The recent ABC series “Operation Buffalo” highlighted the atomic bomb tests at Maralinga and was actually filmed there. However, like many television series it was fictional and it is well worth finding out the real fascinating story and experiencing the area for yourself.
Luckily you can do this as Maralinga is open for tours and definitely worth the effort to discover this dark and enthralling part of Australian History.
Maralinga tours can only be visited by prior arrangement, so make sure you book well in advance using the booking system on the website. The website also gives you plenty of background information and has a FAQ section as well as any current restrictions.
Maralinga is approximately 250km from Ceduna in South Australia via the Eyre Highway. About 27km west of Nundroo turn right onto a sealed road heading north.
Note: that there is no signage to Maralinga from the main road to prevent unwanted visitors.
Head north for another 78km where there is a signposted turn-off on the left to Maralinga, then continue on the gravel for 62km to the Trans-Australian railway. At the railway there is excellent mobile phone coverage (Telstra) so it is here that you ring to arrange access into Maralinga.
There is another 27km of gravel until you hit the bitumen of the Watson-Maralinga road, turn right and travel a further 21km to the barrier gate where your guide Robin is hopefully waiting to lead you into the restricted area.
Robin will escort you the further 6km to the Maralinga Village.
The drive to Maralinga is quite interesting and scenic. It starts with the barren plains of the Nullarbor Regional Reserve which has its own unique beauty with bluebush and gibber plains, then the landscape changes as you head north and cross the Trans Continental Railway Line.
The area is now dominated by red sand dunes that are covered in Mallee Bushes as you enter the southern section of Australia’s largest dune desert, the Great Victoria Desert.
Is it safe to head to into an area where seven atomic bombs were detonated and numerous atomic tests carried out? Absolutely – it is now safe and there is strict ongoing testing to ensure it stays safe, however in the past it certainly was not.
The British had a rudimental go at cleaning things up in 1967 (Operation Brumby) where contaminated soil was mixed with clean soil and plutonium covered fragments dumped into 22 concrete capped pits. The British then handed the area back to the Australian Government who naively agreed without properly checking the site.
After a public outcry a Royal Commission in 1985 into the tests found the site still had significant radiation hazards, and in 1996 the second $108 million dollar clean-up of the site commenced and was completed in 2000. The clean-up, funded mostly by the Australian Government, removed over 350,000 cubic metres of soil and debris from a 2 square km area which was buried in trenches along with all the equipment and machinery used in the cleanup.
Sadly the buried items include 71 Toyota Landcruisers which brought a tear to my eye – such a waste! Haha.
Why Did They Use Maralinga?
So why did Britain spend all this money and come all the way to outback Australia? It was to do with the events after the end of World War 2 (The Cold War) with Britain wanting to be a world nuclear power. Originally Britain was working jointly with America to develop nuclear weapons but the Americans eventually went it alone after several British Scientists defected to Russia.
Britain still wanted to be a nuclear power so it needed a place well away from the homeland so that it could perfect its weapons – Australia! A couple of atomic bombs were let off on the remote islands off the Western Australian coast (Monte Belle) and then a couple more set off at Emu in 1953. However both these places were extremely difficult to service so Len Beadell (the famous Australian Surveyor) was tasked to find a more suitable location. After much reconnaissance Len found a spot just north of the Trans-Australian Railway that was perfect, and Maralinga Atomic Range was born.
By late 1954 a new township had spring up and the town was given the name of Maralinga, a word taken from the Aboriginal people that roughly translated to “Thunder”. This new town was not going to be a short-term affair, with plans set in place for the long term testing of nuclear bombs and devices for a planned life of 30 years. The town housed around 2000 men during the trials, with facilities including workshops, a football field, a hospital, cinema, chapel, barber shop, and even an Olympic sized swimming pool.
The current facilities at Maralinga are not as extensive as previous, but they are still pretty good. There are flush toilets, hot showers, firewood supplied, and even a washing machine if you need to wash some clothes. The concrete pads that were once part of the building foundations are perfect for setting up camp and a welcome escape from the outback red dust.
Even though the scenery is brilliant and facilities at Maralinga Village great, the main reason for heading all the way out to Maralinga is to find out more about what happened out here and visit the atomic bomb sites.
The full day range tour conducted by Robin Matthews is fantastic and his knowledge of the area and personal insights make this tour very special. Robin has lived most of his life in the area and with his wife being from the local Maralinga Tjarutja tribe he has a real-life understanding of what happened here from all aspects.
The tour starts early in the morning from the campground where you jump into the mini bus that will take you around the range. The tour starts at Lough Mackew, the water storage that collects rainwater for the village via cleverly designed culverts that funnels water from the aircraft parking area.
Next is the enormous 3km long airstrip and terminal built to enable the British to securely and privately fly their equipment into the Maralinga site. An average of three planes a day landed here while Maralinga was operational, and the airstrip is still fully functional and used by the airforce for exercises as well as for fly-in tours. The airstrip is one of the longest in the Southern Hemisphere and was designated as the backup site for the US Space shuttle.
From the airport the tour heads north on one of Len Beadells signature roads – dead straight! The road leads to the Forward Area, the area where the atomic bombs were detonated. Before checking out the ground zero points, we stop at a historical hand dug well. This well was dug by William Tietkins, (Ernest Giles’ fellow traveller), in 1879 in an attempt to secure a pastoral block.
A hilltop vantage provides views over the detonation areas as the tour continues to several of the Ground Zero points. It is quite eerie to stand at the point where such a tremendous force had been unleashed. The infrastructure required to detonate and record each bomb is incredible – typically three large balloons were used to support the large bomb with over seven kilometres of steel cable attached to huge concrete blocks to hold it in place. All this material was vaporised in a millisecond when the bomb went off – an unbelievable amount of energy.
There is a dark side to atomic tests – the toll it took on the local indigenous population and the Australian & British servicemen. There are around 117 documented cases of Aboriginals “disappearing”, and many more cases of health issues with the local tribes. The servicemen were treated as human guineapigs with many developing cancers and other complications.
The British took all records back to England so there is still great mystery about exactly what effects the tests had on the men involved. Interestingly no women were allowed at Maralinga – the British were worried about the effects the radiation would have on the women’s reproductive system but didn’t seem worried about the effects on the servicemen or the local aboriginal people!
At the end of the tour the old hospital can be visited (it’s now the administrative centre). There are some excellent picture boards complete with information panels, and you can even check out the eerie hospital morgue! There are some souvenirs available for purchase, a new stubby holder has now made its way into my camping gear.
After a full day touring the area there is nothing better than relaxing around the campfire and discussing the incredible events that occurred here. Robin may call in and perhaps share a drink (and some more stories) to cap off a fantastic day.
Leaving Maralinga it is worth heading down to the location of Watson, which was the railway siding that was used to offload supplies to the Maralinga complex. There is little left there now, other than a large quarry and some scattered ruins. From Watson take the scenic access track on the southern side of the railway eastwards until joining the main road back to the Eyre Highway.
It is bit of an effort to get to Maralinga, but this is rewarded with spectacular scenery and a fascinating tour of the area. This is a seemly forgotten yet important part of our history and really is something that all Australian’s should learn more about. Make the effort to visit Maralinga – you will not be disappointed