Former Maralinga caretaker Leon Ashton pores over a map of the town. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Maralinga holds a unique and controversial place in Australia’s history, but for Leon and Diane Ashton, it represents a time in their lives when they had a whole town to themselves.
From 2004 until 2010, Mr and Ms Ashton were caretakers for the Maralinga nuclear testing range, looking after it and ensuring everything was in order.
In 1955, the British government secured more than 3,000 square kilometres of far-west South Australia for an atomic testing site.
Official remediation of the site was completed in 2000, but there is still controversy about the safety of the site, especially regarding the long-term health of the Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal people.
The Maralinga township was once an army barracks during the testing period. (Supplied: Leon Ashton)
Spending most of his life in outback Australia, Mr Ashton said it had been happenstance he came to be the warden for such a unique place.
His journey to the site began after he agreed to go cray fishing at Eucla.
“The cray fishing industry dropped out, so we went on a little bit of a camping trip,” he said.
“Ended up at Cook and then across to Maralinga, where we met the caretaker at the time.
“He said the job was coming up for a site manager at Maralinga, and would we like to apply for it?
“We applied for it, and the rest is history.”
The ‘forward area’
Between 1955 and 1963, seven nuclear weapon tests were carried out at the Maralinga atomic weapons testing range.
Mr Ashton calls the testing range the “forward area”.
“I became quite conversant with it and what had gone on out there,” he said.
A piece of a rocket used during the testing period found at Maralinga by Mr Ashton. (Supplied: Leon Ashton)
The testing range was a place Ms Ashton seldom visited.
“I don’t really have any words to describe it,” she said.
“When you see the devastation that it caused, just in those experiments, it’s heart wrenching just looking at what it did and how the landscape changed.
“It may grow back, some of the vegetation, but it’s never going to be the same.”
Plenty to do each day
The nearest postcode to Maralinga was deemed to be Port Augusta. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
For some, living at an abandoned former army barracks in South Australia’s outback, more than 1,100km from Adelaide, seems like a daunting idea.
But Mr Ashton revelled in the unique challenges of his day-to-day working life, repairing the site and keeping it in good condition.
The couple called the site’s old hospital building home, something confirmed on Mr Ashton’s driver’s licence at the time.
“The buildings had a lot of debris laying around in them, so I carted trailer loads of rubbish out to the tips,” he said.
“Once every couple of months we had to do some reconnaissance around the forward area.”
This reconnaissance was done to repair signs that had been damaged around the testing range.
During periods of drought, Mr Ashton would provide local camels with drinking water (Supplied: Leon Ashton)
“A camel or something could quite happily lean up against it and knock them over, or the wind could blow the sand dunes away,” Mr Ashton said.
“There was never a dull moment; you had to be self-motivated to work.”
Ms Ashton would often cook for occasional visitors to the site.
Diane Ashton was a caretaker of Maralinga between 2004 and 2010. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
“Sometimes we were catering for a dozen people,” she said. “We’d do roasts and lasagnes and all sorts of fancy chicken meals.”
Who would visit?
When the couple was Maralinga’s caretakers, the site was off-limits to the public.
Anyone who drove along the road between Ceduna and Maralinga eventually came to a large gate, and could go no further without authorisation from the Federal Government.
“Professors and scientists, ARPANSA [Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency], they would come out the Maralinga,” Mr Ashton said.
“They’d do their testing to make sure everything was still in order at the forward area.”
British veterans of the Maralinga testing range would also visit from time to time.
“One of them had to change the data loggers in these printed rolls at a place called Roadside,” Mr Ashton said.
“There was air monitoring equipment in trenches and underground bunkers that they had to change on a regular basis.”
Another frequent visitor was the truck driver who brought the couple their groceries.
Leon and Diane Ashton would often watch the sunset over Maralinga’s red sand dunes. (Supplied: Leon Ashton)
“We became good friends with the driver,” Mr Ashton said.
“Nine times out of 10 he’d camp at our place because he’d arrive there most times in the dark.”
Returning always a possibility
Parts of the couple’s home at Quorn, in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, have been built using pieces of scrap metal from Maralinga.
Souvenirs from Mr Ashton’s time at Maralinga. He would like to return one day. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
As for returning to the isolated testing range, Mr Ashton said it was possible.
“I would definitely go back, in a heartbeat,” he said.