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Of Stakhanovite cows and great nation-building projects

Warragamba dam, shortly before it was officially opened in 1960. Photo: Sydney Water

If you were a kid in Sydney in the the early 1950s – as I was – there were two worthy educational outings you could have avoided only by premature death – the Rotolactor and the Warragamba Dam construction site.

The Rotolactor, which started rotating in 1952, was the ultimate in modern milking machinery. It made the Macarthur-Onslow property at Camden Park into the farm of the future and hundreds of thousands of kids were dragged there to watch it in operation. Nothing quite like it was seen in Australia until the animated sitcom ‘The Jetsons’ hit TV a decade later.

I can remember going reluctantly with my parents but being transfixed with wonder. At milking time, hundreds of cows queued up, eagerly waiting their turn to enter the space-age contraption. One by one, they hopped on a huge, slowly revolving, steel floor and into an individual stall (or ‘bail’) where an operator whacked suction things on their udder while they were fed something nice. Duly relieved of their milk, the bovine pioneers of modernity shuffled off the floor five or six minutes later. Apparently, the Rotolactor’s 50 bails milked up to 375 cows an hour. It’s difficult to say how many tourists it serviced, but they must have been sold an awful lot of postcards and souvenirs. Cows and tourists in one end, cash out the other.

I have a personal theory that the Rotolactor was the inspiration for the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of Harry Seidler’s Australia Square tower – designed about 1960 and completed in ’67. I thought of mentioning my theory to Harry, the one time he rang me, but he’d just lost his defamation action over a snaky Patrick Cook cartoon captioned “Harry Seidler Retirement Park” which depicted a tea lady popping sandwiches through a slot at the top of a plain box and a sanitary worker removing shit from another at the bottom, so I decided it might be best not to ask. Harry could be very nasty if aroused.

But we were talking about great nation-building projects. At the other end of the spectrum from the Macarthur-Onslow’s Stakhanovite cows, and not that far away, lay the Warragamba Dam project. They started building the dam in 1948, the year I was born, and it went on so long I was able to go on a school excursion to watch the work, probably a couple of years before it was completed in 1960. By the time they got started, the dam had been over a hundred years coming. It was first suggested in 1845 by Pawel Strzelecki, the peripatetic Polish explorer and philanthropist who discovered and named Mt Kosciuszko among many other things. Support for the idea waxed and waned until a severe drought in the early 1940s brought matters to a head.

The thing I remember best was an amazing ski lift-style bucket line that carted gravel for the concrete from where it was quarried and another that bought in concrete to be poured to form the wall. There was also some sort of large interactive display with lots of flashing lights. Decades later, one of the original engineers on the job told me that the then Secretary of Public Works was fond of visiting the site to watch construction of ‘his’ dam and the chief engineer, upon learning of the secretary’s approach, would order the speed of the bucket line doubled, but since they couldn’t fill the buckets fast enough, only every second one was filled. The Secretary, who couldn’t actually see the spot where the buckets emptied, was always mightily impressed and went away happy.

It was an era of big “nation building” projects and a nation wasn’t really a nation until it had at least one big dam. The Russians lead off, opening the Dnieper Dam in 1927, and the Yanks got the Hoover Dam in ’36. After the Second World War, Australia got the Snowy scheme and Sydney, its very own Warragamba.

Alas, giant dams come at a high environmental price. Warragamba drowned the very beautiful and agriculturally-productive Burragorang Valley and had many adverse environmental effects downstream. On balance, it was a fantastic investment – but one shouldn’t really build more of these things than one absolutely has to.

Eventually, the environmental, and in some cases, social, price of the dams mania turned public opinion against them and the great struggle against Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project was a turning point.

Really, the whole emphasis now should be on avoiding the environmental cost of a new dam and on creatively harvesting every possible bit of rain that falls on our city to augment the huge investment that Warragamba represented. A few years back we installed 6000 litres of rainwater storage under our cottage. As a result, our water usage fell to less than a third of Sydney Water’s “model” usage for two adults. And I rejoice every time I pass the big Ikea store at Tempe with its enormous rainwater tanks on my way to Sydney Park, where the City of Sydney’s wonderfully innovative rainwater harvesting scheme is nearing completion.





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