We go to Maralinga, South Oz, 60 years after British atomic bomb testing left the earth and the people in fallout.
First published in the June 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
HELL is in remote western South Australia. And we’re driving through it.
From behind glass in our Land Rover Discovery Sport, air-con set to 19 degrees, suspension soothing the potholes and dust sealed out, this could be any outback scene for millions of square-kilometres around. But stop, kill the turbo-diesel engine and step out and there is something different here, something missing. Life.
On these rolling hills, stunted saltbushes are the only sign of vegetation, their faded colour matching the grey clouds. There are no birds of prey wheeling through the sky, no kangaroos grazing, lizards scuttling or dingoes lurking in the distance.
This is ground-zero Maralinga. It is where the British exploded a series of atomic bombs in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. The fires have long gone and the mushroom clouds and ash drifted away. But the poison remains, locked in the earth, and in the people.
For 50 years this place has been off-limits, but recently the gates were opened to the public by the traditional landowners, the Maralinga Tjarutja people. You can now drive here, pay your money, take the tour and stay overnight. Then drive away again, reflecting on what you found.
It’s not only the place but also the history that’s important. There is a strong automotive connection because the last great Aussie outback explorer, Len Beadell, found this place for the British in the early ’50s and bulldozed the roads that made it accessible. He did his trailblazing in a convoy of Series I Land Rovers, shipped in specifically to replace unreliable WWII-era Jeeps. It therefore seems appropriate we explore this territory newly opened to the public in the latest vehicle to wear the famous green oval badge, the Land Rover Discovery Sport. In this case it’s an SD4 SE with a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel.
This is not a Land Rover as Beadell would have understood it. With its monocoque chassis, he would have dismissed it as a car, and without low-range gearing it couldn’t bash through the bush the way he once did. It even has an eight-speed automatic transmission, leather trim and air-conditioning; Len made do with a fold-down windscreen.
Our plan is straight-forward: collect the Disco in Port Lincoln, make our way via Ceduna to the Maralinga turn-off just west of the Nundroo roadhouse on the Nullarbor Plain, turn north and get to the ‘barrier’, where we’ll meet up with Maralinga manager Robin Matthews.
The centrepiece of the trip is a tour of the village and the bomb sites close to it. But the biggest driving challenge will be the 200km journey north on a track surveyed and built by Beadell to a place called Emu Field, where atom bombs were also exploded. We will literally be driving in his wheel tracks.
Photographer Thomas Wielecki and I have long worked toward this adventure, but we go with some underlying apprehension, weighed down with gear as well as expectation.
The car is stock standard. We have made no modifications to go outback and Matthews has been vague about the conditions. Land Rover has supplied two extra spare tyres in addition to the one under the floor. That’s it. There’s no heavy-duty suspension, even though we’re loaded with the two spares, luggage, photographic and video equipment including a drone, extra fuel, camping gear and the food we need to self-cater at Maralinga.
On bitumen the Disco Sport is civility itself, pretty quiet for a diesel, sipping fuel at 7.5L/100km, riding with a soft-edged gait and steering with lazy rather than laser accuracy.
Just after Nundroo we turn north on the new, wide and smooth coarse-bitumen road constructed for the Iluka mineral sands mine. We share the road with two extremes – giant B-doubles and blue tongue lizards. The latter are in plague proportions, dashing onto the bluestone surface and sometimes dying under our 19-inch wheels.
A small ‘Maralinga’ sign marks the turn onto dirt. From here it is 62km to the transcontinental rail line where, if we get a Telstra connection, we can call Matthews so he knows we’re ‘nearby’; from there it’s another 48km to the front gate.
This is the M1 of dirt roads; wide, smooth and with great sight lines. We motor along at a good speed, the Disco levelling out the imperfections. It is more compliant and forgiving than a BMW X3 or Audi Q5, and pays more than lip service to the concept of going beyond tarmac.
As dusk closes in, so do the clouds. They are a broiling iron-grey above us, mutating to a deep purple and then a devil’s red. To the south, bursts of rain descend like the liquid trunks of fat, multi-coloured trees. A gold band slashes across the flat plain close to the western horizon. It is spectacular, apocalyptic, a reminder of where we are headed and what has been here before us.
