It’s the morning of March 24, 2015, and I’m about to break the single rule of entering a former nuclear test site: Do not eat or drink anything. We’re at a place known as Emu Fields—Ground Zero—in a remote area of the Australian Outback called the Woomera Prohibited Area. As we pass the first of a pair of obelisks that mark Operation Totem, where, in 1953, the British Army tested atomic bombs, I lift my respirator to take a small sip of water. Wayne, my traveling companion, shoots me a concerned look. But it’s too late: I’m already drinking. Gulp.
Nine days earlier, Wayne and I meet for the first time in a hotel lobby in Darwin. He’s flown in from California and I’ve come up from Melbourne, where I live. We’re rendezvousing here, in this swampy city on the northern coast, to start an epic road trip that will lead us into the scarred heart of the country.
Friends via the Internet for several years, Wayne and I began discussing this trip last year. We’re members of the Institute for Atemporal Studies, a modern and peculiar breed of adventurers, part of “some weird 20th century remix of the 19th century epistolary networks of natural historians and explorers,” as another group member describes it. Comic books like Warren Ellis’ Planetary greatly inspire us. We want to blend fiction with reality, to see all the strange places of the world and report back.
As an American, Wayne’s vision of Australia was shaped by watching the Mad Max movies as a boy. As for me, I’ve developed an ever-growing interest in works about “Zones of Alienation” (places where reality begins to break down). Books like Roadside Picnic, written by the Strugatsky brothers, about the aftermath of an extra-terrestrial event. The brothers prophesized places like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and give a name to the people that explore the forbidden lands: Stalkers.
The focus of our trip is just such a journey into a genuine nuclear wasteland. We refer to our coming adventure into the Woomera Prohibited Area as a trip into “the Zone.” We kit ourselves out as if we were a Stalker in Chernobyl: a mix of mostly cosmetic military-surplus gear and some crucial protective equipment. It is fitting that the expedition will be mounted from Coober Pedy, where parts of George Miller’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome were filmed. It’s the perfect place from which to embark on expedition into a real life post-apocalyptic landscape.