A blast from the past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LEE MEL­LETT Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a Cather­ine Manuell lap­top com­pen­dium suit­able to hold a por­ta­ble com­puter or tablet plus mo­bile phone, A4 pa­per­work and ac­ces­sories. Availab

Start­ing in 1956, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment det­o­nated seven atomic bombs at Mar­alinga in South Aus­tralia. The sites have been de­con­tam­i­nated, so a mate and I de­cided to visit. We con­tacted Mar­alinga Tours and booked a hol­i­day of two nights camp­ing and a day’s bus tour.

To get there we turned north off the Eyre High­way about 175km east of Ce­duna and trav­elled over in­ter­est­ing roads for about 150km to Ooldea, where we crossed the In­dian Pa­cific rail­way track. There we saw a me­mo­rial to Daisy Bates, a pi­o­neer who spent part of her life work­ing with lo­cal Abo­rig­ines. Another 50km took us to the Mar­alinga vil­lage gates, where we were met by Robin Matthews, our host and guide for the next day. At Mar­alinga, we camped, with hot showers, good toi­lets, free Wi-Fi and a very welcome fire pit.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing Robin picked us up in his ute (nor­mally he uses a minibus but we were the only visi­tors that day) and took us on a full day’s tour of the bomb sites, and told all about the history of the pro­ject and about the ef­fects on the lo­cal peo­ple. There was much to see, in­clud- ing an aero­drome built on con­crete so thick that the space shut­tle could land there. The air­craft park­ing tar­mac is still used to cap­ture the lim­ited rain­fall and store it in tanks and dams.

Mar­alinga is a ghost town now but was built, owned and op­er­ated by the Bri­tish to house the staff and armed forces in­volved in the test­ing of atomic bombs less than 30km away to the north. You can still see the lay­out of the town and the Olympic-sized swimming pool and ten­nis and bas­ket­ball courts. At the bomb sites we saw the ground zero for each det­o­na­tion and mas­sive pits used to bury plu­to­nium-con­tam­i­nated soil. One sec­tion of sand has turned to glass.

Af­ter a great day’s sight­see­ing, Robin joined us around the camp­fire for fur­ther dis­cus­sion, then showed us sev­eral videos and ar­ti­cles giv­ing more de­tails about the pro­ject. Next morn­ing we headed south­west, past Wat­son, di­rectly across the true Nullar­bor Plain along a stony rut­ted track for about 150km to Nullar­bor road­house. There we vis­ited the Mur­raw­i­jinie lime­stone caves and vis­ited Head of Bight to watch south­ern right whales frol­ick­ing. It felt so care­free and so dif­fer­ent from the fas­ci­nat­ing but trou­bled history of Mar­alinga.

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