Sunday, June 21, 2015

Maralinga; a world apart. It's much more than a place where nuclear experiments were conducted, and well worth visiting.

The tale of secretly testing numerous atomic bombs, and a wide variety of nuclear devices in Australia in the 1950's and 60's, by the British, is a yarn of epic proportions; with twists, turns and sub-plots worthy of an airport novel bought for a long haul flight. 

There are lies and cover-ups, as well as betrayal, misplaced trust, wilful blindness and the obsequious kowtowing to the British, by what appears, from our current time and place, to be a fawning Anglophile Prime Minister (Menzies). 

Personnel involved in the programme, who had strong moral and ethical ideals were warned that Maralinga had become British territory and that whistle blowing on the reality of what happened, the hugely secretive goings on, could result in being shot, or a 30 year jail term under the British Secret Service Act (page 43 Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists). 

Trust us! Nobody could have been out in the blast areas, was the cry. But there were people out there. 

Families, such as the Milpuddie's, who were found camped in a crater formed by a bomb blast - innocent inhabitants going about their daily lives, had their lives changed forever (further information here). The ongoing negative ramifications of living, eating food and drinking water from dangerously contaminated land, lives on in children and grandchildren. 

There were human guinea pigs (Indoctrinee Volunteers and here), animal and vegetation experiments and numerous weapons development tests alongside the more dramatic and "explosive" weapons tests.  Much of the information only came to light 30 years or so after the events. Much more is considered so secret by the British government, that it's been classified (hidden), and will remain that way, forever. 

It's quite a story.

Walking on sites where world changing events occurred can have a deep impact. Sometimes immediate, sometimes surfacing and resurfacing long after the event.

People talk about the impact that visiting Gallipoli had on them, or the sobering effect of seeing the trenches and hearing stories of WW2 battles at Flanders Fields. Sites such as these, of Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima, The Berlin Wall, and similar places around the world have become places of pilgrimage. Destinations where hordes of diverse people gather to share thoughts, reflections, prayers, and hope. Hope that powerful people in the future will pause, tread cautiously and act wisely before making decisions which will set in motion similar catastrophic events. 

Although Maralinga has a different history to those above, in its own way, the impact of what happened there changed the world, many servicemen, and more locally, the landscape and displaced Maralinga Tjarutja indigenous people, forever. 

It needs to be remembered warts, dirty dealings and all. 
I didn't know what to expect as we drove up the long, often featureless, un-signposted road to the gate in the Boundary fence at Maralinga, where the caretaker and tour guide, Robin Matthews, greeted us with gentle courtesy. 

The place was a name from my childhood and not much more. Like others of my generation, I knew there was something to do with testing an atomic bomb, but as a child I suspect my parents didn't discuss the implications of this in depth, and shielded me from discussion. The Cold War was also little but a name. In hindsight, I expect there was unspoken communication between my parents and relatives, as carefully worded news filtered out about what was happening at Maralinga. But having a father who'd been deeply scarred from service during WW2, I also suspect they didn't want to dwell on details or meaning.

So Maralinga remained nothing more than a little visited memory. There was a vague recollection of a Royal Commission, (part of the official report is here) but mostly, it was a place off-limits, with prohibited entry, closed to the world, out in the desert .... somewhere. 

Then  a few months ago, my husband suggested visiting. He'd been doing some research and found that tours were possible. Due to the remote location in South Australia, two nights camping, and a one day escorted tour in a minibus, could be arranged by contacting Maralinga Tours. Being stumped for an idea for his 60th birthday, I figured it'd be a memorable gift! A bit out of the ordinary, educational (an important aspect for gifts in our family!) and completely different. Also, I felt ashamed at my complete lack of knowledge of the area or history of this significant event in recent Australian history

We'd been listening to Len Beadell's Blast the Bush as an audio book over what felt like a few hundred kilometres of corrugated, dusty red roads, sometimes having to turn it off as the rattling made it impossible to hear! I was beginning to get a feel for the challenges Beadell had faced, surveying roads to be ready for the expected heavy machinery and hoards of military and other personnel who'd follow to conduct a wide variety of highly secret tests.

But what would be here now? The dot on the map stated in confident black print Maralinga, though some maps show "Maralinga Village" and elsewhere, "Maralinga Community". 

