A contrast as wide as the world

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Working as a drover and cattleman across much of the Australian inland, Michael Sawtell became convinced of the land’s potential for development. With the ‘zeal of a prophet’, the Sunday Herald reported in 1952, Sawtell had been ‘stumping Australia for years trying to convert his countrymen to a new belief in the empty territories’. 1 But in the postwar world, apathy and ignorance were not the only obstacles to hinder his crusade. In 1946, Sawtell participated in a debate on the development of the Woomera rocket range, broadcast by the ABC. ‘I am against this evil business of bombs over Australia’, he began. Sawtell was worried about the effects on Aboriginal people, but he also opposed the plan because ‘it engenders in the minds of city-dwelling Australians that Australia, this blessed plot…is fit for nothing better than a bomb alley’. 2

Much to Sawtell’s horror, the government was beginning to realise that Australia’s ‘vast empty wastes’ might indeed play a crucial role in the nation’s future. Not as a home for farmers, but as a testing ground for rockets and bombs, and as a supplier of the raw materials that would fuel the Atomic Age. As preparations were being finalised for the first British atomic bomb test to be conducted on the Australian mainland, the Sunday Herald pondered the intriguing turn of events by which an ‘arid plain in northern South Australia’ should be the focus of such a momentous event. ‘Paradoxically’, the editorial noted, ‘the very poverty of these areas in surface resources has made them valuable in the atomic field, either as a storehouse of uranium riches, or as the kind of land where experiments can be most safely conducted’. 3 At last Australia’s troublesome interior seemed to have a purpose, a destiny. The atomic tests, argued the Herald, ‘gave the dead heart of Australia a significance in world affairs that could not have been dreamed of until 1945’. 4

A new story of rebirth and renewal was taking shape. ‘It was silent country’, wrote Ivan Southall of the Woomera rocket range, ‘it was dead country’. ‘Once there had been forests, diprotodon as large as rhinos’, but the ‘primeval lushness’ had vanished, leaving a harsh, ‘sterile’ land in its place. Other than a few hardy settlers, it had remained empty. But now, the qualities that made it so forbidding were exactly those demanded by defence scientists. Suddenly, the land seemed more a blessing than a burden. ‘Here it was’, Southall enthused, ‘one of the greatest stretches of uninhabited wasteland on earth, created by God specifically for rockets’. 5

In this grand saga of fulfilment, it was not the land’s latent fertility that was stressed, but its lifelessness. These were barren wastelands, alien and inhospitable, of no use for anything else. In 1951, an article in Walkabout rhapsodised about a romantically beautiful’ group of islands off Australia’s north west coast. The Monte Bello Islands were a ‘marine paradise’, the article continued, that might one day become a ‘great holiday resort’. 6 Within a year, the islands were named as the site of Britain’s first atomic bomb test, and described by officials as ‘barren and fairly flat’, home to nothing but ‘a few birds and small animals’. 7 Winston Churchill amused the British parliament by reporting that the only inhabitants of the island were ‘some lizards, two sea eagles and what looked like a canary sitting on a perch’. 8 An amateur naturalist with the British scientific team was later to catalogue more than 400 species of plants and animals on the islands, including a number that were wholly new to science. 9

Scenes of hopeless desolation overwhelmed journalists surveying the mainland test sites. The Woomera rocket range was located in ‘one of the world’s loneliest and most arid regions’, the Adelaide Advertiser reported, ‘no trees grow there’. 10 This ‘unnocupied wasteland’, was according to Walkabout’s correspondent, ‘a land of no rivers’. It was ‘a harsh landscape stretching to infinity’, whose ‘dryness and sterility’ had deterred pastoralists and defied explorers. 11 ‘All around us was the gibber country’, wrote Warren Denning from the Emu Field test site, ‘I could see no sign of life…it seemed that all nature had deserted this baleful place whose real fruits lay in death and horror’. 12 Enlisted by the government to write a series of background articles on the Maralinga site, TAG Hungerford described a land for which ‘no conceivable use could ever be found or suggested’. Only through the needs of the Atomic Age had such useless tracts had been ‘endowed with a purpose’. 13

The discovery of uranium amidst the continent’s ‘empty wastes’ brought further possibilities for redemption. Opening the Rum Jungle uranium mine in 1954, Prime Minister Menzies declared it ‘something of a miracle’. ‘Not long ago’, he continued, the Northern Territory had seemed ‘almost worthless’: ‘But the history of Australia is the history of converting people from despair to hope and from hope to achievement’. With the discovery of uranium, the north seemed destined to host ‘one of the great communities of Australia’ 14 Paul Hasluck, the Minister for Territories, agreed, arguing that uranium would help ‘transform the Northern Territory’ from a ‘land of large cattle stations and arid wastelands’ to ‘a land of inland towns thriving on mineral production’. 15 The area ‘so long disparagingly called “the dead heart” may prove to be the richest in this vast continent’, one article concluded.

