Driving 400km north-west of Ceduna, we pull up in what seems like the middle of nowhere — yet a large sign in front of us indicates we’ve arrived at a former nuclear test site. There’s a tall barrier behind the sign, and a high cyclone fence topped with ominous looking barbed wire and locked gates. This is the entrance to Maralinga, and it’s a far cry from a typical tourist destination.
Having not been taught about what happened at Maralinga, you could be wondering why we’d ever want to visit a nuclear test site. Besides travelling with a camper in tow providing us with unlimited opportunities to get off the beaten track, Maralinga has been off-limits to the public until recent times. We also wanted to be able to experience more of the work by surveyor/bushman/road builder, Len Beadell.
While we’ve previously travelled many of the outback roads and tracks Len put in, Maralinga was the hub of his work. There’s also been plenty of Maralinga documentaries and fictional tv series that have hit our screens of late, which further piqued our interest to learn firsthand what separates fact from fiction.
AWAY WE GO
Maralinga isn’t the type of destination where you can simply drop in. Located on Maralinga Tjarutja Lands, security here is still tight. The only way you’re able to visit is by jumping on a tour which includes an entry permit, two nights in the campground, plus a full day tour — essentially, you arrive the day prior to the tour and leave the day after.
Having booked our tour some weeks earlier we knew we’d be in good hands with our guide, Robin Matthews from Maralinga Tours. As a former site caretaker, Robin has been part of Maralinga for almost 50 years and knows this place better than most.
After meeting us at the gates in the early afternoon, we followed Robin to the village along a 60 plus year old bitumen road that is still in remarkable condition. Concrete slabs, which we learn are a metre thick, in the village remain where many buildings once were — perhaps a slight overkill when the buildings used were only lightweight aluminium!
It turns out the British government didn’t do things by halves, though. Besides erecting a range of buildings and quarters for up to 2,000 staff, the village had a cinema, church, barber shop, basketball and tennis courts, and an Olympic sized swimming pool. Without doubt, the pool was a big hit when summer temperatures would well and truly top the old century mark (in pre-Celsius days) on a regular basis.
Finding somewhere to set up our camper was never going to be an issue when we had a choice of the massive concrete slabs to choose from. Nearby amenities included a number of hot showers and toilets, and a free washing machine. There was a camp kitchen with a gas barbeque next door to the amenities, and a communal firepit with wood included for nightly gatherings.
For the rest of the afternoon — after setting up — we were free to take a look around the village. We initially stopped at the basketball and tennis courts (which still had their rings and nets) and were surprised to find patchy mobile phone coverage at the old swimming pool site.
One of the remaining village buildings we found still in use is the hospital complex. This is one of the more substantial buildings remaining onsite today. Once the British left during the 60s, the building was used as living quarters and office space by the Commonwealth police. It has more recently become the manager’s home.
We came across another of the original buildings at the village that’s been turned into a museum. A range of items were laid out on display tables, and some detailed maps, photos and other memorabilia adorned the walls. Taking plenty of time to check everything out — we also watched some very interesting cinema footage about Maralinga.
ON THE TOUR
Our full day bus tour started early the following morning which began with a visit to the airport. Taking a walk through the terminal building revealed dozens of kerosene lamps originally used to light the runway. Storyboards on the walls provided more information about Maralinga, while Robin brought the stories to life and answered any questions.
Heading outside, it was a short distance to the runway which looked in good nick. Here Robin quipped, “The touch-down pads at either end are built on five metres of reinforced concrete!”
We learnt that the British never looked at Maralinga being a short-term facility, and the runway was built to last — with a 30 plus year lifespan in mind.
Interestingly, up to 30 planes used the airstrip each day during testing, and it’s one of the longest in the southern hemisphere. We were also amazed to learn the runway had been registered as a backup should the US space shuttle of the day ever need to land.
Before leaving the airport, we headed around the back of the terminal building where an old troop carrier sat. It was far from your average troopy, having been heavily modified. Robin explained it was one of a few that had been used to check radiation levels during one of the site clean-ups.
The tour also included a visit to Lough Mackew — a strange name for the village’s water catchment area, but it’s an oasis in the desert. The British went to great lengths to put in stormwater drains alongside the airstrip (well away from the planes) to collect water runoff which then flowed into the dam. Once the water had settled, it was syphoned off and pumped into water tanks back at the village.
Prior to Maralinga being used by the British, early explorer William Tietkens led an expedition that passed through the area in 1879–80. A visit to the well named after him forms part of the tour.
Len Beadell also had a big influence at Maralinga, and pretty well everything we saw could be attributed to him in some shape or form — survey markers, the layout, access roads and detonation sites, were all some of Len’s handiwork. He’s also renowned for his dead straight road building style, and we saw plenty of examples around the place.
Much of the tour takes visitors to what’s referred to as the Maralinga Forward Area, an area about 30km north of the village, where seven major atomic bomb trials and hundreds of smaller test explosions were conducted.
Major trials were designed to explode nuclear devices using different techniques. These occurred from 31m high towers, detonated at ground level, air dropped, or at 300m high from a balloon. Bombs ranged in size between one kiloton to a mind blowing 27 kilotons, which is almost twice the size of the bomb used at Hiroshima.
A stop at the various ground zero sites was a tour inclusion, and all are marked with concrete plinths. A few fragments of twisted steel remained at some detonation sites, with anything else surviving the blasts having been buried during clean-ups.
Our last tour visit was to a site which never got used. Tufi was destined to be the next detonation site, but the nuclear disarmament treaty cut the life of Maralinga short after only 10 years. Cleaning up the site began in 1964, with radiation levels at these rehabilitated sites now being declared safe at all areas except two. For these sites, no permanent camping is allowed. One of our tour group came along with a Geiger counter, so it was interesting to learn the radiation levels at each of the detonation sites. If we ever had any concerns, we needn’t have worried. The readings were so low, he tells us we’d be exposed to more radiation when travelling on a commercial aeroplane!
Arriving back at the village late afternoon, we were sorry the tour was coming to an end. Robin’s commentary about the Indigenous, British, and Australian connection to Maralinga — without glossing over the stories — was vital to get the most out of this tour. Maralinga’s story is an important one. As visitors, we’ve come away with far greater knowledge of what happened during this interesting chapter of Australia’s history.
Maralinga is 400km north-west of Ceduna in South Australia on the edge of the Great Victorian Desert. You need to be prepared, as the location is remote, and high clearance vehicles are recommended.
Maralinga Tours runs tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, April to October. Bookings are essential. The tour package includes a full day tour from the Maralinga village, entry permits, and campground fees at the village for two nights (arrive for the tour the day before and leave the day after).
Your tour booking entitles you to travel the most direct route from Ceduna to Maralinga village via an unsealed road. After crossing the Transcontinental railway line at Ooldea, the unsealed road continues before changing to bitumen closer to the Maralinga barrier gate. Travelling any other route to Maralinga while passing through Maralinga Tjarutja Lands (MT) requires an additional permit. Ph: (08) 8625 2946.
WHAT TO BRING
You need to carry enough fuel for the return journey, plus bring your own food and camp gear (no alcohol permitted). Mobile phone coverage is extremely limited once leaving the Eyre Highway until reaching the crossing of the Trans-Australian Railway Line at Ooldea (an hour’s drive from Maralinga). There’s patchy mobile service within the village.
Ph: 0427 581 341