Maralinga and back to the Anne Beadell Highway

Friday, Sep 21, 2012 at 21:18

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Back in late 2011 I received an email from a fellow EO Member asking me some information about one of the places that he would like to visit during his March 2012 Desert wanderings. The station that he wanted to travel through is owned by a person that I know personally very well and lives here in Clare. As you do for a fellow EO Member and later a good friend, I contacted the owner and asked for permission on behalf of Leigh, who in return sent the owner a very professionally written letter, outlining his proposed route and his credentials. With the approval given, I then kept in regular contact with Leigh and was given a full run down of the places that he was hoping to travel to. One such place that he hoped to get to was Maralinga, to which I replied, “best of luck”, as I had previously tried on 3 occasions and my applications declined every time, with no reasons given why.

The months passed and I received an email after Leigh’s trip. I then gave him a phone call to discuss his great trip and to rub salt into my wounds, Leigh thanked me for helping him get through the Station and then said, we were given permission and visited Maralinga and I could not believe what I was hearing. This got me into planning an unscheduled trip for mid-August and my destination would be Maralinga, after all, if Leigh could get a permit, then surely I must have a very good chance. Making regular contact with Robin up in Maralinga, things sounded very hopeful and I then got back in contact with Leigh and told him about my proposed trip and some of the places that I was going to travel to. Hearing where I wanted to go to, Leigh then said, “I am coming along also” and invited himself, as you do.

The time passed by very quickly, we had a great trip in the meantime to Cairns and I had made many phone calls to both Robin and Leigh about the trip, and then about 6 weeks before the trip, things took a downward turn and my Maralinga trip permits had hit a brick wall. Leigh then took over and he also was not having much success, so seeing that I had holidays booked, I then started planning Trip B, which would see us heading up to Broken Hill and then the back road to Innamincka. With just under 2 weeks to go before the Innamincka trip, I received a phone call at 9.05pm on a Tuesday night, and it was Leigh on the Phone – “guess where we are going……Maralinga”, things have all been sorted out. I could not believe what I was hearing and things were now all back on track. I could not believe what Leigh had just told me, so I immediately rang my other travelling companions from Nhill in Victoria and gave John the breaking news. My original plans were now back in place and we were now all going to have a trip that I had been waiting years to do.

I had arranged to meet John at Port Augusta on the Saturday morning of the first day of our trip, and I also knew that Leigh was going to be in town with his small group also. Making contact with John over the UHF when we arrived in Port Augusta, I told him where I was and proceeded to get fuel for my vehicle. A complete stranger who I had never met before came up to me and said – “you must be Stephen, I can tell by the dull finish on your paintwork from the Auto Skin you were telling me about” and it was Leigh. What a surprise that was, as we had planned to meet him in 4 days’ time up at Maralinga. Having a great chat with Leigh, we all went our own ways and headed for the West Coast. Prior to leaving home, I had given Leigh a Track file for a good little side trip to get into the four wheel drive mode. After lunch in Kimba, I then took John on the road north and headed for Buckleboo for a short, but good little drive – The Buckleboo Stock Route. Just about to turn off for the actual track and Leigh came along, at a faster pace of travel than what we were doing. Being the gentleman that I am and not wanting to slow down Leigh’s progress, we gave them the lead and they took off and were soon out of sight.

As usual with this drive, the first main sand dune is a test and four wheel drive is a must. There were many stops along this route for the wildflowers that were starting to come out and at the place that I recommended for Leigh’s first camp, they were all set up early and taking it easy. We would have loved to stop, but were still a long way from where I had chosen for our first nights camp at Tcharkuldu Rocks, just out of Minnipa. With our camp set up, the fire was soon going and the day’s events were great and it was good to show the others a great little drive well away from the main highway and a taste of the dirt roads that we would be using over the coming 2 weeks.

