The royal treatment

Kiandra's historic courthouse.
Kiandra's historic courthouse. Photo: Alamy

Ben Stubbs tests the Queen-sized beds frequented by VIPs visiting the Snowy scheme.

I am in Princess Anne's bed, deep in sleep, when I feel a kick under the covers. My wife and I were meant to be in Prince Phillip's quarters, known as the "Duke's Box", but our hosts said we'd be more comfortable in Anne's room, with its views across the mountains.

We're staying at Queen's Cottage in Khancoban, on the western edges of the Snowy Mountains, an area that has hosted Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Princess Anne, each having come to inspect the enormous efforts of engineers and workers building the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The Queen's Cottage once provided VIP lodgings for royalty and celebrities (David Attenborough has visited) but is now open to regular travellers.

Khancoban was alive with activity during the building of Australia's largest hydroelectric scheme. The Murray 1 power station, 10 kilometres from town, produces enough electricity for almost 1 million homes in NSW, Victoria and the ACT. Locals tell me there are fewer than 300 people here now.

We pull in at the local pub for dinner and I order pan-fried trout pulled from the giant dam in front of us, washed down with a Kosciuszko Pale Ale. Next morning, we leave early and drive above the blanket of cloud still tucked in the valley, turning right onto Tooma Road for a journey through the heart of the mountains. Bone-white eucalypts and valleys of green foliage pass by. The air gets colder as we climb to Cabramurra, the highest town in Australia at 1488 metres. Roofs are pitched at steep angles here, hinting at how much snow falls in winter. The Queen also stayed at the then-Edinburgh Cottage in Cabramurra in March 1963 while touring Snowy construction sites.

We continue on to Kiandra, a ghost town about 20 minutes' drive away, looking out for the brumbies and wallabies that frequent the high country. We stop at what looks like an abandoned ski lodge. Waiting for us there is NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Mick Pettitt. Kiandra is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it place on the side of a hill, though it was once one of the most prosperous and populous places in NSW.

We're let into the old courthouse. Built from basalt in 1890, it's cold and sturdy, as though built to withstand an apocalypse. Inside, Pettitt talks us through the history of this boom-bust region. Graziers brought cattle to the high-altitude plains in 1859 and discovered gold in the hills and rivers. Miners, prospectors and desperadoes descended on Kiandra and by 1860, it was estimated that 15,000 people were here, looking to make a fortune.

Kiandra was also the birthplace of Australian skiing, as miners needed to transport themselves and their equipment to remote plots in winter. There are black-and-white photos of bearded cross-country skiers on the walls of the courthouse. I don't need colour to imagine what shade their toes would have been.

The optimism in Kiandra remained until they saw the worst of winter. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 1861: "No idea can be formed except from the actual experience of the horrors of a winter in that part of the country." By then, deposits of "easy gold", as Pettitt puts it, had been exhausted and most miners moved on to warmer climes. Some, including many of the 700 Chinese settlers who lived here, stayed on, though the mining returns were poor.

The courthouse and police quarters were converted to a ski chalet in 1943. More recently, the National Parks & Wildlife Service inherited the buildings and is gradually refurbishing three lodges. Plans include a cafe and interactive exhibit on Kiandra. We walk around ruins to the chimney of the old general store, watching the Eucumbene River below us flow like a sheet of bubbling black glass.

Mick says coins from 17th-century China have been found in the area, brought by the Chinese miners to barter with. I walk on to the cemetery, where 47 graves of miners and their families lie. Of them, 19 are the graves of babies and young children, testament to the region's harsh conditions.

We drive on, past Adaminaby to Cooma. The Queen was among the people here, too, staying in a cottage in 1963. I walk by the cottage fence and wonder if people referred to her as "Her Majesty", or whether she adopted the small-town ways of the Snowies and was happy for people to call her plain old Elizabeth.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Khancoban is 550 kilometres south of Sydney; 470 kilometres north of Melbourne on the Alpine Way.

Staying there The Queen's Cottage, Pendergast Road, Khancoban, houses, cabin and studio apartment accommodation. Princess Anne's room costs' from $140 a night, including breakfast. See queenscottage.com.au.

More information See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Queens Cottages and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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