Maralinga - now open for access?

Submitted: Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 08:57
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Gained a permit to visit Maralinga, one of those bucket list trips you might say. It was thought to be a bit of a long shot but to our surprise our permit application was granted and it formed the centre piece of our recent trip into the SA deserts.

The first I knew of our success came via a call to me from the Caretaker of Maralinga, a chap by the name of Robin Matthews. Robin discussed our proposed dates and sorted out options for our accommodation and made arrangements for us to contact him nearing our arrival. I have never experienced customer service at the level he was providing and sure as day follows night, all arrangements simply fell into place. A most obliging host you may say.

Upon our greeting at the main gate, some kilometres from the actual township, Robin proceeded to take us to our accommodation which comprised of a series of Dongas that remained at Maralinga following the “clean-up” a few years back. These units comprised four single beds across two rooms, a shower, toilet, washing machine and a quite large kitchen/dining and lounge area with tv. Given the size of our group we took over two of these units that were well presented, clean and in good condition. All have 240V power 24 hrs a day so I was able to keep my mates happy by using my snoring machine at night! Being located behind the former Maralinga Hospital, where Robin and his wife Della live, it was easy to call upon him and to tap his vast knowledge and understanding of both indigenous and atomic testing history. All this was given in a very friendly, thoughtful and considered manner and without regard for his own time which he gave most freely. Obviously my group was extremely grateful.

Initially I was keen to explore the former township and try to gain an appreciation of the magnitude of the operations and the nature of the logistics underpinning such a large infrastructure undertaking during the early 1950’s. I also had an interest in the issues concerning the displacement of the indigenous population and their present circumstances which are now reflected across a couple of communities including Oak Valley and Yalata.

To my surprise Robin offered to take us the next day to a number of interesting sites some of which represented engineering/infrastructure designs that simply far exceeded any expectations that I’d had. I will not tell you about these as it would spoil the surprise for others. Aside from this we saw some very special interactions between Robin and some local dingos, (which we had seen earlier out on the range about 30+kms out from the old township) and who arrived that night at the old township and mustered at a safe distance from the Hospital.

The tour arranged for us that day took us to a number of ground zero sites where Robin was able to provide a most detailed account of the history of the various tests, the clean-up and the extent to which these lands were the subject of minor nuclear trials and their related consequences. Out on the range he was also able to put some perspectives on the movements of the Maralinga people, both historical and present day. Again I am not going to spoil the experience for others by giving an account here but the experience of hearing Robin’s account and the passion he has for these lands was simply captivating. For those with a sense of humour be assured that we did not glow in the dark afterwards and Robin ensured we understood the protocols underpinning a safe visit which I basically took to be good hygiene and to touch nothing out on the range. He was selective in the areas he was prepared to take us to even though the range has been subject to a clean-up. There is no end of 1950’s memorabilia spread over the range to look at.

Well our little group of six, with ages ranging from 12 to 58, have all left this place with a sense that we have experienced something very special and in this regard are collectively very grateful of the opportunity to have met and enjoyed Robin’s tour and his company. We will be back as there is more we would like to see and I hope this special place remains accessible into the future. There is a local push to create greater opportunities for access and perhaps more tourism generally.

A few comments for those with an interest:

-You will occupy two full days easily and a greater period is probably advisable. A half day wandering around the old township is suggested.
-There is an easy drive up from Yalata to Ooldea at the Trans Australia Railway and sealed road from there to Maralinga which a sedan and caravan could easily travel. Other options exist to travel there which we took but would recommend 4WD for these tracks.
-After leaving Maralinga we travelled diagonally across the Nullabor plain to Cook, a drive we enjoyed for its remoteness and scenery. Best done with a couple of vehicles in my view.
-Diesel was available from Maralinga at the same price charged at the Nullabor Roadhouse and from very very large above ground tanks.
-It is worth having a good look around Watson and the remnants lying around this station which was used as a forward base for the initial development of Maralinga. A further construction camp and blowhole lies not far outside the entry gates to Maralinga.
-Between Ooldea and Watson lies (now literally on the ground) the remnants of an historic marker that sites the point of joining the railway line from the West to the East. In my view someone needs to replace this marker given its historic significance but it’s still worth a look
-Daisy Bates established her mission near Ooldea. Worthy of some further research as this lady endured considerable hardship in her quest to support the welfare of the local aboriginal population. Robin can provide some history.
-Maralinga Lands are an alcohol free zone
-Mobile phone coverage is good along the Trans Aust rail line. Possible to get coverage also from Maralinga but it is patchy.
Getting a Permit
I was informed, with some surprise, that I was the only person to gain such a permit for many months. On reflection I tend to think this may have been due to providing an accompanying letter outlining what I was seeking to achieve from my visit. I recommend this approach as opposed to just sending in a completed permit application form.