So is the bitumen we arrive at 21km from the gate. Built by the British to connect Maralinga with the railway siding at now defunct Watson, it’s in incredibly good condition for a 60-year-old road. We climb an escarpment northward, green bushes waving in the wind, crowding in like Tour de France spectators. Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles as we pass a fading sign warning we are entering the Nuclear Testing Grounds.
Matthews is waiting in his Toyota Hilux when we finally arrive. “Welcome to Maralinga,” he rasps in a voice honed by years of roll-your-own cigarettes, crushing my hand in a grizzled paw with the texture of sandpaper. The 64-year-old looks of this place with his salt-and-pepper Santa Claus beard, weathered, reddened skin and relaxed gait.
Robin is not only caretaker of the village but tour guide, mechanic, host and visionary. He has spent his life in the western part of SA: on the tuna boats out of Port Lincoln; in the outposts that once clung to the rail line; driving the supply trucks that made the long trek out to the remote settlements. In one way or another he has been coming and going from Maralinga since the early ’70s. He has lived here for the last eight years. His wife Della joins him sometimes, as do some of his four kids, 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
He’s often here alone, either maintaining the village or out on week-long patrols around the boundaries of what is called Section 400, the 3300 sq km area that includes the Maralinga village and bomb sites. “I enjoy the solitude,” he crackles. “But I also enjoy the history of it. There is so much history, but it’s not only British history. This is where people get confused. It’s Indigenous history, Australian history, British history and world history out here.”
Before anything else, this was where the local Maralinga Tjarutja people hunted, camped and lived. Then the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the world – including their isolated timeless landscape – changed forever.
The modern history of Maralinga began in 1955 when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was raging. It became home to a British defence base devoted to the development and explosion of atomic bombs. It was established after earlier detonations on the Montebello Islands off WA and at Emu Field. Both Emu and Maralinga were set up with the compliance and assistance of the Australian government, reconnoitred and surveyed by the legendary Beadell.
Maralinga was built to operate for at least 30 years, but after five major tests and hundreds of smaller tests, the British left in 1967. Then came the clean-ups, the controversy and even a Royal Commission. Finally, the land was handed back to its tribal owners, and only in 2015 was it officially opened up to the public.
“There was never any doubt the Maralinga Tjarutja wanted that land back,” says Matthews. “They wanted the land back that the British stopped them travelling through years ago. But they did not want to come and live here. They only wanted the satisfaction of saying, ‘We got it back, we’re happy now’.”
It is a 10-minute drive up to the village, but in darkness there is not a lot to see, just the silhouettes of a few low buildings. There’s more to hear once we arrive, the ever-present background hum of a diesel generator that provides electricity to the site, and the creak and rustle of gum trees swaying in a strong breeze. It’s cold, but it turns out we’re staying in a portable cabin rather than camping; there’s a shower, toilet, our own bedrooms and even a TV.
I watch Robin’s DVD copy of a British newsreel from the ’50s that reports on the establishment of Maralinga and ‘Operation Buffalo’, the name given to the first four atomic detonations at the site. It is pure propaganda. A jolly voice-over prattles as grainy black-and-white images show soldiers in shorts and shirts lining up with their backs to the blast, then turning around to watch the mushroom cloud climb above them. Later research would reveal an abysmally high early death and cancer rate among the personnel who served at Maralinga.
The impact on the Indigenous population was even more horrendous. The fallout from the explosions spread much further than forecast through an area that had been declared uninhabited, but was nothing of the sort.
In daylight, the place seems sad. Only six buildings remain from the era, including the ‘hospital’ where Robin lives. They are all heritage listed. There’s also a giant water tower at the village’s highest point. The vast majority of structures that housed up to 3000 personnel at any one time have been bulldozed.
Street after street of metre-deep concrete foundations are all that’s left of much of Maralinga. I had expected to be coming to a Chernobyl, wreckage frozen in time. However, while some of it is derelict and there’s some machinery and tangled metal strewn about, most of it harks from the clean-ups that took place in the decades after the British left.
The village swimming pool was turned into a rubbish dump. Photos from the ’50s show young men lounging around the water, admiring the view down toward the Nullarbor Plain 40km away. This must have been the closest thing to paradise on 50-degree summer Sundays; a swim after church before spending the afternoon grogging on in the canteen.
