Trip to Maralinga, August 2013 – 2. Port Augusta to Maralinga

Sunday, Jul 06, 2014 at 16:15


(an aside - all photos may be clicked to enlarge)

Finally everyone was more or less ready, and we were on the road and heading north from Port Augusta by about 10.30. We didn’t spend much time on the bitumen, turning east from the highway to check out some old mine sites. The first was an old talc mine, while the second was a few holes in the rock overlooking Ironstone or Monalena Lagoon, a dry claypan, where hopeful souls had scratched for copper ore. We had lunch there, in a brisk wind unimpeded by more than a few stunted bushes. Despite the inhospitable appearance there were plenty of wildflowers – daisies, everlastings and pigface among others.

Soon we were running into Woomera for a look around the display of rockets, planes and other equipment associated with operations there. We took a short trip out to the cemetery to see Len Beadell’s grave, and were struck by the number of children buried there.

By now we were running behind schedule, as Stephen had wanted to camp near Coondambo, but we were still 100kms south of there. So in quite open country with the wind still brisk, we found a patch of casuarinas away from the highway. There we set up for the first camp of the trip, the casuarinas providing some shelter from the wind. Our first task on stopping was to gather firewood, and with many hands to contribute, a good pile was soon collected. A trench was dug and soon a fire graced the campsite.

It was a good camp, getting acquainted with our travelling companions. The night was not cold but there was heavy dew in the morning to make packing up just that little bit more awkward. We were keen not to be laggards and were ready to roll by 8.30, but then one of the other vehicles was found to have an electrical problem. By the time that was fixed it was 10 o’clock before we were underway.

To make up for lost time the leaders then accelerated up the highway. We were Charlie, and even doing well in excess of Troopy’s “comfort zone” we still fell behind. We stopped at Lake Hart for a quick look and then it was on to Coondambo. There Rick and his wife gave us a run down on the property that covers 7,200 square kilometres. They run up to 24,000 sheep, although dingoes take a lot of lambs – last year in one paddock only one lamb survived from 400 ewes. From the homestead where we saw equipment from years past, and the old storeroom complete with stores, we travelled on station tracks to the woolshed, where we had lunch and had a good look around, including the bunker (a shelter from the weapons research days so long ago), and slab shearer' quarters.

We were still behind schedule as we drove through parts of the Woomera Range where parts of the road along the central firing line were bitumen. There were plenty of flowers about – poached egg daisies, eremophilas, Sturts desert peas and many others. Finally we found a spot to camp on a big gibber area where there was abundant firewood. The sky was clear with just a light breeze.

The following morning we had agreed on an 8 o’clock start, to encourage any would-be sluggards to get organised. We managed to be ready by 7.30, surprising even ourselves, and most of the others were ready to go by 7.45. The convoy broke into 2 groups, the “speedy drivers” going ahead, the “photographers” going more slowly with more stops. We remained as Charlie despite some competition for that spot. The convoy took another shortcut, this time along an old telephone line that took us to a good gravel road and back onto the highway.

Then it was up the bitumen for another 30kms before turning west towards Commonwealth Hill on a good mining road that did not show on our map. The country was very green with increasing numbers of wildflowers – Eremophilas, daisies and a few Sturts Desert Peas. At the Commonwealth Hill homestead we spoke with Simon and Katie who run 25 thousand sheep, and each year mark 5 thousand lambs. The sheep are merino producing 20 micron wool. The property was very neat and well maintained, including the cemetery and out-station that had another big shelter dating back to weapons research days. We had lunch at the big stone-built shearing shed before continuing through a number of gates until we passed the Challenger gold mine that looked like a sizeable operation. The roads were good until we passed the mine and further west were still in quite good condition, and there were lots of flowers.

At the dingo fence we saw camel and dog prints and came across Alan, a dingo trapper who was setting traps. He kindly showed us how the traps are set, how scent is masked and other important aspects of his work. Sometimes he gets 14 dogs in a week. He also shoots camels if they break through the fence.

Shortly after leaving Alan we met up with Robin, caretaker of Maralinga and our host, who took us to a lovely campsite covered with pink, white and yellow wildflowers. It was quickly apparent that Robin was a very knowledgeable and entertaining speaker with a rough diamond exterior. It had been a long day and quite warm, so we were happy to turn in early, though others stayed yarning around the campfire.

Everyone was keen to get on the road early the following morning. We saw many eremophilas and mile upon mile of white everlastings and occasional patches of pink everlastings, a great sight. At the morning tea stop we found a green flowered eremophila and signs of echidna diggings. We stopped to see an eagle’s nest built in black oak trees. Lunch was at a big open space among black oaks (Casuarina pauper) and very big mallees. We saw plenty of camel tracks there. The track by now was just 2 wheel tracks, without corrugations.

After lunch we entered a patch of dunes but the track ran parallel to the ridges so it was easy going with only a couple of very small dunes to negotiate. We encountered increasing amounts of mallee and patches of spinifex as well as the ever-present casuarinas. The last section of this track through the dunes had been bulldozed or graded, although by now it was somewhat overgrown. Then suddenly we came to a cluster of security signs and we were onto a bitumen road, bowling along into Maralinga Village where Robin and his wife are the only residents. It was by now 4.30, time to meet David and Michelle and their girls, Leah and Chardae.

There were dongas available for our group to use, and some chose a bed in preference to their swags. We opted to stay with our familiar comfy bed in Troopy, but the showers were very welcome and the washing machine was in high demand. This day has probably been one of the best desert drives that we have ever done – easy driving at a modest pace, no corrugations and plenty to see in this remote country, all accompanied by interesting commentary from Robin.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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