But even as the land was waking to the call of bombs, rockets and magic metals, its original inhabitants were lapsing, it seemed, into a final, deathly slumber. Dr Charles Duguid, founder of the Ernabella Mission, was alarmed to find that rockets fired from the Woomera range were expected to pass over a number of Aboriginal reserves. He was angered too by plans to establish observation posts in remote areas still occupied by Aborigines living in their tribal state. 16 Duguid was joined in his outrage by many concerned citizens, including the anthropologist Donald Thomson, who argued that Woomera would ‘spell final doom for the aborigines of that region’. 17 The risk was not so much from the rockets themselves, but from the inevitable disruption to Aboriginal life and custom. ‘Experience shows that if the aborigines are submitted to the contacts of white civilisation they are destroyed’, observed Clive Turnbull in support of the protest movement. 18 Progress offered no prospect of coexistence, the gap was just too great. Native Patrol Officers were appointed by government in a half-hearted attempt to manage the confrontation between old and new, and as development of the range proceeded, the controversy faded. 19 But just as Len Beadell had pondered the ironies of his ‘Aboriginal Stonehenge’, so the contrast between the fading remnants of Aboriginal life and the dramatic onslaught of the Atomic Age encouraged reflection upon the pace of change and the fate of civilisation.

‘Alongside these modern atomic developments on the fringes of the wastelands Stone Age man affords a contrast as wide as the world’, commented Charles Holmes in Walkabout. Although he might watch the rockets soar skywards, Holmes continued, an Aboriginal ‘could never understand… he was witnessing the birth of a new era’. 20 Another correspondent observed that while the ‘near-naked Pinjinjarra [sic] aborigines’ went about their daily lives and traded ‘spears and woomeras to adorn the walls of the mess huts’, they weren’t ‘very interested in the rocket range’. ‘Few of them have heard of the atom bomb’, he added. 21 Aboriginal people were innocents in an age of cataclysmic significance. Their supposed naivety appealed to a world beset by the challenges of progress. But such innocence could be sustained only in a culture disconnected from the flow of history. It had no future. Just as western civilisation had to confront the implications of the bomb, so Aboriginal society had to adapt or die. As journalists watched the cloud of dust and gas rise from the first atomic test at Emu Field, someone suggested it had taken the shape of ‘an aboriginal warrior’s face’. It was ‘as though some primitive spirit from the dead heart of Australia had taken momentary charge of the blast’, the Herald reported. 22 But perhaps in this ghostly echo there was a warning too—progress could not be denied.

Lingering remnants of Aboriginal culture contributed also to a sense of the land’s antiquity. Children living at Woomera raided nearby sites for fossils and Aboriginal artefacts, ‘feeling a sense of awe at their age’. ‘Everywhere the incredible age of this country seemed to dominate one’s consciousness, a former resident recalled, ‘the children grew up in two contrasting worlds—the modern world of rocketry inside the village and the ancient land outside’. 23 In this oldest of lands the drama of progress was played out with compelling clarity. Surrounded by ‘the antediluvian animals of Australia’, Alan Moorehead watched as supersonic rockets were launched from the ‘benighted plain’ into ‘realms where only pure mathematics can follow’. ‘It is this conjunction of the infinitely primitive past and the infinitely fantastic future that makes Woomera so strange and stimulating a place’, he mused. 24

The contrast was emphasised by the establishment of new townships, transplanted visions of Australian suburbia equipped with almost every convenience. Woomera seemed particularly ‘odd’, commented the Herald, because ‘there among the gibbers and dust’ has grown ‘the most modern town in Australia’. 25 In a land ‘almost as old as anything on earth’, George Farwell was similarly delighted to discover Mary Kathleen, ‘the most modern little town I have seen anywhere in Australia’. Constructed to house miners working uranium deposits near Mt Isa, Mary Kathleen had transformed what was once ‘virtually desert land, supporting no life at all,’ into ‘a garden suburb for 1,100 people’. 26 The feeling of new life and new activity was expressed not only in the broad streets, well-tended gardens, and neat, modern-styled houses, but in the ‘well-dressed young mothers and lovely children’. 27 Indeed, a special bus was commissioned to carry Woomera’s 70 expectant mothers to their regular medical check-ups. 28 ‘Children run about everywhere’, remarked Alan Moorehead as a set of twins was born in the local hospital, and ‘the girls seemed much prettier’. 29 As scientists boldly raised their missiles skywards, Australia’s barren wastes became fertile once more.