Next morning the sides of my car were white, not from a frost, but a heavy dew had made the Auto-Skin go white again, but it soon changed back to a dull finish once the sun came out and started to dry things out. Back on the road, we took the main Eyre Highway west, as we had a long way to go and a lot to see before the days end. With a late morning smoko in Ceduna, it was west again and our last cheap fuel top up at Nundroo. John’s son in law, Graeme had not been west before and John wanted to show him where the Dog Fence terminates, so we made the side trip down into Wahgunyah Conservation Park, coming in from Tower Road. After our lunch at the end of the fence, we made our way back to the Eyre Highway, following the Dog Fence north to the highway. We were meant to come this way, as around half way along the fence heading north, we came across a sight that I would rather not have come across. A young Wedge Tail Eagle was caught in a Dingo trap, so after working out a way freeing the young bird, all we could do was hope and pray that its leg was not broken and it would live to see a full life.

Passing the Head of the Bight Whale turn off, time was against us to make a visit, as we would need more than half an hour there, so we proceed to where I intended to camp that night. I then turned off the main highway and drove down a side track with nothing but Bluebush as far as the eye could see, and then in the distance was that patch of timber that I know would make another great camp. The overcast sky meant a colourful sunset and another great night was had around the campfire. Next morning was still very overcast and the wind was starting to pick up, but at least it was not wet. We drove the last few kilometres to the coast, and then headed west along the coast track, stopping a number of times for photos. After visiting Wigunda Cave, we took the Old Eyre Highway back to Nullarbor Roadhouse for a refuel, before heading off for Watson. It was very reassuring having OziExplorer, as when I enquired with the chap at the Roadhouse about the track to Watson, he said there was not one, and the only way to get there was via Cook. So lesson Number 1, in this case, do not seek directions from a local, as he clearly had no idea about what lay on his own back door.

At a point that I knew would be the only track heading towards Watson was an old tyre that was used as a track marker and we went up on this track and in the general direction that the main Watson Track was going. Care is needed in these sections, as there are countless wombat warrens, some very large right on the edge of the track and one wrong move and it would be a very big and expensive recovery. Up until Disappointment Cave, the track was in quite good condition and easy to follow, but from there on, it was just like many other tracks that are in this part of the world, more limestone rocks than dirt, so care was needed not to damage either tyres or vehicle and John’s brother in law was to soon find out, when he managed to put 2 very big dents in the rim of his vehicle. Arriving at Watson, it was time to give Robin a phone call so he could be at the security gates to let us into Maralinga.

We have seen it on maps, but to be on a bitumen road in the middle of the outback was a real change and we headed north towards Maralinga. It did not take long for the Bluebush to give way to at first very small red dunes and then the dunes became larger and the Mallee vegetation became more dense. Arriving at the security gate, it was fantastic to finally put a face to the person that I had been communicating with for all those months. With the gate unlocked, we proceeded to follow Robin into the Maralinga Village site and we were all shown where we could camp. Robin gave us a brief rundown of the area, where all the amenities were and were given free range of the Village.

Next morning we headed out for most of the day on the Range tour, starting off with the town’s water supply, we learnt how and where the water was channelled from and then proceeded to the airport. After going through the terminal, Robin then showed us the only remaining vehicle that was used during the clean-up stage of Maralinga, learnt of a few secrets about the Morgue and underground bunker and then proceeded out to the runway. This is one runway that has to be seen to be believed and we were told by Robin that it was the only runway in the Southern Hemisphere that was capable of landing the Space Shuttle in the event of an emergency when it was in service. Built to last it was, with not a crack on the surface nearly 60 years after it was constructed. At the touchdown points, the concrete base is 5 metres thick and was designed for a 30 year life expectancy, the then life of the Range and capable of landing the heaviest of aircraft, both then and even now.

Crossing the runway, we then followed Robin on a dirt track to be shown something special, a working Mallee Fowl nest that is believed to be the only working nest in the Maralinga area. From there, back on another the dirt track to the northern end of the runway before heading out on the main road to the sites where the nuclear bombs were detonated. Along the way Robin explained just how big this site was, evidence from the countless cement slabs that once housed everything from living quarters, to workshops and everything in between. The site must have been incredible to see when it was in full operation, all under the constant surveillance of the Federal Police who were stationed all over the range and at every track and road junction, everyone had to report in and then the closer you got to the actual sites, the security was even tighter.

