Maralinga – What, Where, & Why do I need to visit?

3 March 2021


What is Maralinga?

The Cold War was a period of political tension between the United States and their allies, and the then Soviet Union. This time, known as the Cold War, lasted from the end of World War Two until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At this time, the British military were keen to develop their own nuclear weapons.
“If we are unable to make the bomb ourselves, and have to rely entirely on the United States for this vital weapon, we shall sink to the rank of a second-class nation,” said Lord Cherwell. Lord Cherwell was a scientific advisor to then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Rather than Britain testing on its own land, the “remoteness and sparse population of Australia made it an attractive alternative”.
Codenamed “Hurricane”, the operation was a secret agreement between the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Sir Robert Menzies was reportedly “only too pleased to assist the motherland”. The original location was Emu Junction, in the Great Victoria Desert. However, after just two tests, Emu Junction was deemed too remote. A second site, closer to the Transcontinental Railway Line was chosen – Maralinga.

Where is it?

Maralinga is in the Great Victoria Desert, 295 kilometres (as the crow flies) North West of Ceduna, on South Australia’s Far West Coast. It is a 500 kilometre / six hour drive by road.

Why should I visit?

People lived in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands long before Sir Winston Churchill and Robert Menzies were even a twinkle in their respective parents eyes.
The traditional owners are part of the Western Desert culture. They have strong cultural and traditional links with the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people to the north and the Tjuntjuntara people in the west.
The land supported the hunter-gather society. The people had well-travelled routes across the country, with soaks and rock holes for collection of water. Ooldea was a rare source of semi-permanent fresh water. As a result, Ooldea was the focus of many traditional activities and an important meeting and ceremonial site.

Ooldea has subsequent prominence through European intrusion as:

A site on the east-west railway line, opened in 1917.
The campsite of Mrs Daisy Bates – 1919-1936.
As a mission and school site established by Ms Annie Lock in 1933 that was administered by the United Aboriginal Mission until its closure in 1952.
A gazetted Aboriginal Reserve.

The British (and Australian) Governments’ desire to test atomic weapons displaced the traditional owners from their lands.
The Ooldea Mission closed in 1952. The traditional owners dispersed back across their country. Some of the people were relocated to Yalata – operating as a Lutheran mission since the Government purchased Yalata Station the previous year. Others went to Koonibba and Tjuntjuntara (in WA).

In May 1953, the Government announced atomic weapons would be tested.
The first two tests were at Emu Junction (about 180kms north of Ooldea) in September 1953 but was considered unsuitable and abandoned shortly after.
Len Beadell and Sir William Penney surveyed the preferred site, located about 100 kms south that became known as the Section 400 – Maralinga Prohibited Area. Part of this land encroached on the North West corner of the Ooldea Aboriginal Reserve. At the request of Prime Minister Menzies, South Australia’s Premier Thomas Playford de-gazetted the reserve in Nov 1953.

The atomic program at Maralinga commenced in 1956.

The Traditional Owners were prohibited from the Maralinga Prohibited Area. It was later revealed many people still traversed the land throughout the atomic testing period.

Chinta Air offers a flightseeing day tour known as Maralinga Mysteries tour to allow you to learn more about this hidden period of Australia’s history.

The tour includes:
A scenic flight from the departure point (either Ceduna or Nullarbor Roadhouse. Bookings essential.). The scenic flight includes flying over Ooldea and the nuclear testing site.
Landing at Maralinga Airstrip.
Seats on the award-winning, shared, bus tour with Maralinga Tours. The bus tour includes informed, knowledgeable commentary by a local guide.
Picnic lunch.
A scenic flight home, which includes flying over Watson on the Transcontinental Railway Line.

The Maralinga Mysteries Tour departs from:

Ceduna – departures available each Tuesday and Thursday from 1 April to 30 October each year. Bookings essential. For more information on this tour, click HERE.

Nullarbor Roadhouse – departures available each Tuesday and Thursday from 1 July to 30 September each year. Bookings essential. For more information on this tour, click HERE.

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