Australia’s Least Likely Tourist Spot: A Test Site for Atom Bombs

Robin Matthews, Australia’s only nuclear tour guide, takes tourists to visit a former atomic-weapons test site in Maralinga, South Australia.

MARALINGA, Australia — Maralinga, a barren stretch of land in South Australia’s remote western desert, is the country’s only former nuclear test site open to tourists. And Robin Matthews is Australia’s only nuclear tour guide.

Visitors to Maralinga, a deserted military installation the size of Manhattan, who expect to find their tour guide dressed in a yellow jumpsuit and ventilator mask are bound to be disappointed.

Instead, Mr. Matthews, 65, can be found wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and a cigarette hanging from chapped lips. His skin, deeply tanned, is covered with a narrative of faded tattoos inked long before they were fashionable.

“Yes, there is still radiation here,” Mr. Matthews said as he drove a minibus to the sites where the Australian and British governments dropped seven bombs between 1956 and 1963, which dotted the earth with huge craters and poisoned scores of Indigenous people and their descendants.

Back then, the government placed hundreds of human guinea pigs — wearing only shorts and long socks — in the front areas of the test zones. The effects of large doses of radiation were devastating.

Nowadays, after a multimillion-dollar cleanup, radiation poses little danger to visitors, Mr. Matthews said, unless they choose to “eat mouthfuls of dust.”

Maralinga, which means “thunder” in the extinct Aboriginal language Garik, is an unlikely tourist destination. It is hot and arid, and at 700 miles west of Adelaide it is difficult to reach. When tours started in 2016, the village was accessible by only two flights a week from Ceduna, the closest “large” city, which itself has a population of fewer than 3,000 people.

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But the Maralinga Tjarutja people hope to increase the number of visitors to the site this year. The Maralinga Tjarutja Administration, which operates the site, is increasing the number of regular flights to the village, increasing the length of the tour to three days and working with the South Australian government on a business plan to lure more visitors, said Sharon Yendall, the group’s general manager.

Don Richards, who served at Maralinga as a clerk in the Australian Air Force from 1963 to 1965, was one of the 1,000 tourists who have so far visited the site.

“I learned more in that tour than I really learned in the two years I was out there,” he said. “It was a pretty interesting place to be — a fairly motley crew lived at Maralinga once.”

Today just four people live full time in Maralinga village, a veritable ghost town. Amid the old buildings are new lodgings built for tourists, complete with hot water and Wi-Fi.

In the 1950s and ’60s, at the height of the Cold War, 35,000 military personnel lived here. There was a permanent airstrip, then the longest in the Southern Hemisphere, plus roads, a swimming pool, accommodation and railway access.

The first nuclear test was conducted in September 1956, two months before the Melbourne Olympics. That blast — as powerful as the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan — was the first of seven atomic bombs set off here.

But it was the so-called minor tests that were the most harrowing. Carried out in secret, the tests examined how toxic substances, including uranium and plutonium 239, would react when burned or blown up. To ensure tourists’ safety in the area, a zone was cleaned up by radiation scientists at the cost of more than 100 million Australian dollars, about $77 million.

Around one area tourists can visit are 22 major pits, each at least 50 feet deep and cased in reinforced concrete to prevent dangerous radiation from seeping out.

The site looks like a recently tilled garden bed, stretching out for hundreds of yards, in a near perfect circle. Dotting the red desert earth are shards of twisted metal. Aside from a few feral camels loping nearby, it is still and silent.

But on Oct. 4 1956, a “nuclear land mine” was detonated here, tearing a crater 140 feet wide and 70 feet deep into the earth.

The resulting atomic reaction took only a fraction of a second, but its effects on one Indigenous family would last decades.

In early 1957, Edie Millpuddie and her family were traversing the Great Victoria Desert plains. “The Millpuddies needed shelter for the night, and they came across this enormous hole where the ground was still warm,” Mr. Mathews said. “They drank rainwater from the bottom and lit a fire. All the rabbits in the area seemed disoriented; they were easy pickings for dinner before the family went to sleep in the crater.”

Two weeks later, Ms. Millpuddie delivered a stillborn baby.

Later, her surviving children’s children would all be born with “physical and mental deformities,” Mr. Matthews said. “This all happened right where we’re standing.”

Survivors of the blasts, their children and grandchildren suffered from cataracts, blood diseases, arthritic conditions, stomach cancers and birth defects. In the 1980s, a Royal Commission investigating the tests awarded Ms. Millpuddie 75,000 Australian dollars.

There was no overt pressure or media scrutiny over what happened at Maralinga until the 1970s, when those injured by the tests came forward and a small group of journalists and politicians cast a more critical eye on the tests and the secrecy surrounding them.

Mr. Matthews first visited Maralinga in 1972. His wife, Della, is a member of the Anangu people, and when the land was decontaminated, the couple were asked to be Maralinga’s first caretakers.

One recent morning, Mr. Matthews busied himself with preparations for the arrival of a charter plane full of tourists.

He would love it, he said, if Indigenous people replaced him as the guides at Maralinga, though he also understands why they would choose not to.

“We now bring our kids and our grandchildren here to explain what happened,” he said. “This is their land and their ancestors’ land.”

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