The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) – formally known as Woomera Rocket Range – briefly launched Australia into the space race during the Cold War when Britain, and later the United States, sought to capitalise on the vast space and electromagnetic quietness of the South Australian outback.
The Whittleseas recently discovered this rocket, believed to be launched in the 1950s, at a former military rocket testing range in South Australia. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster
The 122,000 square kilometre testing range 500km north of Adelaide turned 75 this year. It’s now a globally significant weapons testing and evaluation site, and home to around 20 pastoral businesses, a thriving resource sector, tourism and a national highway.
The WPA is also home to six Indigenous native title groups which don’t live on Country but visit the land when the range is inactive.
And it’s not the only relic from the past the Whittleseas have discovered. They’ve also turned a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine-bar tourist attraction.
Pastoralist Margie Whittlesea has turned a disused bomb shelter into a wine bar. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster
“The bunkers came in when the Woomera Prohibited Area was opened up to keep pastoralists safe,” Peter’s wife and pastoralist Margie Whittlesea says, pointing to the fairy lights in the cavernous bunker.
While the pastoralists acknowledge this only currently happens a few times a year and the air force base does its best to work around peak farm activity, “it doesn’t always go to plan like that either”.
Margie Whittlesea has turned a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine-bar tourist attraction. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster
With testing predicted to ramp up, land users want the Department of Defence to find a modern-day solution.
I’m just thinking with the Ukraine war there’s going to be countries out here wanting to test lasers and drones.
Margie Whittlesea, Pastoralist
The Department of Defence anticipates testing will increase, “steadily and substantially” over the next decade, according to a 2018 review of the WPA. The federal government is investing $900 million to fire up the facility to meet future demand.
The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) – formally known as Woomera Rocket Range. Source: 2018 Federal Government report titled “Coexistence in the Woomera Prohibited Area”. Source: Supplied
Wing commander Gary Rains – a commanding officer of the Air Force Test Ranges Squadron who oversees the WPA – says it was a significant capability for the Australian Defence Force, allies and partners.
The Department of Defence says the area will become critical for the development, testing and evaluation of new capabilities, particularly high-speed, long-range and non-kinetic weapons, which require increasingly large and secure test facilities.
“Even though we’ve got hundreds of kilometres or range, that can be eaten up very quickly at those speeds, so the answer is we don’t know how fast or how well they’re going to perform,” he says.
A rocket believed to be fired in the 1950s during testing still lies in the South Australian outback. Source: Supplied / Mt Eba Station
“But that’s the purpose of this place to do those tests, to understand those things and make sure we understand hazards so we can eliminate them before they go into general use.
“What it really is, is being a world-class leading range that allows us to do a range of activities in support of the whole of government in a safe, repeatable, and defensible manner, that ensures that we have the minimal impact on the stakeholders.”
Remembering the rockets
“It’s a big ask to lift families off properties for maybe four or five failed attempts in a week,” he says.
Grazier Ryan Rankin at The Twins Station, a cattle property close to Mt Eba, remembers spotting missiles from the roof of this family’s blast shelter. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster
Evacuation involves a five-hour return trip to Coober Pedy for Mr Rankin, his wife and four children. During the drought in 2019, it was particularly tough to drive back and forward to ensure the cattle had water, he says.
“But it’s very difficult to construct something which would guarantee the safety of somebody staying in the range at that time.”
Ryan Rankin wants the Department of Defence to build modern-day bunkers so pastoralists can remain on their properties during testing periods. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster
The Department of Defence is also considering evacuating land users to one of the underground mines in the WPA where there are already deep tunnels underground.