longexposure February 5th, 2013
A fragment of a dream from a past age stands crumbling in the remote South Australian desert. It’s a dead and baked plain now, with a few skeletal monoliths in concrete, but for a while there were people here, running Australia’s first uranium mine, in a town called Radium Hill.
This was one of those places that first seems ridiculously implausible to contemplate visiting, and yet crystalises into a potentially achievable goal. At the last moment, we scrapped our plans to head north into the tropics, and plotted a course south-west across the continent instead. Fleeing a city gearing up for Christmas festivities, we drove into darkness and storms, and finally found the desert landscape I’d never properly seen on this continent. In the next nine days, we’d do seven thousand kilometres, though our initial destination was a little less than two thousand kilometres from home.
Atomic science pioneers Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford were among those who received material from Radium Hill, which saw a few abortive attempts at sustaining mines in the bleak desert. Even the incredible value of materials like radium and uranium weren’t quite sufficient to keep things going longer term. Until the conclusion second world war, that is, when the world entered the age of atomic weapons, and uranium became tremendously important.
A heat wave tore across Australia as we passed through Broken Hill, crossed the border into South Australia, and hauled ourselves along the featureless highway through the desert. GPS tracking and maps meant that even at one in the morning, we somehow found the old road off the Barrier Highway that we were looking for. It was a rutted and disused thing, and we walked it a little first. And we found a railway line.
A new line, elevated somewhat on a gravel bed, cutting the old road completely. Beyond the line, the road was barely discernible, an overgrown dirt and rock path covered in scrub. With gullies and ruts crossing the landscape, there’s just no way to get a vehicle there anymore. Hiking seemed briefly the only option, but a fifty kilometre hike through remote desert with temperatures in the mid-forties is what tourists do to die in Australia.
When we set out to find Radium Hill, it was for the novelty of finding the ruins of the mine. What I didn’t expect was that the town itself, half a century after being demolished along with the mine, would be the subject of such sentiment as became evident. Historical records make it very clear that there’s almost nothing physical left of either the mine or the town, but there are people who remember the way it once was, and we were to encounter some of them.
Back in Broken Hill, where phones and internet worked, we began calling people. Maybe there just wasn’t a way out there anymore, since the train line went through? It was hard to tell when anyone had last been to Radium Hill. Eventually, we figured the thing to do was visit homesteads in the area, and ask for help.
“You have family out there?” was a striking question that drove home that people here still hold close ties to the old town. Not so much the mine, which seemed a minor footnote, but the town itself, thirteen hundred people strong in its heyday, with sporting teams, a swimming pool (this is the central Australian desert!) and a community bonded over the harshness of desert existence and the dangers of mine work.
So, eventually, thanks to locals, we saw the old concrete headframe and ore bins of the Radium Hill mine loom large on the flat expanse of desert. The drive in was slow and careful; while nearby residents knew we were out there, and were waiting for word that we’d come back safely, we weren’t about to risk being stranded. Forty litres of water in the back was a mild comfort, at least.
And, so, we arrived. A bleak, parched landscape, with literally no shade beyond the tiny patch under the headframe, over the now-concreted main shaft, where kangaroos took shelter before bounding away at our arrival. So little remained to show that a town had once stood here – a few roads in varying states of disrepair, the town’s reservoir, the remains of the pool.
The day passed slowly while we hid under the headframe and waited for nightfall and stars, to take the shots we’d planned. Gusts of wind were like an oven. Flocks of wild emu ran past the radioactive waste dumps, and we drank litre after litre of water, willing the sun to dip lower in the sky.
Before the day finally ended, though, we took a final trip to the outskirts of town, down a road of soft red dirt, to the Radium Hill cemetery. In the final rays of the sunset, I saw not the decrepit pioneer grave site I expected, but a tended yard. An active cemetery. Fresh memorial stones from within a year or two mark the resting places of people born in the twenties.
It’s a long time since anyone lived here, and as time goes by fewer people still will remember there was once life and community in this patch of desert that once harboured some desirable ores. It’s getting harder to even reach what little remains of the town, and one day it won’t be accessible at all.
But, there are still people, half a century on, who consider this place their home, and whose last wish is to return when they die. With that poignant thought, we watched the desert stars twinkle into existence, and left Radium Hill behind us in the warm desert night.