Trip to Maralinga, August 2013 – 4. Maralinga to Emu and beyond

Sunday, Jul 06, 2014 at 16:25


There was unwelcome news the next morning. Robin’s wife Della was quite unwell and had been flown to hospital in Adelaide. Robin will of course go to join her and so will not be able to lead us on the trip through the desert. To complicate matters most of the aboriginal business roads that we were going to use had been closed for very serious “men’s business”; consequently we will do our trip in reverse order to the original plan. When we did eventually set out, heading north towards Emu, there was a touch of uncertainty in the group. The general idea was to do some exploring out along old mining tracks and return to Maralinga in about a week’s time, then do a bit of cleaning up to help Robin.

The early agreement was to travel at about 80kph; this pace soon increased so by mid-morning we felt rushed and rather disappointed by the lack of photo stops as we passed through some very photogenic places. After a very quick lunch stop a “flowers and photos” group settled into the rear, after which things went somewhat better. There were indeed plenty of flowers to see with big expanses of yellow daisies, white everlastings and the occasional patch of pink everlastings, as well as plenty of red eremophilas. There were a few birds including some small flocks of budgies, and another thorny devil. Despite stopping later than we had expected we had a good camp that night with a good discussion around the fire about OziExplorer. It had been easy driving, along a track that is just 2 wheel tracks – although even with minimal traffic they were a bit corrugated in places. There were just a few small dunes to make our way through.

Next day we had a few stops for photos and to check out some interesting landscape features including claypans and deeply eroded gullies. At Observatory Hill there were 360 degree views out across a sea of mulga to a mostly flat horizon. There were still plenty of the flowers that we had seen yesterday, and at our lunch stop we saw our first desert hibiscus and desert poplar.

Stephen asked us to take the lead after lunch and try to get some radio chat going. A handy topic emerged from the scrub in the shape of four huge and very well fed camels that lumbered along in front of us for a few kilometres. There was plenty of advice on the radio on how to get them off the track, but at close quarters they were very large so after a few attempts to get close enough to force them off the track prudence and patience won the day. We were too far from anywhere to risk a kick through the radiator. After their prolonged jog those camels were producing copious amounts of white frothy spittle that settled on vehicles and smelled pretty bad. Finally they turned off and we then stopped for a beautifully banded blue tongued skink that was basking on the track. It ran under Troopy and was rescued by Leah who put her animal handling skills to good use. From there we had an easy run into Emu, arriving mid-afternoon with plenty of time to download some photos and get a stew going in the camp oven. The flies were very friendly.

Emu was the base for the Operation Totem nuclear tests conducted by the British government in October 1953.The site was surveyed by Len Beadell in 1952 and a village and airstrip were constructed for the subsequent testing program. Two atomic tests were conducted at the site. Totem 1 that yielded 9 kilotons was detonated on 15 October 1953 and Totem 2 with a yield of 7 kilotons was detonated on 27 October 1953. The devices were both sited on towers. The site was also used in September–October 1953 for some of the Kitten series of tests. After the initial two tests the site at Emu Field was considered too remote for future use, and the search for a more convenient location led to the survey of Maralinga, where further atomic tests were conducted between 1956 and 1963.

We were on the road early again the next morning, travelling east over a short but very corrugated section of the Ann Beadell Highway before turning north towards the Dingo Claypan. Our first stop was at Observation Hill, from where the top brass (and maybe Len Beadell) watched the first atomic blast. Incredible as it now seems they simply turned their backs on the explosion then turned around to watch the mushroom cloud. We had all seen the film of that event, and the video makers in our group were keen for a re-enactment. From there we went out to the camera site, which was equidistant from the blast site. From then on we followed a set of wheel tracks (without corrugations) that twisted through encroaching mulga, ensuring plenty of vehicle scratching. We stopped for a cuppa, lined up along the track and had time to see some small termite mounds and even find some desert fungi.

The temperature was nudging 30 degrees when we reached the Dingo Claypan and we were feeling the heat. We drove out to the 300 mile marker. Surprisingly, out there we came across some isolated mallees and a lovely brilliant blue butterfly. Then it was back to the claypan that served as the early airstrip to see what remained of the old fuel dumps, windsock and strip markers. We then headed south some distance to find a campsite, where we were very happy to stop, being rather hot and tired. Some cloud came over and the wind direction changed and strengthened during the night. Meteor showers were expected and some in the group did see several meteorites.

Next morning we returned to the ABH via the camera site before going into the Totem 1 and 2 sites. There was black glass on the ground, and no trees had been left standing, although plenty of low shrubs had regrown and these were now home to a few birds. It was a rather sombre place so we moved on some distance before having lunch. We went back to Emu via barely visible tracks, although they did show on our map. We saw some old gear near the airstrip then looked around the remains of the Emu village. Just the bases of a few buildings and tents are visible.

Then we headed west on the ABH that now wound through sandhill country. The track there is just wheeltracks and quite corrugated in places, so our tyres were well down; others were not so lucky and had a flat tyre. By way of compensation there were plenty of wildflowers along the ABH including lots of poached egg daisies.The romantics among us could not pass up the chance of some frolics in the flowers.

The day had been clear and a bit cooler with a light breeze but it was good to stop at a well-used campsite for the night. That was a good camp with good company around the fire that kept us up well past our usual turning-in time. It was a much cooler night too, and the morning was cold enough so water left out was covered with ice. Stephen had tried without success to contact Robin so now there was much indecision about how to proceed. The idea of a layday was floated – that sounded like a great idea. Finally we set out, heading west along the ABH, where the going was quite good across sandy country with just patches of corrugations. There were still a lot of flowers, although not much variety – big poached egg daisies were most common.

At Annes Corner we stopped to wonder at the wrecked caravan. Stephen then managed to make contact with Robin by sat-phone. He learned that Della was out of hospital and Robin was heading back to Maralinga, news that precipitated a rush to get to Cook. A paper map of the tracks we would follow was produced, although from that map it was hard to work out the distances that we had to cover. It was of come concern that this was the only detailed current map in the group and we realised just how dependent we'd become on electronic navigation aids.
Some of the group would leave us at Cook and it was possible that others would need to go on to the Nullarbor Roadhouse to refuel.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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