Words have power. River. Lake. Village. City people and visitors from overseas are regularly perplexed about the use of these words in outback Australia where rivers are often parched, barren depressions in baked rusty-red sand, and lakes are crunchy with glittering white salt. This often leads to discussions about why there aren't more people living in remote areas. "There's no water" we say, and their reply is "But look at all the lakes and rivers on the maps, there must be!"

Confusion reigns. How can you explain desert to someone who lives in a place blessed with generously regular rainfall, and has never known drought? How do you explain that so much of our harsh, beautiful land is unforgiving and deadly to those who don't know how to live there? Water is scarce. Without it we die.
Strolling on Lake Gairdner

And so it is with the village of Maralinga. It's a village in name only. The word village conjures up something alien to this land, it's a foreign word, and sits uncomfortably here. If you're visualising a cosy holiday-style, quaint village you'll be sadly disappointed. There are no cheerful homes with the warm glow of lights at night, no bustling tourist stores selling a variety of wares of questionable quality and value. No drinks machines with chilled beverages for the dust covered, weary traveller. Just a kind of ghostly silence, the soughing of a stray breeze through dry leaves of she-oak and desert oak, and the constant regular thump, thump, thump, of the intrusive generator bringing power to the caretaker Robin, and his family, as well as the small groups of tourists. (Bring on the solar panels!!)

Maralinga village is a sombre place. Starkly beautiful in a desolate, almost, but not quite, abandoned way. 

"Camp anywhere you like" says Robin, "make a fire, and if you run out of wood, we've got lots more." 
And so, between the checkerboard ranks of chipped and cracked concrete slabs, 
which were once the termite resistant bases of barracks and laboratories used by thousands of men, we set up camp, walked up to what was once a fountain ... 
... near the remains of the swimming pool ...

... watched the sun set, and phoned home ....

... by accessing the Telstra mobile phone towers which dot the distant railway line linking the east and west coasts of Australia.

But what of the tour itself? 

Tour guide Robin's breadth and depth of knowledge of the various tests and impacts on the Maralinga Tjarutja peoples, his generosity in sharing, his passion for educating others, unflagging energy and enthusiasm were extraordinary. 

This is our history. Up close and personal. Dramatic events on Australian soil with far ranging consequences, which should be taught in schools. Relevant. Confronting .... and regularly ignored. 
298 burial pits, up to 26 metres deep, are now filled with pulverised buildings, contaminated soil, machinery, planes, Toyota LandCruisers, double decker busses, tanks, bulldozers, labs, almost everything which had been left or discarded has finally been decontaminated, burnt, bull-dozered and buried - over 30 years after the British left, pretending that everything was safe, but knowing full well it wasn't. It took around 6 years and $108million to conduct the clean up which was finished in 2000, (More here)
Lunchtime at the decontamination and maintenance sheds.
No one wanted to picnic in the decontaminations shed. 

We'd been joined by other visitors, and for some, the sheer scale of ... everything .... was overwhelming. So much destruction. Vast areas of land impacted (the site measures about 3,300 square kilometres) Too many bombs and experiments, exploring the unknown effects of ways to .... not to put too fine a point on it ... kill people or render equipment useless. 

When the nuclear tests were conducted, little was known about the effects of atomic (and other) bombs and weapons - how do you find out unless you do trials and tests? The military and British government wanted answers to their questions, and what is now known to have occurred shows that the decision was that The End Justifies the Means. 

What happens when an atomic bomb blast hits a bus, a plane, specific plants - at this distance? At a different distance? How about at this angle? And this? And what of people? What happens if they roll, unprotected in the radioactive dust? Now wearing different clothing? How can we decontaminate them? Can we? How do we clean up after contaminating the land? Can we? How much can we get away with before the public begins to question? Do we need to share information? How can we convince the people of Australia and the UK that these experiments are vital to our security? Do they need to know? 

And from the British government, the thoughts seem to have been: "How secretive can we be? Do we need to tell the Australian people (or our own for that matter) what we're doing and how much it's costing?" 6.8 million pounds was spent to build just the airstrip and village - and that was barely the beginning. This was at a time when the British people were enduring severe rationing and using food stamps sparingly. Yet many, many millions of pounds were poured into further construction, the various tests and transporting vast quantities of equipment (including double decker busses, planes, trucks etc etc etc) and people overseas to Australia. Not a cheap exercise by any means.