However, it is the airport that speaks most clearly of the ambition and importance of Maralinga in its heyday. The bitumen runway is 2.4km long, with an 80m rectangular section at each end reinforced with concrete five metres deep. Beyond that are 600m dirt over-shoots. Thirty aircraft a day used to land here. Even now, 60 years after its construction, it is still in perfect nick. There’s barely any gravel splash as I let the Disco have its way and accelerate to 180km/h.
“It’s strong enough to land the space shuttle on,” Robin says proudly. “It’s the only runway in the southern hemisphere that can do it. They planned for years to come so that’s why it’s so big and so well built. It’s a huge feat of engineering. And built in the middle of the desert.”
If the runway itself is indicative of giant ambition then the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ is a poignant reminder of the smaller, human realities of this outpost. It is merely a few steps over a deep gutter on the way to or from the airport terminal; those crossing to leave sighed with relief, those arriving back sighed sadly.
It is clear but bitterly cold early next morning as we head for Emu. This is a 400km-plus return journey on the toughest roads we will encounter. A Commodore could have coped with the drive into Maralinga from the south, but not this. The track becomes slower and windier, then sandy. The Disco Sport’s ground clearance, compliant suspension and steering is a boon in these conditions, the sometimes laggy relationship between engine and transmission less helpful. Shifting the Terrain Response dial into Sand mode overly sharpens the throttle, so the friendlier Gravel mode is the better choice.
The further away from Maralinga we go the healthier the land becomes. There are tall gums, camels, dingoes, an immense array of stunningly beautiful wildflowers.
Not long after the halfway point the left-front tyre goes quickly and unarguably flat, its sidewall gouged by a rock. But it’s a quick and easy swap and the only problem we have with punctures.
We reach the Emu village after six hours. It’s at the junction of the east-west Anne Beadell Highway (named after Len’s wife) on a small, stony and unsheltered escarpment looking down toward the clay pan. There are a couple of roads, the inevitable concrete foundations and mounds of rubbish. Emu Fields’ remoteness and inhospitality prompted the move to Maralinga.
If the drive out to the bomb sites was as uncomfortable then as it is now on the incredibly corrugated Anne Beadell Hwy, then the move south is easy to understand. We slow to walking pace as the suspension jackhammers on impossible ruts that come at us in vast swells. To go any faster would shake the Disco Sport to pieces.
Thankfully, the detour to the Totem 1 and Totem 2 bomb sites is relatively smooth. We know we’re getting close because the vegetation is now minimal, there are massive dirt banks and frequent signs warning against camping. There are stone cairns at both sites marking where the first bomb was detonated on October 15, 1953, the second 12 days later.
The sky is blue and clear, but a cold wind pushes unimpeded across the open plain. There is nothing much to see here, but it is compelling. Time is against us now and we cannot stay long, not that we want to. This still feels like a death zone. Nothing good happened here.
Back on the so-called ‘highway’, we’re in the midst of a real-world shock absorber destruction test. The Disco Sport’s dampers overheat and cry enough as we rattle, bang, bounce and vibrate across waves of hard-packed clay. They don’t leak or split, they simply don’t work any more. And they never recover; for the entire drive back the rear springs have their way with minimal resistance from the dampers. Luggage flies and crashes around as we pogo over humps, bumps and drop-offs, accompanied by protests from under the rear body as the suspension tops and bottoms out.
We see frequent evidence of markers left by Beadell, metal plaques or painted rocks, some of which have been souvenired and replaced by replicas. There is one atop Observatory Hill, the highest point between Emu and Maralinga. Trees wash and wave to the horizon in every direction. There is absolutely no sign of modern ‘civilisation’ here, yet experiments of immense power and destruction took place just a few kilometres up the road.
Driving long into the dark, the track straightens and the chance of encountering wildlife lessens as we close on Maralinga. In the end it’s an epic 14-hour, 450km day. Sleep comes easily, the generator quietly snoring in the background.
Next day we visit the Maralinga bomb sites, 30 minutes north along a sealed road that spreadeagles into a web of streets and avenues. It’s a map for a city without buildings, trees, or life. Low salt bushes struggle to grow more than a foot above the ground.
