Robin Matthews, Australia’s only nuclear tour guide, drives tourists to Maralinga, a former atomic-weapons test site in Australia. Image Credit: New York Times News Service

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, 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,” 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.

Hoping for more visitors

Nowadays, after a multimillion-dollar cleanup, radiation poses little danger to visitors, 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 1,100 kilometres 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.

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.

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.

The first nuclear test was conducted in September 1956, two months before the Melbourne Olympics.

That blast — as powerful as the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima — was the first of seven atom 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 burnt or blown up.

To ensure tourists’ safety in the area, a zone was cleaned up by radiation scientists at the cost of more than A$100 million (about Dh276 million or US$77 million).

Around one area tourists can visit are 22 major pits, each at least 15 metres 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 October 4 1956, a “nuclear landmine” was detonated here, tearing a crater 40 metres wide and 21 metres deep into the earth.

‘This is their land’

The resulting atomic reaction took only a fraction of a second, but its effects on one indigenous family would last decades. Survivors of the blasts, their children and grandchildren suffered from cataracts, blood diseases, arthritic conditions, stomach cancers and birth defects.

One recent morning, 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.”

— New York Times

News Service