We venture to Ground Zero of Australia’s biggest atom blast and survive with just a slight green glow…
As Outback folklore has it, nowhere has ever gone off like Maralinga. The rocket range at Woomera had big bangs often and hard, but nothing compares to the place where seven atomic bombs were detonated and nearly 700 minor nuclear experiments were conducted. The chance to get an extra bit of green glow in the eyes was too much of a temptation to resist when I heard Maralinga had started doing tours. Sealing the deal was the fact that Len Beadell found the site and surveyed the town, and as a Len tragic it quickly became a ‘must do’.
The history of Maralinga is fascinating. The British wanted to accelerate their nuclear program and as it is always better to let off atomic toys in someone else’s back yard, where better than the colony of convicts in the southern waters? Woomera was already up and running and Emu Fields had popped a couple off but was proving to be logistically difficult… so Len was charged with a mission to be a jolly good old chap and find something a bit closer to the railway line and preferably with fewer of those pesky damn flies.
So in 1953, Len led a party of Land Rovers south from Emu Fields on an 800km virgin bush bashing, sand dune climbing trek through the Great Victoria Desert and found what he decided was the perfect place 35km north of Watson on the Transcontinental Railway Line. He later wrote: “The saltbush undulations rolled away as far as we could see, even through our binoculars.” Clearly not prime cattle country; but for letting off atomic bombs – perfect. Time was of the essence so the engineers in Woomera fashioned a railway line ‘grader’ which was dropped from the open door of a Bristol plane… weren’t they the days! No Occupational Health and Safety meeting to worry about. Build it, drop it, hook it up behind the Landies, drag it a mile back and forth; and in a couple of days there was an impromptu landing strip for the first plane to bring in supplies.
And such were the beginnings of a pop-up town which would ultimately be home to over 2,000 servicemen, living in a fenced-off area the size of England, in the Aussie bush. It had a post office, chapel, hospital, cinema, barber shop, football field, laboratories, workshops, parade ground, and even a VIP dining room with a grand piano that was wheeled outside on hot nights. Best of all it had an Olympic-size swimming pool, which was amazing given that water was not exactly readily available (Len however was on top of this and when he designed the airport with a massive apron area, he incorporated a run-off area so rainwater fed into a dam via an aqueduct… smart fella, that Mr Beadell). In April 1984, 76,420 square kilometres of land was handed back to Maralinga Tjarutja Inc after a long struggle with the South Australian government. However Section 400 was excluded from the Act and it wasn’t until early November 2014 that it was finally transferred back from the Federal Government and people could return to the seven Ground Zero sites. That was when the Maralinga people decided to start guided tours.
The trip there has its own bit of intrigue, turning off the Eyre Highway 177km west of Ceduna. There is no ‘Maralinga’ sign, as they still don’t want to attract undue attention. At the Ooldea Telstra Tower, you phone ahead to be met at the locked gate (complete with a disused phone booth still standing at attention). With the gate securely locked behind you, it is a short drive to Maralinga Village Campground. The facilities are excellent with flushing dunnies and hot showers and enough room inside the sheds to roll out the swags away from some pretty strong winds. Our first evening was spent in the old hospital (now the admin centre), and a couple of short films from the National Archives covering the area’s history were shown. There was time to have a look around at the picture boards complete with excellent information panels; and I even picked up a new Maralinga stubby holder!
Sadly it is not possible to allow multiple 4WDs to roam around unsupervised, so the tour is conducted on a 24-seater bus under the excellent supervision of Robin Mathews – a truly classic laid-back laconic Aussie dude. Initially we were not exactly thrilled at being lumped on a wrinklies’ tour bus for two days, but I have to admit it was an excellent and very informative way to fully understand what went on. Robin has a real-life understanding of what happened from all aspects – with his wife being Maralinga Tjarutja; and he has lived in the area his whole life.
The story goes: Once the British had their finger on the trigger, they certainly didn’t waste any time letting off the fireworks. Four lit up the skies from 27 September to 22 October 1956 and then another three exploded from 14 September to 9 October 1957 with the biggest firecracker being the last (code named Taranaki) which had a force equivalent to 26.6 kilotonnes of TNT. A big bang whopper suspended from balloons, it seriously went off. Others were exploded on the ground, from towers. ‘Kite’ (2.9 kilotonnes of TNT) was released from a Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant bomber when it reached 11,000 metres – the first British launching of a nuclear weapon from an aircraft.