We tag along as Robin takes a group of visitors from one site to another in a Coaster bus. We see the massive clean-up at Taranaki where the ground has been scrubbed, and the machinery that did it crushed and buried when the job was done. At Breakaway, sand has been burned into glass by the infernal explosion. At Marcoo, there are tangled remains of the thick wire that held the bomb in place. There are cairns at each ground zero, the stubs of steel towers and mounds where planes, tanks and other structures were anchored to test their resistance to explosions.
A lone concrete blockhouse where the explosions were photographed and filmed still stands near Marcoo. It is the only one left of 31. Close by in the bush cluster dozens of rusting rocket launchers, as if they have huddled together for protection and conversation.
Through it all Robin is enthusiasm itself; no question throws him, his passion never flags. His love for this place is obvious.
“I feel a sense of pride in what I do,” he says. “As people are driving away I’m thinking, ‘There goes another satisfied customer and they will go back and tell their friends and then they will come and visit this place’.”
Robin sees something here I can’t. Yes, it is worth visiting. It is a place of great importance and relevance to Australia and its development. But a cold wind gusts across the mottled plain; a chilling wind for a chilling place. Low, grey clouds make it seem more like evening than mid-afternoon, a total contrast with yesterday’s clear blue skies and the spectacular sky show we saw down south.
It is impossible not to be affected by the grey, cloying, quiet nature of this place, and by what we have seen and what we know happened here. There are lessons to be learned.
As all great adventures are, Maralinga is a journey in more ways than you expect. So take the drive, do the tour and stay the night. Hopefully it’s the only time you will ever go to Hell.
The incompetence and bastardry of the Maralinga tests and their aftermath is staggering. Servicemen were exposed to the deadly blasts and many died young; the poisonous dust clouds from the explosions blew far further than ever forecast.
The local Maralinga Tjarutja population was shifted away from their traditional lands to enable the testing to take place, but Aboriginal people crossed the test area throughout its working years. The most famous story is of a family found living in a bomb crater in 1957.
Most of the horror stories only came to light because of the brave whistleblowing of veteran Avon Hudson in the 1970s and the McClelland Royal Commission of 1984-85.
After years of bitter dispute, the SA government handed back the native title for most of the region in 1984. The title to Section 400, the 3300 sq m of land that encompassed the test area, was finally regained by the Maralinga Tjarutja in 2014.
The last of four major clean-ups of the site was completed in 2000, although there are still question marks about their effectiveness.
The rear dampers’ inability to cope with the torturous Anne Beadell track underlines the fundamental fact this is a crossover, not the sort of outback bush basher with which Land Rover made its name.
“The suspension on Discovery Sport has to find a fine line between off-road capability and refinement for urban driving and we think it handles both very well,” Jaguar Land Rover Australia’s James Scrimshaw wrote in reply to our queries.
“Continual arduous driving may consider a more heavy-duty and less comfortable shock absorber, but in 99.9 percent of cases we feel we have the suspension performance just right.”
Scrimshaw also passed on a response from Land Rover’s technical department concerning our experience: “We are not aware of any Discovery Sport suspension dampening concerns in Australia on the question raised by Bruce Newton. It appears that the vehicle was operating within design parameters under the severe road conditions as advised, providing that a balanced vehicle load was maintained and no mechanical or hydraulic shock absorber malfunction occurred when crossing the Anne Beadell Track.”
Maralinga is in south-western SA, 1308km by road from Adelaide. The nearest significant population centre is Ceduna on the Great Australian Bight, about 370km to the south-east.
From Ceduna it’s a straight run on the Eyre Highway (National Highway 1) to the turn-off, 27km past the Nundroo roadhouse. This is the final refuelling option.
Be aware the turn-off to Maralinga points only to the Iluka sand mine. You’re on a quality bitumen road for 78km to the Maralinga and Oak Valley turn-off to the left.
Now you’re on a wide, smooth dirt road across the flat plains. At 62km you get to the Trans-Australian railway at Ooldea, where there’s Telstra service and you can call Robin to confirm ETA.
From here it’s another 27km of dirt until you reach the bitumen road that connects Maralinga village with the old Watson railway siding. The barrier guarding entry to Maralinga is another 21km up the road.
Give Robin our regards.
Model: Land Rover Discovery Sport SD4 SE
Engine: 2179cc 4-cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
Max power: 140kW @ 4000rpm
Max torque: 420Nm @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 8.9sec (claimed)
Fuel economy: 7.1L/100km (on test)
On sale: Now