Maralinga and Head of Bight – 27 June – 3 July 2021

6 Vehicles

Maralinga and Head of Bight is not strictly a 4-wheel driving destination; however, the more rugged vehicles were an advantage at times during this trip.  Barbara Burford and Michele Corbett decided to co-lead this trip, as this was a “Bucket List” trip for them both.

Maralinga is 54 kilometres north-west of Ooldea, in South Australia’s remote Great Victoria Desert, measuring about 3,300 square kilometres.   Between 1956 and 1963 the British set off 7 atomic bombs at the site; one was twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There were also “minor trials” where officials deliberately set fire to or blew up plutonium with TNT — just to see what would happen. One location called “Kuli” is still off-limits today, because it has been impossible to clean up.

Australia was not the first choice for the British, but they were knocked back by both the US and Canada. Robert Menzies, Australia’s Prime Minister at the time, said yes to the tests without even taking the decision to cabinet first. In that period, many leaders in the Western world genuinely thought there was a real risk of a third world war, which would be nuclear.  The bombs were tested on the Montebello Islands, at Emu Field and at Maralinga.  At Woomera, in the South Australian desert, they tested the missiles that could carry them. Just as the Maralinga Tjarutja people were pushed off their land for the bomb tests, the Yulparitja people were removed from their country in the landing zone, south of Broome.

At ground zero you fully realise the power of these bombs.  Even after more than 60 years, the vegetation is cleared in a perfect circle with a one-kilometre radius.  The steel and concrete towers used to explode the bombs were instantly vaporised.  The red desert sand was melted into green glass that still litters the site.  Years ago, it would have been dangerous to visit the area, but now the radiation is only three times normal — no more than what you get flying in a plane.  It is continuously monitored by the Caretakers and periodic reports are sent to the EPA.

In January 1985, the land was handed over to the traditional owners. They were granted freehold title and the right to developmental funds from the State and Federal governments. They completed a move back into Oak Valley in March 1985; a new community formed, approximately 128 kilometres NNW of the original township of Maralinga. The land was given back on the proviso that they would be a Caretaker on the land for 500 years; the current caretakers, Robert and Pricilla, along with assistant caretakers, Greg and Jackie, were our guides while we stayed at Maralinga Village.  No traditional owner lives at Maralinga Village or within the detonation area.  They consider it an unhappy and haunted place.  There are still concerns that some of the ground is contaminated, despite two attempts at clean-up.

Thirty per cent of the British and Australian servicemen exposed to the blasts died of cancer, however, it has never been proven that the deaths were specifically caused by the tests. Many Maralinga people have also died of cancer.  It, also, has never been proven that the deaths were specifically caused by the tests.

Day 1 – Sunday 27/6/2021 – by the Corbett’s

Tcharkulda Rocks

6 Vehicles on this trip: Jim & Michele Corbett, Trevor and  Barbara  Burford, Julie and Trevor Goldsmith, Lynne Middleton and Peter Pyman, Marilyn and Bob Cooper, Greg and Maria Dean.

All parties made their own way to the meeting point at  Ceduna Foreshore Caravan Park.  The Corbetts met up with the Deans the day before and travelled together, camping

at Tcharkuldu Rocks on the Saturday night.  We arrived at the campsite around 3:00pm and climbed the rocks. The views were spectacular, so we all decided to make this our camping spot for the night.  We set up close to the stone hut as the weather was not great and, if needed, the hut had a working fireplace and was dry.  Fortunately, it was not needed, and we had a beautiful campfire outside.

The Corbetts and Deans had a slow pack up the next morning and then headed out towards Pildappa Rock. Unfortunately, we found that the road was under water, so decided to head back to the highway and move onto Streaky Bay.  We stopped and walked out on the Jetty.  It was a perfect winter’s day – sunny with no wind. 

We then moved on to check out Perlubie Bay, then Haslam and onto Smoky Bay, arriving at Ceduna at 2:00pm.  The rest of our group were already there and set up.  After we were allocated our “little piece of paradise for the night” we set up quickly and Jim headed out to the Jetty – never one to miss an opportunity to drown some worms!!!!

