We’re in the South Australia outback. It’s near dusk and we have to pull to the side of the road. The clouds are a broiling iron-grey that mutates to deep purple and then a hellish red. Bursts of rain fall like the trunks of multi-coloured trees. A gold slash scores the sky.
We are on our way to the old nuclear test site at Maralinga. The apocalyptic sky seems appropriate.
Maralinga is a place many of us have heard of but know little about.
The purpose-built village that was home to thousands of British and Australian personnel in the 1950s, and the desert to its north where a series of atomic bombs were detonated, are now open to the public.
This is a remote place, hard to get to. But if you are willing to make the drive north from the Eyre Hwy west of Nundroo, you’ll find road conditions benign (unless it’s raining) and unchallenging. You don’t need a hard-core 4x4 to get to Maralinga on this route. Our Land Rover Discovery Sport was capable of handling the dirt. There’s even bitumen for the last few kilometres to Maralinga’s locked gates.
At the gates, you’ll likely be met by Robin ‘Nobsy’ Matthews, caretaker of the village and its surrounds. He is also your host, tour guide and information source.
Robin was born in Port Lincoln 63 years ago and has been working in the region much all his life: on tuna boats in the Great Australian Bight; on the Nullarbor Plain as a railway line labourer and truck driver; and now at Maralinga.
He has a grey beard, deep tan, gravelly voice and roll-your-own cigarettes. He looks as hard as nails, but speaks gently.
“I love the solitude but also the history,” Robin says. “This place mixes indigenous history, Australian history, British history and world history.”
He and his wife Della began hosting occasional groups unofficially a couple of years ago, but now there’s a proper program in place, a camp site, an amenities block and demountable accommodation at the village. There’s also a tour bus. Robin is the driver.
“I really do love the tours,” he says. “People thank me when they leave and they go back and tell their friends about this place, then they come and visit and we educate them, too. So I feel sense of pride about what we do here.”
The village sits on a hill north of the Nullarbor Plain, within a large forest of gum trees. It was a site selected on behalf of the British Government by famous outback explorer and road builder Len Beadell. There are only seven original structures from the 1950s left, including the massive water tanks that can be seen from many kilometres away.
There are some newer buildings, but for the most part you can walk across street after street and concrete slab after slab where houses, a cinema, a post office and much more used to be. There is even a swimming pool, now filled in. Photos from the old days show servicemen by the hundreds lounging here. The temperature reaches more than 50 degrees in summer, and the pool was one of the few places cool relief could be found.
This was a hardship posting. At the airstrip, in front of the terminal (one of the seven original buildings) is the ‘bridge of sighs’, named because those crossing it when leaving sighed with relief, and those returning sighed with sadness.
The cold war which raged between the Soviet Union and the West had, at its centre, a rush to nuclear weapons. This drove the establishment of Maralinga. It says much about the era and the relationship between Britain and Australia that Australia would allow a foreign power to test atomic bombs on its territory.
The brutal way in which the traditional Maralinga Tjarutja land owners were treated, placed in harm’s way and then had to fight for decades to obtain justice is a significant chapter in the history of the relationship between white and black in Australia.
The Maralinga site was closed in 1963 but it wasn’t until after a mid-1980s royal commission that the wrongs inflicted on the local people were recognised and compensated for. Even then, the site wasn’t cleaned up until 2000.
Even though they now have justice, Robin says the Maralinga Tjarutja people would never travel through Maralinga, let alone live there.
“They wanted the land back that the British took from them and stopped them from travelling through,” he says. “They believe the devil, what they call the Mamu, was out here and caused the sickness in the people.”
A trip to the test complex shows just how massive the clean up had to be – and just how much effort and expense went into developing the site.
Thirty minutes north on a bitumen road that is still in good condition, the seven test sites interconnect on a grid that looks like a street map.
Each ‘ground zero’ is marked by a totem and a certain eerie similarity; there are very few trees, little bird life and no sign of animals such as kangaroos. In the distance a ring of trees grows strongly, marking the edge of the blast zone.
On the ground there are shards of glass, cooked from the sand by the infernal heat of the detonations. There are tangles of wire, mounds where planes, tanks and other structures were anchored and a concrete blockhouse from where the explosions were photographed.
But it isn’t only the major explosions that caused problems. The landscape was also subject to hundreds of smaller experiments involving plutonium, uranium and beryllium.
The centre of the massive clean-up is a desolate, windswept place code-named Taranaki, where the last bomb was detonated.
Here, contaminated rocks and soils collected from across the blast zones have been drowned in a huge pit under tonnes of soil. The machinery and vehicles that conducted the clean-up were also driven into this massive hole, crushed and buried.
But even with as much obvious effort, you do wonder how a place so deeply contaminated could ever truly be clean. In many ways it isn’t and never will be. But that’s part of the reason Maralinga is a place all Australians should visit. It has a sad history, but hopefully, a worthy future.
Nuclear testing in Australia
The first British nuclear test on Australian soil was on the Montebello Islands off north-western Western Australia in 1952.
They were then shifted to Emu Field, within the Woomera protected zone in outback South Australia where two bombs (Emu 1 and 2) were detonated.
Emu was judged to be too remote, so testing move 200km south to Maralinga in 1956.
From Adelaide, it is about a 10-hour drive to Nundroo. Turn off Highway 1 west of Nundroo to the Iluka Mine. At the 78km mark, turn left on to a well-maintained dirt road that is signposted to Maralinga. Continue north for 110km, crossing the Trans-Australia rail line at Ooldea.
For more on your trip before heading to Maralinga, visit southaustralia.com
For more on Australian history, see Australia’s secret war