I had likely seen a duck-billed platypus which is listed as one of the rarest animals in the world. No-one else I met there had ever seen one.
The Scheme took 25 years to build and was completed in 1974, 8 years after I worked on Blowering Dam. More than 100,000 people from over 30 countries worked on the Scheme. Sixteen major dams, seven major power stations (two underground), a pumping station, 90 miles of inter-connected trans-mountain tunnels and 50 miles of aqueducts were constructed. Even before the Scheme was completed, it was named one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world. Today Blowering is the site of water sports and camping, although I am sure I would still recognize it!
I finally earned enough to buy a 1947 Holden and set off with a friend for my next adventure in Australia. We were headed for Surfer’s Paradise on the Queensland Gold Coast.
Chapter 3 – Surfer’s Paradise!