Inside Story

Rolling thunder

Extract | Maralinga combines the devastation of atomic testing and the green shoots of the future

Ben Stubbs 4 August 2019 2930 words

Telling the story: caretaker Robin Matthews with a sign warning people to keep out of Britain’s former nuclear test site. Kyodo

From 1956 until 1963 the “Maralinga guinea pigs” — men from the British, New Zealand and Australian militaries — were “volunteered” by their superiors to stand in the forward zone of South Australia’s nuclear testing range as atomic bombs more powerful than Hiroshima exploded in front of them. They would wait only four seconds after the blast before turning towards the hot wave of energy rippling across the plains; they would then set off in their shorts and knee-length socks to test the fallout by “rolling around in the dirt.” Things did not end well for them.

The road to Maralinga reveals how large South Australia really is. We had been given a hand-sketched mud map to find the former nuclear test site: take a right on an unsigned mining road 170 kilometres past Ceduna; seventy kilometres later take a left onto a dirt road until you hit the crossing of the Trans-Australian Railway, along the longest straight stretch of rail track in the world; next, the map takes us on a weaving trail over claypans and dry lakes and into the Maralinga Tjarutja lands. We then have to drive for another hour through saltbush scrub until we reach a locked gate. Robin will be waiting for us there.

As we approach the rolling mallee woodlands, blue haze ripples low on the horizon; saltbush and stunted trees dot the country. There are no animals, no people and no signs of life except big, steel-coloured storm clouds spreading over the hills. Appropriately, Maralinga means “thunder” in the extinct Aboriginal Garik (or Garig) language — it seems apt considering the devastation that tore through the land here not so long ago.

During the cold war, the British were concerned that they’d be left vulnerable by the nuclear weapons programs being developed in Russia and the United States. They searched for an appropriate testing site within their empire to begin their own program. Canada was initially touted as a partner, though the government there baulked at the potential environmental damage. The remote bush in South Australia was identified as a possibility and Australia’s prime minister at the time, Robert Menzies, even agreed to pay some of the costs, something not requested by the British. The British conducted nuclear tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963, and at Maralinga from 1956. It was nuclear colonialism played out in one of the most remote areas of South Australia.

Nuclear testing started on the Montebello Islands eighty kilometres off the coast of Western Australia, before moving to Emu Field in the scrub 180 kilometres north of Maralinga. The British wanted a larger, more open tract of land where they could conduct their experiments in secret, and Len Beadell, the famous Australian bushman and surveyor who opened up the land for the Woomera rocket range in 1946, decided on the area in the west of the state as the most appropriate site for nuclear tests in South Australia. As Beadell knew, there were no towns there, but it was a significant Indigenous “highway” and Dreaming road that passed between sacred sites and the paths that led people from the south to central Australia. During his survey, Beadell even discovered what he called an Aboriginal “Stonehenge” on the track between Emu Field and Maralinga, though there was no time to investigate properly as the pressures of the cold war mounted.

A village was built at Maralinga, with London Road, Belfast Street, Tenth Avenue and East Street among the addresses where the personnel lived during the operation. There was a permanent airstrip, which at the time was the largest in the southern hemisphere, roads, an Olympic-size swimming pool, accommodation and railway access.

The first test was set for September 1956, only two months before the rest of the country would be celebrating the Olympics in Melbourne. The Buffalo 1 bomb, with a yield of fifteen kilotonnes (equivalent to 15,000 tonnes of TNT), was detonated at the One Tree site from a thirty-metre steel tower. It was the first of seven atomic bombs exploded over seven years at Maralinga. During the test years a total of 35,000 military personnel spent time at the base. Most were from Britain, though there were also men from Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand living in the Maralinga village.

We arrive at the locked gates, where the guide is waiting. Robin Matthews is a grizzled man in his sixties with the tanned skin of a life lived outdoors, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and a cigarette hanging from his dry lips. He is from an era that doesn’t exist anymore — his skin is blotched with a narrative of faded tattoos, inked long before it was fashionable. He wears a singlet with an unfurled dragon on the front, and he smokes and swears without worrying about appearances. Robin lives for this place and it’s part of him. He unlocks the gates and takes us through to the bones of the former village, a place he calls home and where we’ll camp for the next few nights.

Robin has been coming to Maralinga on and off since 1972, so he knows more about its modern story than most. He first came here on an odd job to help pull the village buildings down. He was a tuna fisherman in Port Lincoln at the time. For four weeks, he drove trucks carrying out the old materials and “it piqued my interest,” he says of an initial curiosity that has led to his nearly fifty-year association with the place.

