Woomera Memories

Great to read Lynn Smith’s and Nigel Whitburn’s Woomera Memories (Memories 17 and Memories 4, respectively).  I lived in Woomera from 1960 until 1965.  I would love to hear from anyone who was around or remembers me during that time.

We arrived in Australia from England in 1959 and while we waited for a house to become available in Woomera, my father, Pat,  commuted between Woomera and Adelaide, living in the Senior Mess during the week.  He worked in the Plotting Room at Range ‘E’ on Black Knight, Skylark and defence weapon testing.

After a couple of months we were allocated a house in Kinka Street.  I remember my mother and I were homesick at first.  England seemed far away in those days but we soon adapted. I went to the Area School.  I remember one teacher was Mrs Lovatt Fraser who was South African.  I also remember Mrs Mole who took Shorthand and Typing.  Her son Jamie was about my age.  The school sports day was held at the ‘Pimple’ oval , a nickname for the Newman Oval as there was a small hill there. I keep in touch with a few people but I wonder if anyone knows where Virginia Chambers, Eleanor Trench, Paul Neal, Corinna Nesbitt, Hilary Durgess and Bev Ettridge are now?

My mother worked at Tech Area for Jack Allen and Dick Zehender and later at the Woomera Post Office, so a few people may remember her. After a short spell at a Business College in Adelaide in 1962, I joined the Minitrack tracking station at Island Lagoon as a Teletype Operator.  There were two tracking stations there, operated by the Department of Supply for NASA.  One was the Deep Space Instrumentation Facility or DSIF 41.  The station manager was Bill Mettyear.  My father worked at DSIF 41 (he had left Range E).  It had an 85 foot (26-metre) parabolic dish and tracked spacecraft to the Moon, Mars and Venus before the Moon landings.  The other tracking station, Minitrack, where I worked,  tracked Earth orbiting  satellites.

Two incidents stand out in my memory while working there.  One evening I was returning a tray of dishes to the dining room and, on opening the door, was confronted with a huge brown snake rearing up at me!  The other memory is of sitting at the teletype machine ‘chatting’ to my counterpart at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and seeing the words on the teletype machine that JFK had been shot and later that Lee Harvey Oswald had also been killed.

It was an exciting time.  I was part of a team and we had some good fun in between the serious business of tracking satellites. My job entailed receiving predictions on satellite positions and sending mission status reports and data to NASA.  We were transported there by a Commonwealth bus on day shift and by a Commonwealth car on the other shifts.  You were not allowed anywhere without a security pass.  The terrain at Island Lagoon was amazing; hilly, saltbush and gibber-strewn country with a huge salt lake in which there were little flat topped hillocks.  You could have been forgiven for thinking that not only were you in the space business but you were actually on another planet!  I
remember the sky at night was like a star map, such clarity I have not seen since.

Some names I remember – Glenn Pope, Les Whaley, Bernie Palmer, John Mitchell, Eddie Mitchell, Bill Scholefield.  I wonder if anyone knows where they are now?

Back in the village, time off was spent under the air cooler listening to records or the radio.  We went to the cinema a lot.  There were several different films on every week.  The original cinema had a wooden floor and people used to take bottles of Coke or Cottees fruit drinks and when they were empty would roll them along the floor.  You can imagine the noise!  Kids would gather these up after the show and take them back to the Coffee Lounge and get a few pence for each one.  The Coffee Lounge was the hub of the universe for teenagers.  The juke box was one of those that would be a collector’s item today and we used to put sixpence or a shilling in and listen to the latest hits while drinking milk shakes and cokes.

The house on Kinka Street was made of aluminium, so in the heat of the day it was very hot (without the cooling) but at night it lost its heat rapidly.  We eventually moved to a brick house on Gilghi Street.

We used to look forward to a trip down to Adelaide.  In those days the first 90 miles (145 km) was unsealed and it was a relief to see Big Tent and Little Tent appear and know you would soon hit the bitumen near Port Augusta.  On a return visit in the 80s, I was saddened to see that Island Lagoon was no more but at least the town was much the same as when we left.  Now it seems it is a shadow of its former self with many of the houses and streets gone.  I know the Senior Mess has also long gone and I expect the Jazza and the Staff Mess have gone the same way.  Now there are huge problems at Woomera West at the illegal immigrant camp.  When we were there, if anyone caused trouble they would be shipped out of Woomera on the next plane! What a difference it must be to those balmy nights we spent under the stars at the Open Air Theatre.  I wonder if the golf course is still there and the archery club where we called ourselves the Desert Bowmen?

I am so glad I was in Woomera in its heyday.  It holds a unique place in my memory and to my knowledge there was nowhere else on Earth like it.

Jan Delgado


(19 Feb 2001)

Memories of Woomera

A History of Woomera
Research Missiles
Tracking Stations
Return To Orbit
Gibber Gabber
Woomera Village
Woomera Life
Memories of Woomera

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Copyright © 2001-2006   Mark T. Rigby
(Last updated: 19 February 2006)