The Atomic Age bestowed a vision of regeneration based not on water, but on power—the power to secure a nation’s defences, to transform industrial development, perhaps even to reach the moon. But progress itself was still to be found in the resurrection of dead lands and worn-out hopes, in the reinvigoration of spirit and destiny, in the embrace of change, in the triumph of new over old. The inland might never be restored to its primeval lushness, but new life would come. Uranium had changed the pace of existence in the Northern Territory, one writer observed, ‘something urgent seems to have crept into the way of life’. 30 Another argued that it would give ‘the economic life of the Territory the transfusion of new blood it needs’. 31 The bomb would shatter the ‘inland silence that remained unbroken for ages’, suggested the Sunday Herald, while Warren Denning observed that in the aftermath of the blast even the ‘poverty-ridden’ mulga scrub seemed ‘green and lush and full of the bright good things of the earth’. 32 As Len Beadell set out to find a location for the first mainland atomic test, he pondered his reponsibility: ‘to think that for the first time the mulga country site somewhere yet to be found was to come to life in the blinding flash of an atomic explosion’. 33


  1. ‘They believe in their country’, in ‘Development supplement’, Sunday Herald, 17 August 1952, p. 13
  2. Nation’s Forum of the Air, Should Australia be used as a bomb alley for rockets?, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1946, pp. 7-8.
  3. Sunday Herald, 4 October 1953, p. 2
  4. Herald, 15 October 1953, p. 4
  5. Ivan Southall, Woomera, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, pp. 2-3.
  6. Trevor Tuckfield, ‘The Monte Bello Islands’, Walkabout, vol. 17, no. 8, 1 August 1951, pp. 33-4.
  7. CPD, vol. 217, 4 June 1952, p. 1374.
  8. Quoted in Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986, p. 33.
  9. Margaret Gowing, Independence and deterrence: Britain and atomic energy, 1945-1952, 2 vols., vol. 2, Macmillan, London, 1974, p. 478.
  10. Adelaide Advertiser, 30 June 1948, p. 2.
  11. Charles H Holmes, ‘Half-way round the world to test atomic weapons’, Walkabout, vol. 18, no. 7, 1 July 1952, p. 14.
  12. Warren Denning, ‘Where the big bomb was exploded’, Walkabout, vol. 20, no. 2, 1 February 1954, p. 12.
  13. TAG Hungerford, ‘The pay-off at Maralinga’, NAA: R6456/3, R030/085.
  14. SMH, 18 September 1954, p. 3.
  15. Quoted in “Uranium fever” in Australia’, New Commonwealth, vol. 24, 15 September 1952, p. 295.
  16. The controversy is described in Peter Morton, Fire across the desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946-1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1989, ch. 5.
  17. Donald F Thomson, ‘Rockets will doom aborigines’, Herald, 11 October 1946, p. 4.
  18. Herald, 29 March 1947, p. 4.
  19. For a description of the work of the native patrol officers see: Morton, Fire across the desert, ch. 6; Milliken, No conceivable injury, pp. 94-108.
  20. Holmes, ‘Half-way round the world to test atomic weapons’, pp. 14-15.
  21. John Paton, ‘Woomera – The most expensive area in Australia’, Trade Digest, vol. 3, no. 2, June 1952, p. 20.
  22. Herald, 15 October 1953, p. 1, see also photo on p. 3. Len Beadell recalls that the press’s discovery of this image in the cloud was the result of a joke by one of the test personnel, see Blast the bush, pp. 210-11.
  23. Former resident quoted in Morton, Fire across the desert, p. 235.
  24. Alan Moorehead, Rum Jungle, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1953, p. 90.
  25. Herald, 15 March 1952, p. 13.
  26. George Farwell, ‘“Mary K”: model town in the spinifex’, Walkabout, vol. 24, no. 5, 1 May 1958, pp. 11-13.
  27. Herald, 15 March 1952, p. 13.
  28. ibid.
  29. Alan Moorehead, ‘The sky’s the limit at Woomera’, Herald, 9 July 1952, p. 4.
  30. Ross Annabell, ‘Rum Jungle’, Exports of Australia, vol. 8, no. 6, April-May 1954, p. 15.
  31. William Prehn, ‘Australia’s atomic future’, Pacific Neighbours, vol. 9, no. 2, 1954, p. 20.
  32. Sunday Herald, 4 October 1953, p. 2; Denning, ‘Where the big bomb was exploded’, p. 13.
  33. Beadell, Blast the bush, p. 8.

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