Australian farmers who care for sheep and avoid rockets

The discovery of a huge rocket embedded in a sheep pen only slightly surprised Pastor Peter Whittlesea.
“We just didn’t expect to find something this big, in the middle of nowhere,” he says after recently buying a half-million hectare sheep station on the largest field in the world. Land Weapons Testing of the Western World.

The Woomera Forbidden Area (WPA) – formerly known as the Woomera Rocket Range – briefly launched Australia into the space race during the Cold War when Britain, and later the United States, sought to capitalize on the vast space and electromagnetic tranquility of the South Australian hinterland. .

The Whittleseas recently discovered this rocket, believed to have been launched in the 1950s, at a former military firing range in South Australia. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

The 122,000 square kilometer test area 500km north of Adelaide turned 75 this year. It is now a globally significant weapons testing and evaluation site, and home to some 20 pastoral enterprises, a thriving resource sector, tourism and a national highway.

The WPA is also home to six Native American title groups who do not live on the land but visit the land when the range is idle.


“The rockets exploded in the 1950s, so it must be over 70 years ago,” says Mr Whittlesea.
“It’s probably between 20 and 30 feet in the ground.”

And that’s not the only relic of the past that the Whittleseas have discovered. They also turned a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine bar tourist attraction.

Woman standing in front of a disused air raid shelter.

Rancher Margie Whittlesea has turned a disused air-raid shelter into a wine bar. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

“The bunkers arrived when the forbidden zone of Woomera was opened to keep pastors safe,” says Margie Whittlesea, Peter’s wife and pastor, pointing to the string lights in the cavernous bunker.

These days those living in the line of fire are required to evacuate when the range is active, an inconvenient reality when you have 23,000 sheep to care for.
“If we have to be evacuated for three or four days and we have water problems, our stock will go without water,” says Ms Whittlesea.
“Our property is just too big not to be here in the summer. That’s crucial for us.

Although ranchers acknowledge that this currently only happens a few times a year and that the air base is doing its best to circumvent the peak of agricultural activity, “it doesn’t always happen that way either.”

Woman standing above a disused air raid shelter.

Margie Whittlesea has transformed a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine bar tourist attraction. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

With testing set to intensify, land users want the MoD to come up with a modern solution.

“I just think with the war in Ukraine, there will be countries here that want to test lasers and drones for pinpoint accuracy,” Ms Whittlesea says.

I just think that with the war in Ukraine, there will be countries here that want to test lasers and drones.

Margie Whittlesea, Pastoral

“They just have to do it. There is nowhere else in the world as big and vast as what we have here.

The Department of Defense expects testing to increase “steadily and significantly” over the next decade, according to a 2018 WPA review. The federal government is investing $900 million to light up the facility to meet future demand.

Map showing the prohibited area of ​​Woomera.

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) – officially known as the Woomera Rocket Range. Source: 2018 Federal Government Report titled “Coexistence in the Woomera Prohibited Zone”. Source: Provided

Wing Commander Gary Rains – an Air Force Proving Ranges Squadron commander who oversees the WPA – said it was an important capability for the Defense Force Australians, their allies and their partners..

This range is really limited by the technology associated with it,” he said.
So what could we see tested at Woomera?

The Department of Defense said the area will become critical for the development, testing and evaluation of new capabilities, particularly high-velocity, long-range and non-kinetic weapons, which require more test facilities. bigger and safer.


Missiles with a speed of up to 10,000 km/h have already been successfully tested on the firing range.
Mr Rains discusses recent developments in Russia, where a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile was recently tested over a distance of 1,000 km.
Hypersonic weapons can travel at nine times the speed of sound.

“Even if we have hundreds of miles or range, it 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 work,” he says.

Aerial view of a decommissioned rocket.

A rocket believed to have been fired in the 1950s during tests still sits in the South Australian outback. Source: Provided / Mount Eba Station

“But it is the purpose of this place to do these tests, to understand these things and to make sure that we understand the dangers so that we can eliminate them before they become widespread.

“What it’s really about is being a world-class leading range that allows us to conduct a range of activities in support of the whole of government in a safe, repeatable and defensible, which ensures that we have minimal impact on stakeholders.”

Remember rockets

As a child, rancher Ryan Rankin of The Twins Station, a ranching property near Mount Eba, remembers spotting missiles from the roof of that family’s blast shelter.
The rockets now pile up like disused garden pots in the family’s yard and in a rear enclosure are the remains of an abandoned British tracking station.
Mr Rankin wants the Ministry of Defense to build modern bunkers so that pastoralists can stay on their properties during testing periods.

“It’s a big ask to get families out of properties for maybe four or five failed attempts in a week,” he says.

Farmer standing outside cattle station property.

Grazier Ryan Rankin at The Twins Station, a cattle property near Mount Eba, recalls spotting missiles from the roof of that family’s blast shelter. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

The evacuation involves a five-hour round trip to Coober Pedy for Mr Rankin, his wife and four children. During the 2019 drought, it was particularly difficult to walk back and forth to ensure livestock had water, he says.

He pioneered the idea of ​​underground bunkers on the property.
“We need something about these properties, especially in the line they are pulling them. We need something that we can get to, say, five o’clock this afternoon.
Mr Rains says the farm bunkers were an option under consideration.
“Being able to stay on their properties during a test obviously minimizes the disruption to their lives and livelihoods. So that’s something we’re definitely going to delve into. »

“But it’s very difficult to build something that would guarantee the safety of someone remaining in the range at that time.”

A man and a woman inspect a makeshift air-raid shelter.

Ryan Rankin wants the Department of Defense to build modern bunkers so pastors can stay on their properties during testing times. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

The MoD is also planning to evacuate land users to one of the WPA’s underground mines where there are already deep underground tunnels.

But Mr Rankin says that would still involve travel and time off the land.
“I don’t envy the work,” he says.
“There are people who mow in different months of the year. There are cattle and sheep, everyone runs at different times.
“If it’s going to go forward, we need something that’s going to work for us.”
SBS News has contacted the department for comment.
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