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

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.

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.”


The first nuclear test at Maralinga was conducted in September 1956, and was as big as the bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan.

National Archives of Australia

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 of a building where nuclear bombs were built before testing.

Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

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.

Continue reading the main story