One piece of history that predated the Maralinga Range was the Well that was dug back in 1879 by William Tietkens in the hope of finding good quality water in the hope of opening up the area to pastoralism. The first well was dry, while with the second well they did reach water, but it was very salty and of no value to stock or man, and only if they had the insight of Len Beadell. A few kilometres from the site Robin pulled off the road and we all went down into a small depression. It was at this location that Len Beadell suggested that a bore be sunk and fresh water was found. Of all the other bores that were sunk in the area, this was the only site to yield good quality fresh water and even with constant monitoring by Government Authorities, this water has not been contaminated from all the activities that devastated the landscape further north. After lunch at the bore site, we then headed to first visit the Taranaki site that was used as the clean area. The only remains now are 2 very large shed structures that were used to clean and service, every day every vehicle that was involved in the clean-up. Also here are the Taranaki pits that were dug to a depth of over 40 metres, where the contaminated waste and debris from the test is buried, and with over 50 metres of clean fill on top to safeguard what was buried. From there we went to various ground zeros and other very interesting sites involved in the nuclear testing stages. We had been to the Emu sites twice, but being on the Range Tour was so much more beneficial, as Robin explained how each test was carried out and other very useful information that explained the sites in detail and we all got a real sense of what it must have been like when the tests were taking place, and as usual, they day was gone and it was time to head back to Maralinga Village and so ended one day that went far too quick. When I return for another visit and for anyone intending on doing the Range tour, make it over two days, as there is just so much to see and unfortunately we did not have enough time to see all that was to be seen out there, and one day does not do it justice.

After returning to the village, we took it easy and a couple of us climbed to the top of the water tower, where the 360° degree views were just superb. Back at the camp site I was listening to the HF radio and logged on to the VKS network, as I did each night when the operator called out my call sign and asked if I was still on channel. The operator was relaying a message from Leigh who was east of Ooldea and could not raise Robin on the phone, and gave me details of his intended arrival at the security gates. When it was time, Robin and I went to the security gates and I played permit officer, asking for Leigh’s group permits before letting them through the gates…LOL. It was great to now be a full group and to meet the other members of the party.

Next day we all headed south for the day, with our first stop at the Daisy Bates Memorial near the Ooldea Railway Siding. From there we visited the site where 2 Aboriginal skeleton that had been in the Adelaide Museum since the 1800’s were returned to their home lands and buried in the sand dunes north of the Ooldea Railway Siding. Not far from here Robin then took us to the actual spot where Daisy Bates had lived and with knowing this spot, it would have been impossible to find. It was interesting looking around the site and then Robin said he would take us four wheel driving through some of the sand dunes to another special spot. Crossing a couple of very small dunes, we then came to a flat spot and it was then time for all vehicles to drop down our tyre pressures. At this point Robin then said it would be a very good idea to fold in our side mirrors and be prepared for a few scratches on the side of our vehicles.

From this point on the Auto Skin that I had applied at home before the trip had a real good workout, to the point that it was starting to peel off of the mirrors where they were constantly making contact with the very close vegetation. On some of the larger dunes, it brought back memories from when I saw the Tom Kruse Birdsville Track film, with sheets of iron on the side of the track that have been used countless times over the years to aid in traction in the soft sand while trying to get over the dunes. Arriving in a large flat area, we were now at our destination, the actual Ooldea Soak site which was to be our lunch stop. After lunch, Robin took us on an informative walk around the sand dunes and pointed out various special sites and told us where the various Aboriginal groups would stay when they all met at this very special location. The history in this area also extend to white people also, with the establishment of the United Aborigines Mission at this site between 1933 and 1951 and now the forces of nature are slowly covering all traces of the mission, as the sand is covering everything in its path and is reclaiming back this special little oasis in the desert.