Little of this is comforting, or nice, or reassuring. Naively placing trust in our elected political representatives without maintaining constant vigilance and questioning what's happening, wasn't then, and isn't now, wise. 
"... Menzies agreed to allow the British to use Australian territory and personnel for the tests without question or even serious discussion with his colleagues: “Cabinet papers show he devoted more time to organising the young Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Australia than he spent on the atomic tests.”
The official line was that there were no Aboriginals in the fall out zone of around 800,000 square kilometres, - roughly 5 times the size of the UK. But for men who reported sightings, the penalty of sharing that "embarrassing" information with anyone other than superiors was that they could be shot or jailed for 30 years. (here) There was strong incentive to keep quiet! 
The reality was that this vast area had been home to the Maralinga Tjarutja people for thousands of years: "A labyrinth of criss-crossing dreamtime tracks connected the Tjarutja to their ancestors, their stories, their living community. The Tjarutja showed no signs of deprivation in an environment in which Europeans couldn't last longer than a few days without help. Early Europeans who encountered them noted their nomadic qualities, their love of walking great distances through a magical garden of spirits, to meet relatives, to sample new food, to visit their favourite rock holes, to attend corroborees."
 "Despite claims to the contrary, Aboriginal people did wander through radiated lands. They camped in fresh craters, to keep warm and to trap rabbits blinded by cobalt pellets. When discovered, they were compulsorily showered, their finger nails scrubbed with soap. The women suffered mscarriages. They were herded in trucks or pushed onto trains, expelled from a sacred site at Ooldea, a day's walk from Maralinga airport." 

The Maralinga airstrip is still in use, and at 2.4 km long with a 600 metre offshoot at each end, could, if needed, be used to land the Space Shuttle. It's routinely used for military training exercises, visiting dignitaries and camels. Mounds of fresh camel poo were evidence of a reasonably large group of them passing through, possibly on their way to reliable water supplies. 

Dramatic. Mesmerising. Overwhelming. Words soon fail when looking at the vastness of the areas impacted. Soil turned to glass, burial pits, land where there were trees, but now nothing grows, no life, everything blasted into vapour. Warning signs. Danger - don't camp here. Don't make a cooking fire. Death and destruction. Yet, for all of that, I want to go back. See more. Try to understand (though I doubt that will ever be possible) what it is that enables one country to be a doormat and allow its land, people, employees to be nothing more than a disposable commodity, an experiment, to be used and abused without question or apology.

What, if anything, have we learnt about integrity and honest, ethical behaviour, from this ongoing chapter in Australian history?

We only need to read the final sentence from this report in the Australian Institute of Criminology to know the answer:  "One wonders if the interests of a 'handful of natives' might on some future occasion again be deemed subordinate to those of the dominant culture."

Thinking about the closures of Aboriginal Communities currently happening around Australia, about the vilification of whistle blowers, denigration of scientists concerned about our changing climate, the scornful belittling of those who work to protect our environment, the cruel treatment of lawful asylum seekers, it's obvious that our dominant political groups and culture still have a lot of room for positive, wholesome growth, not just in regard to the Traditional Owners of this country, but relating to many other groups as well.  


Further reading:

There's a lot more about the deliberately hidden and devastating costs of the programme here:

Too high a price to pay video with footage from the tests and cleanup:!/media/105376/nuclear-tests-at-maralinga

This link should take you to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and an article about the extreme secrecy, the coverups, Australia's pathetically lax attitude to vast quantities of dangerous tests, and the appalling treatment of the traditional owners of the land. 


British nuclear tests at Maralinga – Fact sheet 129

Maralinga, prohibited area sign on the Emu/Nawa Road (A6457, P042)
Between 1952 and 1963 the British Government, with the agreement and support of the Australian Government, carried out nuclear tests at three sites in Australia – the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast, and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. An official history of the tests (JL Symonds, A History of British Atomic Tests in Australia, AGPS, Canberra) was published by the Department of Resources and Energy in 1985.
Maralinga was developed as the permanent proving ground site, following a request of the British in 1954, and, after its completion in 1956, was the location of all trials conducted in Australia. It was developed as a joint facility with a shared funding arrangement. Following the two major trials (Operation Buffalo in 1956 and Operation Antler in 1957) there were a number of minor trials, assessment tests and experimental programs (dating from 1959) held at the range until 1963. Maralinga was officially closed following a clean-up operation (Operation Brumby) in 1967.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


I'll see if I can quietly sneak over here without anyone noticing, check out what's on the table and snaffle that sandwich. Tippy toe, tippy toe ... shhhhh.
Oops, they've noticed me, I'll pretend I'm just strolling past, scuffing my feet in the dirt. Nope I wasn't looking at your food. No, not me. True dinks. Cross my heart and hope to die. Must have been someone else.
Look! Behind you! There! That's the emu you're looking for!