I can recommend the Ceduna Foreshore Caravan Park.  It was clean, secure, had new amenities, great camp kitchen and Reception staff were great! We all met in the camp kitchen for drinks and nibbles, then a communal BBQ tea and   dessert.  A good time was had by all and everyone was looking forward to moving onto  Maralinga the following morning.

Day 2 – Monday 27/6/2021 by the Middleton/Pyman’s

On our way again; beautiful weather.  We all met out of Ceduna at 10:00am to go to Maralinga. Six vehicles lined up.  The wind has got stronger, quick photo of group and on our way.

The land is quite green along the highway; farmers crops doing well.  We stopped at Penong for morning tea (City of Windmills) then back into our cars again.  There are    plenty of roadworks on the highways… good to see that the roads are being maintained but also a pain to encounter them.  We saw lots of huge “Kalprie” Road train trucks with 4 trailers, carrying Gypsum from a mine near Maralinga, to the railhead at Ceduna.

Travelling through Wombat country, we saw lots of wombat holes on the side of the road.  We stopped at Nundroo for our last fuel stop for a few days, as there is no fuel between here and Maralinga.  Just after Nundroo, we turned off the highway towards Ooldea.  The road was a good bitumen, straight road, probably put in by the Gypsum mine.


The landscape changed after we left the highway to “Nullarbor-like vegetation with saltbush and few trees,” then later we entered the start of sand dune country, like Googs Track, with Eremophila’s, acacias and small eucalypts, and then the addition of desert oaks on the sand dunes. 

We had a quick roadside lunch stop (no parking bays out here – just road). After approximately 150km we turned left off the bitumen onto a dirt road, passing two parked semi-trailers with battered railway wagon parts, mysterious but not concerning, so we headed on towards Ooldea.  We needed to phone the Maralinga Manager from here, with our ETA (only Telstra phone coverage and only at Ooldea). The road was lightly corrugated but quite good.  Speed was slow (60kph).  One small lake was crossed – just getting our tyres wet!

Just before we got to Ooldea, the road was blocked by a semi-trailer and crane.  The semi had picked up a load of more railway parts and bogies at Ooldea, but it shifted, so the crane was sent out to secure the load. As they were  taking up the whole road, we just watched! We found out that 16 railway wagons had been derailed just out of Ooldea – apparently a common problem.

We were greeted at the locked Maralinga gate by the assistant care-takers, Greg and Jackie (no one is allowed into Maralinga unescorted – not even Maralinga Tjarutja Elders).  Greg and Jackie gave us a rundown talk on the village, where to set up and basic rules.  We had a large  camping area with large concrete slabs where buildings once stood,    good amenities and a well-equipped camp kitchen.  A large pile of  firewood was provided for our evening’s campfire. 

We were told about the “friendly” dingo, Masie.  She had been rescued by the Manager, Robert, from the village dump while she was a pup, then given back to her mum.  Sometime later, during the drought, her mum died, and she became very weak, so risked   going closer to village, and Robert.  He gave her water, food and mange tablets but still allowed her to hunt with her pack.  She now spends half her time around the village (and apparently loves bacon) and the rest of her time hunting with her pack.  We saw her very close to our campsite – not afraid of us, more cautious.  We could hear her calling to her pack each night – however they did not come close to the village.  The next day we saw two dingoes roaming when we were coming back on our tour bus.  They looked in very good health, as did Masie.  Later that evening, several of us went to the Museum to view parts collected around the area and watch some old films of atomic explosions and old war planes.

Day 3 – Tuesday 29/6/2021 Maralinga Test Site Tour Day, by the Dean’s

The day started at 9am as we climbed into our little minibus that would take us on a tour of the Maralinga Test Sites.  Our tour guide and driver were Pricilla and Greg.  

Standing on the Maralinga Airstrip

From the campground, our first stop was the Louch Mackew Dam (apron water capture), which is Maralinga’s only source of water catchment.  We then drove on some very long runways and then stopped at the Maralinga Airstrip where we had morning tea, provided by our hosts.  We then continued to Roadside Village, Tent City, numerous burial pits and Kuka Palya, to name a few.  The place was full of sadness; however, our tour guides were amazing and demonstrated a passion and an abundance of knowledge of the area.

