Two weeks after she arrived from Paris, my sister was still coughing up blood, so I took her to the mountains. We headed for Guthega on the headwaters of the Snowy River above the first dam. It was a hot day in late summer. We stopped at Ironmungie Forest on the way and walked down through the granite boulders and native pines to the river. The Snowy had a gray muddy look to it and its banks were covered in stringy weeds swept recently by floodwaters. The river flowed swiftly but was almost hidden between the overgrown narrow banks. We scrambled in at a little pool on the bend.
‘We are under the river’, the soundman said, listening with his microphone plunged in the culvert at Ironmungie crossing. I stood and looked at him, a dark rumpled man standing in the middle of a farm bridge made of broken concrete and wire. The old absent river flowed through the air, level with our ears.
During the slow climb back out from the river my sister stood and rested in the shade. She swallowed; waiting for breath to seep slowly into her lungs. Like water over mud cracks. As we crossed the open plain four black horses came out of the long-leaved bundy towards us. Listening across the grassland, they twitched and inclined their heads as we spoke to them, shiny and massive in the heat.
The soundman heard the rooster at dawn but was too tired to get up to record him. Later we went downstream in the mist over the wet ground below the show grounds, a million frogs croaked along the swampy riverbank. Dense bullrushes and basket willows stood in the river, dragging the water.
That night my sister and I camped at Dalgety, on the river. At dusk we went looking for the platypus upstream near the island. Across the river the standing stones of the Monaro faced west towards Beloka Gap where the remnant Snowy escapes from Jindabyne Dam. The base of the dam is built on a faultline. An ancient stonewall lines up with the equinox.
The soundman recorded the trickle of the Moonbah River that was released below the weir. I stuck my head in between the bars of the inlet pipe and filmed all the waters of the diverted river falling upside down to Jindabyne Dam.
We drove via the dirt road from Island Bend to Guthega. In the steep valley below us pools of still water reflected dead snow gums burnt in the bushfires. We followed the stony riverbed up into the mountains. At Guthega power station huge white pipes dropped the headwaters of the Snowy into turbines. At the ski village I edged past summer road works to park under a snow gum overlooking Guthega pondage, the highest dam on the river. We loaded our packs and started walking upstream.
The soundman climbed down into the spillway of Eucumbene Dam. One hundred metres below, the remains of the Eucumbene River twisted towards Jindabyne. I whistled to the black and white choughs as they flew above us across the concrete spillway. The birds cried back. I leant against the high wire gates looking down into the river valley. The soundman turned on the recorder.
It was late afternoon when my sister and I put up our tent at Illawong on a small green knoll above the Snowy. We looked into the river. Blue water flowed swiftly over the deeply carved bedrock. Speckled birdstones lay in the base of the hollows. The full moon rose and crossed late towards Mount Twynam. My sister barely slept, with her face in the damp air, her lungs filled with moisture. In the morning, splashes of red like handfuls of Podocarpus berries fell from her mouth among the heath.
The soundman and I followed the white crosses marking the levels of Eucumbene Dam downhill over dark red shale to the edge of the water. The dead water had taken all the oxygen from the air. I could not speak in the suffocating atmosphere and the soundman could not make any recordings.
The stony, white mountain on the main range was partly hidden by foothills but I could see it watching us as I moved around camp. My sister was too unwell to climb so she went to find a place by the river. She crossed on the Illawong swing bridge and slowly picked her way down the spur around the sphagnum bogs to the junction a little way upstream.
At 1800 metres the soundman in his black leather jacket and laden with gear followed the walking track from Charlotte Pass down to the Snowy. A concrete trail headed off to Blue Lake. He listened upstream and downstream for a long time, still as a heron. Then we followed the Riverkeeper upstream along the east bank to the waterfall.
My sister sat by a deep pool where the alpine creek, saved from the Hydro by the Riverkeeper’s father, flowed into the Snowy River. Two bushwalkers came around the bend, keeping close to the tree-line as they headed upstream to Charlotte Pass and did not see her. Others who sat by that pool were also invisible.
The soundman leant into a little gully recording trickles of water falling under mint-bushes. Late afternoon sun struck the shoulders of the high round mountains. Three hundred year old plum pine climbed over the boulders. Fens dripped. Water everywhere ran out of the slopes. To be caught by the Hydro.
A week later my sister returned to Paris, the taste of river water mixed with blood in her mouth.
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