Retracing our tracks, the return trip as usual did not take as long and were soon back on solid ground and all reinflating our tyres. Once back at Maralinga it was an easy afternoon and taking in the last few village sites as we would be leaving in the morning for even more fun out on the Anne Beadell Highway. To save time the next morning, we packed up the tent and slept out in the swag. Around 2am I woke and I could not believe what I was seeing. Instead of clear desert night skies, the village was covered in an eerie mist as the whole area was engulfed in a very dense fog that lasted until around 8am the next morning.

Reluctantly we said our farewells to Robin and over the next few days made our way to the Anne Beadell and then proceeded to our first camp up on the Dingo Claypan Road. Next morning it was still further north and then as we crested a small sand dune, Dingo Claypan was in full view. The surface looked damp, but it was just the reflection of the sun and like all of these types of Claypans, the surface was very solid and as smooth as silk to drive on. We all headed out for a group photo at the old wind sock. We were surprised to see that the landing runway was still lined with old tyres from when it was first put in use by Len Beadell, over 60 years ago. Changing direction, we now headed in a north-west direct to reach our next goal – the 300 Mile Marker. With group photos again and a good walk around this remote location, we slowly made our way back towards the Anne Beadell.

Once back onto the corrugations, we then went to the two Totem sites to show those in the group that had not been here before what these sites were like. Without the knowledge of Robin, these sites did not have the same impact of the Maralinga sites, with a full run down on the events that took place at each site.

Heading back again, we crossed over the Anne Beadell and went to the lookout area from where the nuclear tests were observed from, and what a vantage point it is, as it is the highest piece of land for a long way and perfect uninterrupted views to the two Totem site. From there we all headed back to a good camping spot near the Emu Airstrip and again enjoyed the tranquillity of the Great Victoria Desert. The next morning we could feel the cold air on our faces while inside our very warm swag and when I ventured out to re kindle the fire, it was to be our coldest night for the trip, with the temperature at -1.7° Degrees. With everything packed up it was time to head further west and so our day began as we headed out past the old airstrip and west out on the Anne Beadell Highway.

I retained my position as Tail End Charlie, as I did not want to hold up anyone that was travelling behind me, as I was constantly stopping to take photos of either the wildflowers, or the general scenery of the Track. It did not seem very long when we returned to the wrecked Jayco that had now been out here for over two years. It was nearly two years to the day when we first came across the then broken down Jayco.

From paperwork inside the van back then, it had only been there less than six weeks from a food docket that was still inside it, with most of the inside still intact. Two years down the track and it had been completely stripped and it was just now a shell and anything that could be used at all, even all the cupboard doors had been stripped and used for who knows what. It was while at the wrecked van site that we met the only other vehicles during our time out on the Anne Beadell. The drive was great and it was great to be back out here with the scenery and vegetation constantly changing.

The day soon passed and we were now at Voakes Hill Corner, as far west as we were going to go on this trip. While travelling during that day and if we had spare time, we were going to travel a little further west to where the give way sign is located, around 10 kilometres west of the actual corner and follow the track that leads off of the Anne Beadell Highway to see just where it went. Putting a call out over the UHF and asking if anyone was interested in going out to Voakes Hill, I did not have any takers, so we soon found a good camp site on the Cook track and set up camp for the night and all collected wood for the fire. Intending to take it easy for the rest of the afternoon, John came up to me and said that he would be interested in heading to find out where that track went, so John, Bev, Graham and I headed out in what we thought would be a fairly short and quick drive.

Arriving at the give way sign, we changed direction and followed the track as it twisted and turned and slowly gained altitude as the dunes became a little higher, then only to drop down in a small valley and lose all the altitude that we had gained. Around forty minutes later, the track ended at the bottom of a larger dune and the GPS showed that we were now at the actual Voakes Hill. My Elevation agreed with what the topo maps had, but there was only one problem, we were not at the top of the dune, so after a very short walk and around eight metres higher, the top of this dune gave commanding views to way out into the Great Victoria Desert, and at long last, we now had been to the actual Voakes Hill. After the usual photos and marking the top of the dune as a new waypoint, we headed back to camp, arriving just before 6.30pm and nearly two hours after setting out. The most attractive parts of the drive for me personally were the large Marble Gums that were growing all through the area and then there would be the dense pockets of Mallee that added to the constant change in scenery.