After lunch we visited some of the other major trial sites: Taranaki, Breakaway and Marcoo Ground Zero, as well as Tufi (detonation site).  What an experience!

Vehicles like this were used in the clean up of the Forward Area

On the way back to the campground, we encountered two gorgeous dingoes.  We finished the tour with a look at the Museum where we could purchase gift items and watch videos from the National Archives.

Back at camp, Greg lit the campfire, Michele and Jim provided the nibbles and we all settled back to enjoy our last night at Maralinga Village.

Day 4 – Wednesday 30/6/2021, by the Burford’s

Our group left for the gate at 8:30am, a quick group photo in front of the sign and then we were escorted off the Maralinga land, still approximately 80km of dirt, “good dirt”.  When we hit the bitumen Greg and Maria Dean took the lead to get to Nundroo and fill up, as Greg needed to get home for the “Madigan Line” excursion.

At Nundroo, the Deans and Coopers headed home; the other 4 vehicles were heading to see the whales.  After great weather on Tuesday, it now looks a little   “sus” as it is raining.  After a few “U” turns, we eventually found the “White Well Tank” camping   area, where we set up for the next few nights (it is on the Head of Bight Road).  The terrain that we look out on is typical Nullarbor; flat, no trees and plenty of salt bush.  The birdlife is mainly small finches that flitter around the salt bush.

White Well Tank Campsite

Nibbles time brought a reminder that we should all carry a well-stocked first aid kit. Peter P was cutting up Metwurst when his finger got in the way!  He probably nicked a vein and blood squirted everywhere – until two  Florence Nightingales came to his aid, applying compression and two steri-strips with a dressing over the top!

We finished the night with a small campfire, huddled in the shelter of White Well Tank and Corbett’s camper.  Our campfire group was joined by a Victorian traveller, Jim, who had been photographing the whales over the last few days.

Day 5 – Thursday 1/7/2021, by the Goldsmith’s

Woke to a fine sunny morning, 4 degrees in camper.  9:00am departure to view whales at the Head of Bight.  Walked to cliff face along the boardwalk, it was cold but sunny.  We could see whales out in the bay (they appeared to be sun baking).  Not a lot of close activity, but we could see 15 – 20 in the distance.  After 1.5 hours watching them, they were still too far away, so we decided on coffee and scones at the Entrance Café.

We then headed off west along the Highway to Nullarbor Roadhouse. Hot chips for some, ice cream for some and for some others – both!  We also commented on the quality of the cakes on display – city quality in the middle of nowhere! We asked for directions to the caves (out behind roadhouse).  A couple of interests along the way; windmill with an eagle’s nest at the top, stone and concrete water tank and number 1 bore.  Found Murrawijinie Caves – three in total, a short distance apart.  Large sink holes with deep undercuts.  Lunch and then back along the track, dodging mud holes and stones.  Back on the Highway, we decided to check out the whale activity again.  Not much change – much the same as earlier.  Apparently, they were very active when we were driving around the cave!!!!

Back at camp around 4pm for the usual “happy hour.” When the good husband disappears and help is needed, what do you do?  Call on the second Trev!!!!

Day 6 – Friday 2/7/2021 Farewell Day

We awoke to the sound of rain and a forecast of high winds.  All decided that it was time to break camp and head for home.  All packed up by 8:45am and on the road again.  Refuelled at Nundroo (again) and then the group split –   Trevor, Barb, Peter and Lynne, heading home via Kimba, for an overnight stop.  Julie and Trevor, staying west for a while longer, enjoying the touristy side of life.  Jim and Michele called into Fowlers Bay, just to have a look, with Julie and Trevor (need to come back this way again.  It will make a GREAT club trip – the sand dunes are awesome).  Then they also headed home, via Tcharkuldu Rock – did not get enough the first time!

Day 7 – Saturday 3/7/2021 by the Corbett’s

Next day we headed toward Mambray Creek for our final night and had a pleasant surprise when the campground hosts turned out to be our very own, Jim and Lea Crosby.  It was great to catch up with them both and see what they get up to, while volunteering as campground hosts.