In nuclear terms, these bombs had a relatively short 25-year half life; but it was the subsequent 550 ‘minor’ tests (especially ‘Vixen B’ which attempted to discover the effects of high explosives detonating a nuclear weapon in a fire) which did the real damage – spreading more than 20 kilograms of plutonium (with a radioactive 24,000-year half life) across the saltbush. Maralinga was certainly controversial and resulted in a Royal Commission with ongoing concerns over the health implications for servicemen and the Maralinga Tjarutja people. The British Government eventually kicked in a third of the clean-up cost, but in effect wiped their hands when they left. In 1994, the Australian Government paid $13.5 million compensation to the Maralinga Tjarutja people.
While many of the buildings were ultimately dismantled, the Brits had expected to be there for 30 years and therefore the infrastructure was built to very high standards. The 3km-long airport runway is still used as an emergency landing strip; in fact it was chosen as the backup landing site for the US space shuttle. Fair dinkum… you would think the bitumen was done only a couple of years ago.
The $107 million clean-up of the area was conducted from 1996 to 2000, and it was massive… with burial trenches the size of the MCG and five storeys deep used to bury all of the equipment, trucks, Land Rovers, Jeeps, bulldozers and contaminated soil. The ground was then vitrified which essentially encased everything in a black, glass-like case. The vitrification process was abandoned when a nitrogen cylinder exploded, damaging the plant. With 11 more cylinders in unknown locations it was deemed too dangerous and the job was completed using unlined pits. Monitoring continues on an annual basis and even the digging of a toilet in the restricted zone requires two scientists from Melbourne, monitoring each bucket of soil dug by the excavator.
Maralinga is remote and not easy to get to, and while not a traditional 4WD trip there is still the opportunity to get a bit of dust past the door seals. There’s 90km of dirt with plenty of sandstone ridges on the way in, especially around Lake Ifould, which is sure to get the suspension moving on any 4X4. On the way out we took the road to Watson and then followed the railway line back to the Ooldea Telstra Tower. The track to Emu Junction has been closed forever but thankfully it will be open this year – enabling visitors to head north to the Anne Beadell Highway from which you can kick off a Len Beadell experience. There are two Len plaques on the Emu Road worth a look, too. Having now stood at seven Ground Zeros, there doesn’t appear to be any long-term side effects. And on the positive side, Wendy now always knows were I am in the dark… she just looks for the green glow.
The non-signposted turn-off from the Eyre Hwy is approximately 27km west of Nundroo or 180km west of Ceduna. Maralinga Village is about 225km from Nundroo; roughly 2.5-3.0 hours’ drive. Allow five hours from Ceduna. Entry to the Maralinga Atomic Test Site is restricted and the area has a chained gate and hundreds of kilometres of secure perimeter fencing.
Tourist Permits are now available for a limited number of visitors at any one time – from late March to mid October. The two night/three day permits include Maralinga entry, a full day tour of the Forward Area (where the atom bombs were exploded) and two nights camping at the Village Campground. Note: You need to arrive at the village the day BEFORE your booked tour date.
Cost $190-$225 per person. Children $110.
Camping is at the Maralinga Village, which has two excellent ablutions blocks.
The right things to bring and do:
- Carry extra food, fuel, spares and water.
- Winter temperatures drop significantly so make sure to have warm clothing and camping gear in those months.
- Take out your rubbish. Do not bury it and NO bins are provided.
- Firewood is provided and campfires are encouraged; and Robin will probably join you for a yarn and a beer.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES:
You need to be totally self-sufficient as this is a remote area. Do not take chances. Last fuel and supplies are available at Nundroo and Nullarbor.
Easy; but this changes rapidly if exiting north to Emu Junction which is extreme remote travel.
MAPS AND GUIDES:
An excellent mud map can be downloaded here:
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION:
Tours can be booked at: https://www.maralingatours.com.au/bookings/
or email for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tour Guide and Gate: Phone (08) 8625 4081