“In 1973 I got a job on the railway at Watson and I saw some old records of the tests and the people who lived here, and I began piecing together the story,” he says. He came back again in 1984 to run the store in Oak Valley with his wife Della, who is Anangu. “Della wasn’t brought up the same way culturally as many of the Indigenous people — she doesn’t get frightened by the mamu spirits,” he says, referring to the evil spirits the Anangu believe still reside here. The land here was handed back to the Indigenous people in 2009, though, as Robin says, “So many people’s descendants died as a result of the blasts. It’s a bit like a graveyard for them.”

Robin continued to work on contracts in the area and when the land was handed back to the Indigenous people, he and Della were asked to be the first caretakers. While the people who live at Oak Valley don’t want to live in, or even pass through, the Maralinga land, they’re happy for it to be open to tourism, so the story of Maralinga can be told.

There is a strange aura to this place. The ghost town feel of the old buildings and half-buried foundations contrasts with the newness of this tourism enterprise, complete with hot water and wi-fi. We’re free to wander around the compound in the afternoon, past old water tanks, army barracks with open doors flapping in the wind, and a flagpole that hasn’t hoisted anything for years.

Robin returns the next morning in a repurposed minibus to take us out to the test sites. He speaks with fondness of the projects he’s responsible for here — he’s the tourism operator, former caretaker and maintenance man; and he knows every stretch — from the oleanders planted by the British around the dam, to the hiding places for the crimson flowers of the Sturt’s desert peas along the track.

Len Beadell’s roads take us into the Great Victoria Desert to the testing sites. It’s a nineteen-kilometre dead-straight track up onto a limestone plain scattered with stunted mulga scrub. The colour of the earth changes from red to sandy yellow in an instant. “Rabbits still dig things up,” Robin says, though as part of his job he continually digs burial pits with a backhoe to bury non-radiated junk.

After the clean-up from 1994 to 2000, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency found that someone living at Maralinga full-time — like Robin — would receive no more than five millisieverts of radiation in a year, even in the most contaminated sites around Taranaki. Tourists who don’t disturb the soil, or “eat mouthfuls of dust,” as Robin puts it, would receive less than one millisievert. As a comparison, most people are exposed to about 1.5 to two millisieverts each year from natural background radiation. “There was a 0.2 reading at ground zero, to give you an idea of the clean-up,” Robin says.

As we approach the Taranaki site, we can see, nearly to the centimetre, where the vegetation vanishes — the invisible line from where the soil is poisoned. There is nothing except for small shrubs with shallow roots, scattered around the blast site. As soon as they grow to about twenty centimetres, they wilt and die.

“Kangaroos have started coming back here,” Robin says. Aside from the herds of camels, there are emus, dingoes and “lots of king brown snakes” reappearing as well. Taranaki got its name from the second world war battle in Papua New Guinea. Around this one site are twenty-two major pits, all at least fifteen metres deep and cased in reinforced concrete, to bury the plutonium from the blasts. Another interesting technique used during the clean-up was in situ vitrification, which involved burying enormous electrodes in the radioactive waste and pumping 8.4 megawatts of electricity into the soil. The process turned the waste into glass, encasing it before it was broken up and buried.

In all, 400,000 square metres of plutonium dirt is buried here in a granite-sided coffin, along with every bit of heavy machinery used in the operations — seventy-one Landcruisers, bulldozers, scrapers and excavators, all of them tipped into the pit. One thing I do notice are the red flowers popping up on the edge of the clearing, “They’re Afghan hops,” Robin tells me. They were brought here by Afghan and Pakistani men in the nineteenth century, to be dried and used as feed for their camels on the long interior expeditions that would have passed through here.

Throughout the afternoon we drive to the different ground-zero sites, hearing stories of the explosions and their after-effects — of atomic bombs being detonated midair, held aloft by giant balloons, and of the wind that carried radioactive dust into the Northern Territory and as far away as Newcastle after the blasts.

Despite the magnitude of the “big” blasts, the most harrowing names from the atomic era here are Kittens, Tims, Rats and Vixen. These were the “minor” trials that ended up being some of the most damaging experiments on Australian soil during the latter stages of the British occupation of Maralinga. Carried out in secret, the tests examined how toxic substances would react when burned or blown up. Uranium and plutonium-239 was heated up and fired through a chimney, then left on open, exposed ground for more than thirty years. The tests were designed to find out what would happen if a truck carrying plutonium caught on fire, or if a plane with nuclear warheads crashed. Chief scientist William Penney remarked that these tests must be done in Australia because “the short-lived radioactive material used in the initiating of the nuclear explosion would not pose a hazard.” Not if you lived more than 24,000 years in the future, anyway.

The tests stopped in 1963, though there was a junkyard of radioactive carnage left behind. At the time it was said to include up to 50,000 plutonium-contaminated fragments, though that number was later revised to three million. The eventual clean-up operation, which followed the Australian royal commission into the tests in 1984–85, took six years and cost more than $100 million.