Hrmph, they didn't fall for it.

Oh I give up pretending. I'll stretch myself to my full height and stare them down. Intimidation and threats always work!
 What's this? Foiled?
Did they read the signs saying not to feed me?? Damn.
If at first you don't succeed .....

... Emu entertainment on site 34, Mambray Creek, Mount Remarkable National Park.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Big Bugs!

Near the Eyre Peninsula are some wonderful sand dunes and I came across these strange "fossilised" shapes in the sand. Turning them over gave no indication of what they were, or why there were there. Was it something to do with lightning strikes fusing the sand in the extreme heat? They weren't fossilised wood, as they were too uniform and tree roots and branches are anything but uniform! In my mind they look like Dead Man's Fingers, gnarled and arthritic.

I posted a picture on FB and G+ and had some interesting suggestions, but nothing seemed to fit with the location, shape and sheer number of them. They only seemed to come in two shapes, finger-like ones, some hollow, some solid; and egg shaped ones, some incredibly fragile, others thicker and filled with sand. When tapped gently together, they make a flat, glass-like sound.

They're clearly different to the formations below, which look like sand, blown into random formations by salt laden winds. These are strange, surreal shapes, some like skinny mushrooms on top of spindly trunks, others curled and twisted into tortured shapes.
And different again to tree roots or branches. These are long, misshapen, hollow and generally near the tree line or vegetation. There's lots of variability in both length and shape.

My mystery objects were spread over a wide area, and didn't appear to be specifically related to the vegetation at all. They seemed to be mostly in large (really large!) bowl like depressions and I wondered (not knowing anything about these things at all) if it could have something to do with salt laden winds somehow blowing the sand up the incline and it rolling back making the shapes. Unlikely and weird, but nature can be like that sometimes!

Frustrated by conflicting suggestions, I wondered if the Museum of Victoria might have someone there who could confidently solve the puzzle. One email, and a couple of hours later I had this response from Simon at the Discovery Centre:
We think these are the remains of cocoons of a native weevil, Leptopius duponti. These calcified cocoons are not always regarded as ‘fossils’ in the strictest sense, but nonetheless may be quite old depending on their original locality – for example they are quite common in the sand dunes of the West Coast of Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Some examples of these calcified cocoons have proved to be made of sand or gravel cemented together, and sometimes of limestone. The distinction of whether they are fossils or not depends on the chemistry of the material that holds the cocoons together.
In 1925 it was reported by A. M. Lea in the Records of the South Australian Museum (3; 35-6) that these sands contained the calcified pupal cases of insects, more specifically weevils of the genus Leptopius (see attached for this article and illustrations). As this type of weevil is still alive today, commonly called “Wattle Pig”, we now know the adult female Leptopius sp. feeds on the foliage of acacia trees and lays her eggs on the leaves. When the larvae hatch, they are thought to burrow underground to feed on roots, and when ready to pupate they make a chamber in the soil instead of a true cocoon which is cemented by a secretion from the larvae (rather than a webbing, in the case of other taxa). The emergent adult then climbs the trees to feed, and the empty cases are left to weather underground and can become mineralised. Some of these cocoons from the Eyre Peninsula are estimated to be up to 40,000 years old.
Hooray for Simon at the Discovery Centre!!

And as someone commented, that's one large weevil, and from the point of view of the acacia trees, it could well be an evil weevil!

Now to find out what these are! About 10cm long, found at Mt Remarkable.

And then there's this critter lurking in the toilets at Mt Remarkable, he looks particularly unfriendly ... I hate the thought of finding him under the toilet seat! That's a standard house brick (3"or 75mm) he's sauntering over and looked like something I'd expect to see in the tropics.
And last, but by no means least, a moth the size of a small bird at Mt Ive. It was quivering and difficult to photograph with a phone, but you can get a sense of the size (again on a standard house brick). He and the centipede are about the same length, but the wings on the moth were massive!
Isn't nature awesome!