Len Beadell was leading a survey party through the mulga scrub of central South Australia, when he came across something unusual, even unnerving. ‘It was almost like a picket fence’, he described, with posts made from ‘slivers of shale’. Atop a small plateau dotted with casuarinas, Beadell counted close to sixty of these slivers, three foot high and spaced about two yards apart. In this ‘eerie’, isolated location, Beadell found himself wondering about the ‘near mythical’ people who had arranged the stones. It ‘was obviously an ancient Aboriginal ceremonial ground’, he concluded, ‘built by those primitive, stone-age nomads in some distant dreamtime’—an ‘Aboriginal “Stonehenge”’. 1
Beadell was a surveyor and explorer whose road-building exploits have themselves attained close to mythic status. Between 1947 and 1963, he coaxed his battered Landrover thousands of kilometres across the harsh Western Desert country, blazing the way for a series of roads, including the Gunbarrel Highway. 2 For most of this time, Beadell was attached to the Long Range Weapons Establishment (LRWE), working at the behest of British defence planners. In 1947, he helped survey the site for Woomera. Five years later, as Britain began exploding atomic bombs in Australia, Beadell was enlisted to identify a suitable mainland test site. ‘Emu Field’, a large open area about 285 kilometres west of Coober Pedy, was chosen for the first round of tests, but was deemed too isolated for continued use. And so, as the time of detonation neared, Beadell packed his swag and headed south from Emu Field in search of a permanent testing range—one that would become known as ‘Maralinga’. 3
Beadell’s reconnaissance had scarcely begun when he stumbled upon the ‘Aboriginal “Stonehenge”’. As he scrabbled in the dust, searching for a piece of charcoal that might be used to fix this mysterious structure in time, he pondered the ‘ironic clash of old and new’: ‘only a few short miles away the first mighty atomic bomb ever to be brought to the mainland of Australia was to be blasted into immediate oblivion…, and it was by-products of this very weapon which could be used for determining the age of the charcoal from these prehistoric fires’. Beadell began to conjur images of secret ceremonies, of naked dancers ‘ochre painted and glistening with sweat’. But his mind drifted inexorably from past to future. ‘I couldn’t help asking myself’, he admitted, ‘what these people…would have imagined if they had witnessed the glow from our atomic upheaval’. 4 Here in this rugged, barren wilderness the clash of old and new seemed at its most stark, its most brutal.
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