Despite the sureties of our safety now, this wasn’t always the case. The nuclear personnel here in the 1950s and 1960s experienced countless deaths and health complications, workers during the clean-ups were exposed to health dangers, and the Indigenous people continued to be disregarded. “They had not felt its age-old rocks and its forgiving sand beneath their feet. They had not slept and dreamed under its stars or seen the moon rise,” Christobel Mattingley writes of the lack of understanding shown by the British and Australian governments, in her book Maralinga’s Long Shadow.

In early 1957, a few months after a 1.5 kilotonne bomb had been exploded at ground level at Marcoo, Mrs Edie Millpuddie and her family were traversing the plains of the Great Victoria Desert, as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. The bomb had torn a crater forty-four metres wide and twenty-one metres deep into land that was part of a significant Dreaming highway for the Indigenous people.

The Millpuddies, who needed shelter for the night, came across this enormous hole that would keep them out of the wind, and they tramped across the soft earth to the bottom of the crater, where the ground was still warm. It had been raining, so they scooped rainwater from the bottom to drink and lit a fire on the red sand flecked with melted glass.

On their approach Charlie Millpuddie had noticed that all the rabbits in the area seemed blind and disoriented; they were easy pickings for dinner. He lit a fire and cooked the rabbits, before the entire family went to sleep at the bottom of what they didn’t know was an atomic bomb crater. They stayed there for three days, until scientists noticed smoke billowing from the crater and rushed in to see what had happened. The scientists and military personnel immediately took the Millpuddies back to the village. To decontaminate them, says Robin, they were given “five showers and told that the reading was clear. They were then driven to Yalata and dumped there.”

Two weeks later Edie had a stillborn baby in Yalata; many thought it was from the radiation, though Robin believes it was something else. As part of their “evacuation” they were forcibly washed by the white mamu people, who then moved them off their land to an unfamiliar place with tribes they didn’t know. The Maralinga officers shot their four dogs, seen as family members, in front of them before dumping the bodies in the crater. The 1980s royal commission awarded Edie $75,000, though more tragic is the fact that the family’s grandchildren “all have physical and mental deformities now,” Robin says. “This all happened right where we’re standing,” he adds, to reinforce the tragedy of the situation and to highlight that this is not an event that has ended for the Anangu people.

The clean-up here only finished in 2000 — at the same time we were celebrating the Olympics in Sydney — and the land was handed back to the Maralinga Tjarutja people in 2009.

The effects of the nuclear experiments were not just felt by the Indigenous community. After the Marcoo blast, 283 men, the “Maralinga guinea pigs” of the “Indoctrinee Force,” were deliberately placed in the forward areas so they could experience the effects of the nuclear blast.

These men had separate living quarters from the rest of the Maralinga citizens. Without protective gear, they would help the scientists lay out the objects to be tested post-blast: from guns, cars and dummies to jets and Centurion tanks. The British deemed their eyewitness accounts to be necessary, as they would provide data on what to expect in the likely escalation of a worldwide nuclear war in the near future. The health issues for these guinea pigs were severe: cataracts, blood diseases, arthritic conditions, stomach cancers and, more tragically, ongoing health conditions and deformities for the offspring of the survivors.

There was no overt political pressure or media scrutiny of the tests until the 1970s, when some of those injured by the tests came forward, and a small group of journalists and politicians cast a more critical eye over the tests and the secrecy surrounding them.

Driving back along the straight roads to camp, the bus is quiet. It seems appropriate. There’s no room for idle chat. The air is too heavy with what we’ve seen today. This is the most isolated spot I’ve ever been to in Australia, though it’s not one empty of stories or history. I understand better now how loaded this place has become with sorrow, anger and, as Robin suggests, maybe a little bit of hope for the future.

“We now bring our kids and our grandchildren here to explain what happened. This is their land and their ancestors,” Robin says. He would love it if the Indigenous people would become guides here to continue the process of the Anangu people taking back their land, though he understands why they never will.

The sun is shining across the village the next morning and Robin busies himself with preparations for a charter plane of tourists arriving from Ceduna. Despite his spending a large part of his life here in Maralinga, I get the impression that he’s not done with it yet. “When I come down to the village and walk around by myself, I feel like I’m in a time warp,” he says, puffing on another smoke. “I’ve been coming here since 1972 and you can imagine what was going on here in the 1950s and 60s.” It is a time warp — the devastation of the tests, the echoes of the Indigenous stories here when it was a Dreaming road, and the green shoots of the future led by Robin and the Maralinga Tjarutja people.•

This is an extract from The Crow Eaters: A Journey Through South Australia, by Ben Stubbs, published this month by NewSouth.