Eager to get his hands on a few deadly missiles, David Whitley pays a visit to a secretive military town in the South Australian desert

I thought my primary school had a pretty cool setting – the playground was surrounded by corn fields, and we often got to see a tractor. But the primary school in Woomera wins hands down – it has a park full of intercontinental ballistic missiles outside. There are a fair few bizarre places in the Australian Outback, but Woomera takes some beating on this front. Approximately 300 miles north-east of Adelaide, Woomera has an eerie Truman Show-like feel about it as you drive through. The houses are prim and neat and the streets are kept spotless, but there seems to be no-one there.

Then you see the rockets, missile launchers and anti-aircraft guns, and it starts getting rather sinister.This open air display of military hardware is all about showcasing Woomera’s somewhat shady heritage. The town (read: military base) was set up in 1947, when the British and Australian governments decided they needed somewhere to blow things up. The British government was deeply concerned when Nazi Germany began the era of missile warfare in 1944, launching unpiloted bombs on British cities from sites in the Netherlands. The UK needed such rocket technology, and the Aussies were only too happy to hand over a vast swathe of land in the South Australian outback. Never mind the sheep farmers and Aboriginal communities out there – the allies needed somewhere to test out weapons of mass destruction.

And so Woomera became the service town that no-one was supposed to know about – its existence was only officially confirmed in the 1980s. Nowadays, the Visitor Centre at Woomera also doubles as a local history museum. The displays take you through the thousands of huge explosions that have taken place in the Woomera Prohibited Area over the decades, and touch on the more acceptable history as a space monitoring centre and launch site. Some parts of the story are beautifully absurd. Special planes were designed and constructed at huge cost just so the researchers had something realistic to blow up with their rockets. Oh yes, and there is also a fully functional bowling alley in the middle of the Visitor Centre – almost certainly the most isolated of its kind in the world.

What is perhaps more interesting is what the museum doesn’t tell you. The word ‘nuclear’, for example, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s almost as if they’d prefer you to believe that the rockets they were firing into the desert landscape were full of chrysanthemums and cute pictures of puppies. Also glossed over are the current goings-on in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Joint space research projects with Japan are gleefully trumpeted, private research is alluded to and the status as an active Defence Department playground is quietly brushed under the carpet.

Tell-tale signs are there for the eagle-eyed, however. Staff at the Visitor Centre wear shirts adorned with the logo of BAE Systems, an arms manufacturer with a – cough – controversial track record. And then there are the signs around the Stuart Highway, which firmly remind you that you are travelling through the Restricted Area. The road itself is a public free for all, but you can’t wander more than a few metres off it without laying yourself open to some serious trouble. And that’s both in terms of friendly interrogation from military types and the distinct possibility of walking over something that can make your legs look like the remnants of a kebab thrown on the floor after a Saturday night drinking binge.




By David Whitley