History of the Woomera Prohibited Area

Following the advances in military technology of World War II, Australia and the United Kingdom formed the Anglo-Australia Joint Project in 1946. The centrepiece of the project was the establishment of a long-range weapons testing facility at Woomera. The area was declared a Prohibited Area in 1947 and the first military trial took place in December 1947.

From 1957, Woomera became a global focal point for space activity, including being chosen as the launch point for the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). At the height of its space activity, Woomera had the second highest number of rocket launches in the world after NASA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

At its largest point, the Woomera Prohibited Area encompassed 270,000 square kilometres, more than twice its current size. The WPA today encompasses an area of 122,000 square kilometres in South Australia, about 450 kilometres north-west of Adelaide. At approximately the size of England, it remains the largest land-based test range in the Western world. While the end of the Cold War marked a dip in Defence use of the WPA, its importance for test and evaluation has steadily increased since the late 1990s.

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) encompasses the traditional lands of six Aboriginal groups. Maralinga Tjarutja (MT) and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara (APY) hold almost 30 per cent of the land in the west of the WPA as freehold title granted under South Australian legislation. Four other groups – Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara (AMY), Arabana, Gawler Ranges and Kokatha – hold native title over areas in the WPA.

The history of these people and their deep ties to the land in the WPA date back over many thousands of years. The WPA contains sites of enduring significance to Aboriginal people, including stone arrangements associated with traditional ceremony and ritual, rock art sites, ceremonial sites, cultural sites manifested in topographical features such as watercourses, and archaeological sites that show how people lived in and used their environment.

Aboriginal people continue their traditions by accessing the WPA for traditional ceremonies, hunting, heritage site protection, and cultural activities. A number of Aboriginal groups have been actively involved in commercial activity in and around the WPA, including in the resources and tourism sectors. Today, the traditional custodians of the WPA mostly live in cities, small towns and settlements around South Australia. They continue to have strong links to their land, an interest in preserving their history and culture in the WPA, and growing an economic and employment base for their communities.

Pastoralists and Defence have coexisted in the WPA since it was declared a prohibited area in 1947. While some pastoral leases are owner-occupied, the majority of businesses employ managers on their behalf. Many leases are small to medium-size family-run operations or Aboriginal Corporations. Others are held by larger pastoral businesses or are owned by mining companies. One is managed as a nature reserve.

Mineral and petroleum exploration in the WPA and its surrounds has a long history. In 1901, mineral exploration commenced at Lake Phillipson in the centre of the WPA and, in 1905, petroleum exploration was undertaken in the same area.

The WPA contains economic deposits of copper, gold, iron, uranium, silver, titanium, and zirconium. Other resources which are known or expected to occur include nickel, zinc, lead, coal, petroleum and critical minerals – platinum group elements, rare earth elements, potash and chromium – but the size and economics have yet to be demonstrated.