From Port Augusta we headed to Woomera, a town with a population of 146, where the Australian and British governments carried out atomic testing in the 1950’s and 60’s. A former government employee turned whistleblower called Avon Hudson joined in on the tour and took us to our camp on the outskirts of town.
Most people in Australia like to camp in “swags”, kind of like a really big, cozy bivouac. At first I was scared to sleep out in the desert after hearing about so many deadly snakes and spiders in the bush. Though after a couple of nights in my tent, I craved seeing the sky - waking up periodically to catch glimpses of the constellations and looking around at the dozens of other campers- so I slept on a mattress on top of my flattened out tent for most of the tour.
The next morning Avon took us into Woomera and gave us a guided tour of the Missile Park. The town seemed to sit suspended in the emptiness of the massive desert and there was something deeply unsettling about the inert weapons proudly put out on display. We didn't end up visiting it, though there's a small graveyard that's mostly babies and children. Said Avon:
“I was there from 62-64 and there were 6500 people in Woomera and there were a lot of babies born there. These babies died in pretty high numbers for a little town. There had to be some reason the percentage of mortality was so high at Woomera. That reason was never looked into. It was covered up. It was remniscent of the Black Mist from the big bombs.”
When we travelled to our camp in the outskirts of town, the sun was still overhead and fractally clouds were gathered around the horizon. We made dinner in the makeshift kitchen and then sat around the campfire with Avon who gave us more details about working for the government and the adverse effects that the tests they conducted had on the surrounding landscape, local residents, government employees and Aboriginals in nearby communities. Over the years Avon has single-handedly had huge area of the desert declared nuclear-free as a result of his ongoing campaigning.
After the campfire discussion, I tried to walk out to a large craterous indent I saw in the distance by the light of the moon. There were little mounds and dips all through the landscape and I saw a couple of frogs jumping alongside me making strange moonshadows. I starting running along the flat stretch and when I looked up, the biggest, brightest shooting star I’ve ever seen in my life streaked across the sky. It was like something out of a comic book. Then I remembered about dingos, got scared and ran back to the camp. I fell asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking.
As we headed out from our desert sprawl the next morning, the sun broke the silhouettes of all the small bushes and ridges. We headed further North, and the landscape flattened out completely. The earth was dusty red and there were yellow ochre rocks and small, greenish brown bushes with hints of vibrant green. I was still travelling in the small SUV and my travel mates gave me some background information on the mine we would by visiting in the town of Roxby Downs.
The town exists solely for the purpose of housing employees of the Olympic Dam mine, run by BHP Billiton, which is one of the largest uranium mines in the world. We went on an official tour, asked some questions and took some photos. Huge amounts of water are used in the processing of uranium and the material is highly toxic and radioactive, so extreme care needs to be taken during the entire extraction and transportation process. The by-products of producing energy with uranium include plutonium, which is used in the manufacturing of atomic weapons, the most destructive force on planet earth. During the whole nuclear cycle, different levels of nuclear waste are are created, some of which is hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.
While we were on the tour, there was a lot of tension between the activists and the employees of the mine. I felt embarassed by how immature some of the comments our group made and could feel that the employees themselves were not bad in their hearts and really didn't understand on a deeper level the true implications of the nuclear industry. And being screamed at by bratty, entitled activists probably wasn't going to help to bridge that gap.
I ended up going to the bus to be alone for a while and shortly afterwards a young woman came onto the bus crying. I assumed she was upset and overhwelmed about what we were learning about the mine, but as she spoke it was revealed that she was upset by a personal interaction with another tour participant.
After visiting the mine, we travelled to Lake Eyre. The sun was falling into the horizon and as we arrived the sky turned neon orange and the moon was eclipsed by the setting sun.
That evening we all gathered around a bonfire and heard from two of the main tour organizers, Gem and Emma, who met at University, became roommates, “made pancakes together 9 times” and then became really good friends. They had recently travelled to India to learn more about the nuclear industry there. Kumar, who they met during their travels, told us more about his activism and and how he was trying to prevent an upcoming nuclear deal between Australia and India, which could potentially lead to further nuclear armament in India. He also told us about a famous activist called Irom Sharmilla who had been on a hunger strike in response to a civillian massacre by the Armed Forces.