Next morning our southwards travel was very easy going, but again there was the odd bush that would brush against the side of the car and was saved by the Auto Skin. We made many stops along this section of track, as there was a lot to see in the way of Len Beadell markers, old wells and rock holes. The scenery was ever changing and the further we headed south, the greater the change from soft sand dunes covered in Mallee to open out and eventually return to the Bluebush covered plains. It was getting near camp time and the lookout was on for a suitable camp site, as where we were now, limestone covered plains with the occasions stand of small mulga made finding a campsite a little more interesting.

After finding such a site off of the track the conditions changer and it was now a little windy, so care was needed around the fire. As we had encountered a number of times during the trip, the howls of Dingos were heard once the sun had set, and I personally love to hear them call, as it is a symbol of the true Australian Outback.

Even though our camp was a little more than 60 kilometres north of Cook, it still took us till lunch time to get there, as we were still constantly stopping for many features along the way. On our arrival in Cook, it looked funny to see everyone get their phones out and then everyone was in depth conversations with the outside world and catching up on family and business affairs. To be on the safe side, I left our vehicle on the northern side of the railway line, just in case a train came along and so we did not get stranded and lose lots of time, as Fiona and I were now leaving the group and heading off solo, not south like everyone else, but taking a track called the Caravan Track that Robin had told us about. Bidding our final farewells to everyone, we headed back out past the old quarry and then headed off on a two wheel track in a north easterly direction. Unlike the drive down from Voakes Hill in the lower section, this track had fewer rocks on the track and it was very easy to maintain a slow, but comfortable and steady speed. This track was a very enjoyable drive and because of the lack of vegetation, there were 360° degree uninterrupted views, with the only sign of life were the Wedge Tailed eagles circling above and a few dingos. Unlike other dingos that we had come across, the moment that they saw or heard our vehicle, they were off at a very fast rate and this told us that someone had tried to shoot them at some stage.

We have been in some remote places before, but this track was up there with the remotest track we had been on and break down out here without any reliable long range communication would have been life threatening. For tracks such as this and when travelling solo, safety is always my main priority and for that very reason, we always have and carry a PLB, have the HF Radio and also a Satellite Phone, and as they say, it is better to be safe than sorry. As far as we know, Robin is now about the only person that ever uses this track when he has to make a trip down to Cook, which is not very often. Our first great sight along the track was to see a young Wedge Tail Eagle in its nest, only metres above the ground in a very small tree. Mum and Dad were circling above and the young chick would poke its head out over the nest to see who the stranger was, then duck down again. The further east that we were travelling, the landscape was changing drastically, not in vegetation, but like mini mine fields. The rabbits out here were now in the hundreds, if not thousands and were all in a very healthy condition. Some would dash for their warrens the moment that they would hear or see our approaching vehicle, while others would just sit there and watch us drive by. Around three and a half hours into the drive and still at least 60 kilometres from the main Maralinga Road, we saw a very familiar white Toyota heading out way.

We knew immediately who it was pulled over for a chat. In a very serious voice “Do you have permits for out here” Robin asked, and then he laughed. What we did not know at the time, was that Leigh had been speaking to Robin while he was in Cook so he know we were somewhere along the track. Robin was out here to shoot a few Rabbits for the Aboriginal women at Oak Valley, where he was heading for the next day. It was great to see Robin again and our quick chat turned into at least 20 minutes. Back on our way again, we were soon at the Main Road and headed north for a very short distance, before heading back on the Main Yalata Road, the same road that we had been on less than 2 weeks before when Robin had taken us to Ooldea. It was then that we know our great trip was over and in 2 days’ time; we were back home to cleaning the car, washing all our cloths from the trip and the usual household chores that take place when not on holidays.

This was one trip that I can highly recommend and if you ever get the opportunity, you will not be disappointed. If you have health fears, have a listen to this link to put your mind at ease, as there are still many myths about the area and others that are giving out false information.
Smile like a Crocodile
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