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Undercurrent

Winter fog settles, dense and inevitable, over the small town of Cooma in the foothills of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. It settles, too, over an endless succession of sleek cars bound for ski fields, laden with puffer jackets and glinting sunglasses, winding down the main street. Local farmers in beat-up utes wait at roundabouts patiently, or not, for the ski traffic to subside. Wide footpaths, built for a crowd, are bare but for a spare scatter of people, most of whom have their beanie-clad heads tilted groundwards in surrender to the cold morning air.  

An avenue of flags waving high above the cars provides a bright thread of colour, commemorating the thirty-two nationalities that worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the vast engineering project that diverted the waters of the region’s rivers west of the Great Dividing Range for irrigation and electricity. Many would say it is these elements – skiing, farming and the Snowy Scheme – that define the region. At primary and high school, I was taught this trinity were the pillars of our local identity, the sum of our history and place in the world.

To speak counter to this narrative takes a certain type of courage. Strength, and a long gaze, are required to move against a powerful current, so it seems fitting that Richard Swain is a river guide. He is also an environmental campaigner, storyteller, educator and interpreter of Country. ‘The media uses all these labels, and it’s not that I don’t like them, I’m proud of them,’ he says to me early in our first conversation. ‘Aboriginal, river guide, Indigenous Ambassador for the Invasive Species Council … but it’s strange how they need them, that what I’m speaking about isn’t enough on its own.’

Richard Swain. On Ngarigo Country. Photo: Charles Davis. 

The sky is low and grey on the wet winter morning we meet for a coffee in a Cooma cafe. The walls are lined with historical photos of the region fro

m the early days of white colonisation – big floods, Snowy Scheme developments and a half-built main street. Outside, traffic arcs around oversized new roundabouts built to ease the way for trucks ferrying house-sized pipes to and from Snowy 2.0, the name given to the federal government–backed expansion of the original Snowy Scheme.

We sit, Richard and I, in a building, town, community, where history is largely held to begin with colonisation, whose ‘nation building’ works are memorialised and rarely spoken of in tones other than celebratory. We talk about kinship, truth, reckoning and responsibility; and a history that begins with rivers.

Richard’s speech is firm and unhurried, threaded with deep emotion and humour, the confidence of embodied knowledge, and a current of quietness found in those who spend a lot of time with Country. He tells me he travelled the entire Numeralla River by the time he was nineteen, and walked all of the Kybeyan, most of the Murrumbidgee and the Snowy rivers at a young age. ‘I see the country in human form. We’re mostly water and earth, and rivers are the arteries and veins and capillaries of Country.’ Richard and his wife Alison’s river guiding business, Alpine River Adventures, operates mainly along one section of the Snowy River – the Byadbo. It’s a time capsule, he says. ‘It’s one of the rare places where science and oral history are combined, there’s cultural artefacts, the pre-colonial forest is still there, but you’ve got to know where to look.’ 

A new migrant in 2022, in order to get citizenship, they have to know some history, a cricketer’s name, be prepared to wave the flag – but they don’t have to take their shoes off.

Richard Swain

The Snowy was the largest snowmelt river on this continent, her massive spring flows and floods now the stuff of legend, myth and far-distant history. In the years following the Second World War, the Chifley government set in motion initiatives to strengthen Australia’s economy, including the ‘nation building’ Snowy Scheme (1949–1974), to address expanding electricity and irrigation needs and provide a viable alternative to coal-fired power generation. In order to meet the labour and skills needs of the scheme, two-thirds of the entire workforce of over 100,000 people were recruited from refugee camps in war-torn Europe.

Growing up, I often heard about the positives of the scheme – the influx of cosmopolitan migrant workers that shook up our conservative Anglo-colonial rural area; the provision of hope and jobs, irrigation and power, in the post-war years. These I have heard and lived and seen, yet I wonder at the sum when balanced with the other less-publicised outcomes of the massive engineering works that delivered on their promise, as stated in a song of the times, to ‘blow down a mountain and build you a dam, bigger and better than old Uncle Sam’.

The Snowy Scheme destroyed five of the mountains’ most beautiful rivers, the Snowy, Thredbo, Eucumbene, Gungarlin and Moonbah – flooding vast valleys and foreclosing ancient hydrological cycles, the impact of which we don’t/can’t/won’t yet fully understand.

In 1995, an expert scientific panel recommended, after assessing the state of the Snowy, that twenty-eight per cent of its average natural flow was required to maintain the river at a baseline of health. Despite government commitment to maintaining environmental flows in 2002, the phased annual target of water releases for the river’s health has never been reached. The minimal environmental flows that were released provided enough megalitres for Richard to start his river guiding business along the lower Snowy, forty-odd years after the river had over ninety nine per cent of its waters removed.

‘What does the Snowy mean to me? It’s the river of life,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent a lot of my life with that river and there’s been nothing but decline every minute. It hurts. Driving somewhere hurts, walking somewhere hurts. The people around here idolise the Snowy Scheme – the Pope wouldn’t get as much respect – but no-one’s ever asked the truth about it. The river was less than one per cent for forty years. Everyone knew and didn’t give a shit.’