In addition I am led to believe there has been some regime change in personnel who consider such permits and as a consequence the likelihood of being successful with such an application in the future should increase markedly. There is an aspiration on the part of the Caretaker and some others to encourage visitations to Maralinga including improving the capacity for caravans. I understand the community would like to establish designated sites, on existing concrete pads, and supply with power and the usual toilet and showering facilities from their existing infrastructure. From my observations this could be easily established and would work quite well.

Initial contact with the Caretaker, Robin Matthews is suggested in order to gain some sense of what accommodation is available at the proposed time of your intended visit. He can also discuss other aspirations you may have for your visit. Providing him a copy of your permit application form and covering letter could possibly enhance your prospects of gaining permission.

Contact details:
Permit forms:

Caretaker of Maralinga, Mr Robin Matthews
Ph(08) 8670 4081

For those of you with an interest in going to Maralinga I hope that these few notes will provide some assistance. The trip we had has set a new benchmark and for us it will be hard to top, perhaps that’s why I hope to be going back next year.

Cheers , Leigh
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Reply By: Graeme - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:29

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:29
I was up there several years ago as we were operating an aircraft out of the huge airport there.
We saw the things that you saw as we had free run of the place and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as well as going to 5 of the ground zero.
The range of facilities they had there was good, cricket pitch, swimming pool, golf course, to mention a few.
There was a dingo which seemed to attach itself to me as I was followed around and when I sat in the sun to read a book it sniffed me and then lay down nearby.
It is certainly part of our history, for good or bad, which should be seen by more people
AnswerID: 483429

Reply By: Member - Phil G (SA) - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:37

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:37
Nice report Leigh.
We've been To Maralinga twice now - 2010 and 2007. Robin and Della are great hosts and an unbelievable fountain of knowledge. Access has improved since the handover of Maralinga back to the M-T Community a couple of years ago. My first visit was a more involved process - needed permission from a Govt dept in Canberra.

The plywood half way markers on the railway line were flattened by winds about a year ago. It would be great to see them resurrected.
Ooldea has a very rich history. The Soak was a permanent water source for aboriginal people in the GVD and the most important meeting place in the eastern side of GVD. That was until the railway line went through in 1914 and the railways destroyed it with about 50 bores that meant it stopped holding water in the 1920's.

AnswerID: 483430

Reply By: Ozhumvee - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:41

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 09:41
Yes agree wholeheartedly with your comments very interesting place to visit and as you said Robin and his wife Della were very helpful when we were there a couple of years ago.
AnswerID: 483431

Reply By: Motherhen - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 10:48

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 10:48
What a good report Leigh - thanks for sharing your trip.


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Reply By: Navigator 1 (NSW) - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 11:16

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 11:16
Thank you Leigh, a very informative post. We are always looking for somewhere to go.
I haven't checked PLACES on this site for Maralinga - if it is not listed or there is little information given, perhaps you should enter this information there.
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Reply By: Ron N - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:15

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:15
Leigh, thank you for your comprehensive and superb report on Maralinga. I enjoyed it, and I have never read such a well-written report on an area to visit, even by a professional journalist.
It seems obvious your written application also impressed Robin Mathews.
It's good to hear that there are people in these remote places who have good personal skills, and who make your visit a pleasant and enjoyable experience.

Cheers - Ron.
AnswerID: 483440

Reply By: Member - Geoff M (VIC) - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:34

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:34
Hi Leigh,

Thanks for your report - I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is on my list of places to visit, just have to find the time to do it!

Cheers, Geoff
AnswerID: 483441

Reply By: Member - John (Vic) - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:50

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 12:50
Good one Mate.
Enjoyed following your Spot reports ;)

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Reply By: Member - Stephen L (Clare SA) - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 14:14

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 14:14
Hi Leigh

Great to hear that you had a great trip, sounds very "mouth watering".

Was there any mention of them opening up the track from there to Emu?

When I made enquiries recently, I was told this is out of bounds, but if things do change for the better, that would be great.

I will get in contact with you.


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Reply By: Ivan S3 - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 15:08

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 15:08
What a great read Leigh. Really hope to get there some day
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Reply By: Member - wicket - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 15:12

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 15:12
Did anyone happen to have a Geiger counter with them ? Just wondering what the count might be.
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Reply By: Member - Boobook - Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 18:46

Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 at 18:46
Great info Leigh.

BTW do you have to separately apply to the department of defence to get in or is if covered by the lands permit?
AnswerID: 483478

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