Trip to Maralinga, August 2013 – 1. Canberra to Port Augusta

Sunday, Jul 06, 2014 at 16:06


It felt good to be driving in Troopy, heading west again. Despite showery weather, we had a good run out to Hay, clipping along happily sitting on about 100. By afternoon the clouds were clearing, and from Wagga westwards the benefits of the rain showed in lush paddocks of grass, and young wheat and rice crops.

Our much anticipated trip to Maralinga and the Great Victoria Desert had been preceded by a quick trip in our small sedan to Brisbane and back. As we had house-sitters who were flexible in their arrival and departure times, we decided that before we headed out into the desert, we would take the opportunity to do a quick flit around our family in northern NSW and southern Qld. So between arriving home from that trip and setting off for Maralinga we had just a couple of days in which to finalise our packing. To complicate matters we had lent our trailer to our son for a trip to Fraser Island. He returned from that trip while we were in Brisbane so it was “just” a matter of loading our gear into the trailer along with last minute food and then we were ready. So the past few days had been busy, and the relative simplicity of being on the road was a relief.

And why did we want to go to Maralinga?

The short answer is that Stephen L. invited us to join a trip to Maralinga to see the site and hopefully also take in the abundant wildflowers that the area can produce. Stephen had developed a friendship with Robin Matthews, the Maralinga caretaker, who is working hard to get the area opened up to tourists, and Stephen had arranged with Robin for us to also travel along some of the seldom travelled old mining tracks in the adjoining parts of the Great Victoria Desert, northwest of Maralinga. Mindful of Troopy’s age we initially declined Stephen’s kind invitation, but decided to join the group when we learned that the plan for the convoy was to travel at a moderate pace with plenty of stops for looking and photography.

Another part of the answer relates to our age – we were at school in the 50s when the nuclear tests were carried out, first at Monte Bello Island off NW WA, then at Maralinga. But that was about all that we did know, such was the secrecy surrounding the tests. That was the time of the Cold War when nuclear armament was gaining pace all too rapidly. News of what was happening out in the desert was non-existent, with a tight veil of secrecy and almost total absence of media coverage keeping the population generally uninformed. Nevertheless Val has a clear memory of being at school one day and hearing rumors of a “black cloud” coming (ie towards the NSW north coast) – maybe that did happen. Certainly some radiation clouds did travel in unexpected directions despite efforts being made to ensure that radioactive dust from the explosions travelled to the north west, away from populated areas. Then John studied physics at Uni where the understanding of atomic structure was a fast developing field, and the application of nuclear physics to weaponry, to power generation and to medicine were emerging fields of study. So we were keen to have a closer look at this site that had one way or another helped to shape our youth.

Arriving at Hay in good time we went straight to the riverside free camp area and found no fewer than ten rigs already set up there. It was a lovely sunny afternoon with no wind, making it easy to choose a spot and set up. For the first time on a trip we had a toilet tent and portaloo, so our setup time was a bit slower than usual. A couple nearby in a big 5th wheeler had a cheery fire going – they waved us over and we spent a pleasant time with them swapping travel stories.

A mild, calm night led to a dewy morning, meaning damp tents. Even so, packing up went well until it came to folding the toilet tent. We had practised this manoeuvre at home but of course it wouldn’t co-operate, just when it seemed the rest of the world was watching. So there ensued a weird merry dance until eventually, just like that - it collapsed into a tidy circle. Quick get the damn thing into its bag before it has a change of heart!

While this was going on we noticed grease on one of the trailer hubs. The cap over the bearing had come off, so we had to improvise. The bottom of a small water bottle and plenty of gaffer tape did the trick – or at least it should do until we could find a replacement. With hopes not high we went into Hay where we found a very helpful auto parts place. Yes they had a suitable cover, and of course you can borrow our workshop, vyce and grinder to make it fit. And they wanted less than $2! Did we need a finger of grease? Wonderful people. Only in a small town would you find that kind of service, and we were more than happy, and very grateful too.

Before long we were mobile again, continuing west through country that was still very green, and well stocked with emus. Our destination was Pooginook Nature Reserve, a camp we’ve used previously, and we arrived there with plenty of time to get a cheery fire going although the weather was surprisingly mild. Next morning we were on the road again early, stopping at Morgan for fuel. From Burra onwards the country was emerald green with young wheat and oats. We were making good time, and although we could have made Port Augusta that night we looked around for somewhere different to stay. A bush camping ground close to the water did not appeal, so we ended up at Hancocks Lookout and decided to spend the night there. While the views there are spectacular, the light breeze of the evening became a strong wind, resulting in a restless night.

Next morning in Port Augusta we shopped for last minute bits and pieces before checking into the caravan park. There we packed our shopping away then went back into town for a big refuel – including filling the four spare jerries in preparation for setting out tomorrow on tracks less travelled. Later in the afternoon another Troopy with Queensland plates sought us out – it was Allan and Ros who would be part of the group travelling to Maralinga. We had a very pleasant evening together discussing the finer points of travelling in a Troopy.

Next morning we were at Maccas at the appointed time waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. There was coffee of course, and introductions all round. Would we remember all those new names – Ros, Allan, John, Chris, Colin, Sandy, Graeme, Jo, Adam, Peter, Don, David and Andrew? Stephen and Fiona we had “met” online and by phone, but at least their faces were familiar. David and Michelle and their girls would join us at Maralinga.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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