Once the most highly secretive location for the testing of British Nuclear weapons and devices on the Australian mainland, Maralinga now offers modern day four wheel drivers the opportunity to witness first-hand the true beauty of the Australian Outback and visit an area of Modern Day Nuclear history that for decades has made this isolated location restricted to Government Officials and Scientists. With the final clean-up and the official handing back of this land to its Traditional Owners in 2009, Maralinga is now easier to visit than ever before.
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Nullarbor Regional Reserve, located in the far west of the State, covers an area of 2,873,000 hectares and extends from the Eyre
Highway north to the Transcontinental Railway line and west into Western Australia
and was proclaimed in 1989 and is one of South Australia
’s largest protected areas. The reserve is a key component of the biological corridor connecting extensive intact areas from the Western Australia
border to central Eyre
Peninsula. The area is of great significance to the traditional owners of the land and continues to be an important connection of their living culture today.
Both the Nullarbor Regional Reserve and National Park protect many Aboriginal cultural sites associated with the world’s largest semi-arid cave landscape. There are 24 sites listed under the Aboriginal Heritage
Act 1988 within the reserve, including sites still used for cultural purposes by initiated members of local Aboriginal communities.
The harsh environment, isolation and lack of available water resulted in very brief attempts to settle land in the reserve and throughout the broader Nullarbor Plain. Consequently, the reserve contains few relics of pastoral life and to date no features have been entered in the State Heritage
Once you head further north and cross the Trans Continental Railway Line, the landscape take on another appearance, as the Bluebush gives way to red sand dunes that are covered in Mallee and you now enter the southern section of Australia
’s largest dune desert, the Great Victoria
Desert, which was named by explorer Ernest Giles in 1875 after Queen Victoria
after he had undertaken a 17 day, 500 kilometre journey without finding any fresh water sources, and stumbled across a small Claypan that was full of fresh water, and ultimately saved the life of him and his party.
The first and original inhabitants of this area were various Aboriginal groups that formed part of the ‘Western Desert Culture Bloc’, with all groups sharing a common language with minor dialect variations and similar social and religious structures. Life revolved around small family groups living as hunter gatherers and at times of drought, would retreat to sites where a reliable source of water would be guaranteed, sometimes many hundreds of kilometres from their traditional hunting areas. One such site that was a very important meeting and trading place was Ooldea Soak or as it was known to the local Aboriginals, Yuuldul or Juldigabi.
Ooldea Soak was focal hub for hundreds of kilometres, and during times of ceremonial activities, it has been recorded that as many as up to 500 people would gather and would settle disputes, arrange marriage, trade and initiate young boys into manhood. Such ceremonies took place at Ooldea up until the early 1940’s. The first Europeans to see Ooldea Soak were 2 well sinkers, Venning and Howie who were led to the Soak by a group of Aboriginals that they had met while working in the Fowlers Bay area in 1868. The next white person to visit the soak was the local Fowlers Bay Policeman, Thomas Richards who was told about the soak by Venning and Howie when they returned to Fowlers Bay.
With the settlement of the New Colony of South Australia
, there was the ever quest for cropping and grazing land, which in turn led to may visits to all areas of the state. There were a number of well-known explorers
that visited the far western part of the new Colony of South Australia
, but only a few that ever visited the depths of the Nullarbor Plain and the area that we now know as Maralinga.
Ernest Giles made 2 visits to the area in 1873 and 1875 in an attempt to find a way across the deserts to Western Australia
, while in 1879 William Tietkens was asked by a British Businessman, Mr Louis Leisler to sink some wells north of Ooldea in the hope of finding good water and opening up the land for pastoral development. The project was a disaster and the project called off, with Tietkens returning to New South Wales
in 1882. One of these wells can be visited as part of the Range Tour.
Over the coming years, the area was again visited by a number of explorers
, but one person that put fame to the area and Ooldea was not a man, but an Irish woman by the name of Daisy Bates. Between 1919 and 1934 she lived in a tent around 2 kilometres north from the Ooldea Railway siding and she was a self-appointed with the aim to provide the Aboriginal people with food, clothing, simple medicines, to discourage contact of the Aboriginal women with the railway workers and to generally look after the wellbeing of the Aboriginal people in the area.
Even with all the European contact, there were still many small Aboriginal family units that continued to live a nomadic lifestyle which would all come to a very sudden and abrupt end in the mid 1950’s and an event that would for ever change the landscape and the lifestyle they were accustomed to. It all started in 1947 after the end of World War 11 and the push for Britain to be a major nuclear power when Eastern Europe became gripped in the events
that were known as the Cold War.
England needed large uninhabited tracks of land well away from the preying eyes of Russia and where else but Australia
could for fill all of these requirements. With the development of the Woomera Rocket Range, Emu was to become the first location for the first 2 Nuclear Bombs to be exploded on the Australian Mainland. As ideal as this location was, its sheer remoteness made the logistics of transporting material into Emu or as it was first know, Project X200 made Britain search for a location that would still be remote, but being able to have equipment brought into that new place far easier and quicker and from a reliable Transport source.
Such a location was observed from aerial reconnaissance photographs and only a short distance north of the Transcendental Railway Line. The new location for Project X300 was found and recommended and on the 17th October 1953, the site was inspected from the air by Sir William Penney, Britain’s chief nuclear scientist and the site was given the green light. By late 1954 a new township had spring up and the town was given the name of Maralinga, a world taken from the local 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.
By 1956 the first Nuclear Bomb was detonated as part of the Buffalo Series of testing, but by 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was well under way with over 5000 people attending the first public meeting in February 1958 and the CND became the biggest peace and anti-nuclear movement in the United Kingdom. Had these historic events
not taken place, the total number of 7 nuclear tests that took place at Maralinga could have ended up in the hundreds.
For a full run down on these events
, please refer to the history of this area in the Trek Notes
for the “Maralinga Range Tour”, which is an absolute must if you are making the effort of visiting Maralinga.