He tells me of a recent visit to a local school, where he was asked to speak to students about local ecology. ‘I told the truth and one of the kids went home and their parents work on the Snowy Scheme. That caused a ruckus. The school wants me to keep visiting, just to fluff over the Snowy stuff. But I can’t do that. Fifty years ago a bunch of people sat in a room and asked should we take one hundred per cent of the Snowy River? And they said, “Shit, yeah”. Was there anyone who said maybe we shouldn’t take all of it?’

‘I always ask school kids, “If you were in charge of designing the Snowy Scheme, would you take all the water from a river?” Even though they’re not a fish ecologist, or a river ecologist, they all say no. What makes anyone think they can take one hundred per cent of a river?’

Guthega dam was built in 1955 and is one of the sixteen major dams of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Photo: Anthony Hoffmann / Wikipedia Commons.

Richard has spent years working to protect and restore alpine and river ecologies on many fronts, from rethreading people’s connection and love for the region through his guiding and education work, to heading up the Reclaim Kosci campaign launched in response to the NSW Government’s 2018 Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act, which prioritised the protection of feral horses over the increasingly threatened ecology and endemic biodiversity in the national heritage-listed Kosciuszko National Park. He’s thought long and deep about the destruction of Country by agriculture, the ski industry, the Snowy Scheme and invasive species; and about the anger that erupts when that damage is made public, when colonial narratives are challenged.

I sit across from him as a white farmer on this land, my family’s story part of the destructive arc of colonisation. My grandfather spent his summers taking sheep and cattle up to the high country before the snow leases were terminated with the creation of the National Park. A lover of the mountains, he recognised the time had come for their protection, and my parents have devoted much of their lives to restoring the ecosystems upon which we farm, but the balance is still a far reach from being set to rights. Richard knows this, I know it, and neither of us backs away from interrogating that history through our conversation; from looking deeply at the silence and lack of reckoning that threads across our community and its relationship to the ongoing ecological devastation we’re witnessing across the region, nation, globe.

I ask him how he makes sense of it – the loss, the ongoing cycles of degradation. He doesn’t pause. ‘Culture. We have a culture that allowed one hundred extinctions. We have a culture that allows that to happen. It’s in our culture to allow the killing of the Barrier Reef, the gas fracking, the overgrazing and land clearing and poisoning of our rivers. It’s in our culture not to care.’

His words demand a hard-light-of-day reflection on where we stand – a nation with one of the highest tallies of species loss in the world, a disproportionate per capita contributor to transgressing the climate planetary boundary, a colony that from its inception justified genocide for land.

Richard stops talking and looks at me straight. ‘I always ask crowds, school kids, “Give me one thing in modern Australia’s culture we cherish, care for, and respect that is of this land, from this land”. No-one has ever given me an answer and they’re all embarrassed by that. I’m embarrassed by it.’ He shakes his head. ‘Let’s connect the culture to Country. A new migrant in 2022, in order to get citizenship, they have to know some history, a cricketer’s name, be prepared to wave the flag – but they don’t have to take their shoes off. They don’t have to introduce themselves to Country, to accept that they are now custodians of the land and take on the responsibility of that. They’re not asked to do that. They should be.’

Outside, rain is falling hard and fast. It’s mid-afternoon, and the mottled traffic – old, new, farm dirt and city clean – is moving in time with the rain. ‘We don’t have time not to hear the voice of Country.’ Richard pauses a long moment as the coffee machine over at the counter hisses and steams for a new order. ‘Have our native species had one good minute in the last 230 years? It’s all cultural. I look forward to the day where it’s in our culture to not accept the killing of a river.’

I digest those words quietly, sadly, with a fierce upwelling of hope at that spoken possibility. A culture that doesn’t accept the killing of a river, a reef, a species. That no longer denies the brutality of our ongoing history. After all Richard has seen and walked and paddled and swum, all the kickback he’s received from his unflinching rebuttal of colonial stories, he hasn’t given up yet on what a shared culture could be. A stance that stems not from idealism but from a determined refusal that the trajectory is set for how this continent’s ancient story will play out.

‘It’s started, I feel that. The work that others are doing, even me, being on national TV – what the hell? I’m a river guide!’ His laugh sets mine off in response, then the tone shifts lower again, words flowing slow and easy as he lays out his central focus. ‘When I talk, when I guide, I want people to go home accepting this land is your responsibility and caring for it and nurturing it is your culture. I want people to accept the responsibility of custodianship. What we’ve just been through, Australia, that is not what we are going to be for the next 200 years. We can’t let that happen.’ He drains the last of his coffee, sits tall and straight against the chair. ‘Country is worth saving. Connection to Country is worth saving, and I don’t believe it’s specifically a blackfella thing. It’s a human thing.’

Image top: Richard Swain walking the Numeralla River, near his home on Ngarigo Country. Photo: Charles Davis.