Mataranka and Bitter Springs

Mataranka, where the Roper Highway meets the Stuart, was the biggest place we had seen since Mt Isa nearly two weeks earlier so we saw it as a major town. It is in fact an important supply hub but it only has about 350 inhabitants. Then again, Katherine, at 6500, is the fourth-largest settlement in the NT, so it’s all relative to a very small population base.

As a tourism centre it is famous for its hot springs, where artesian water bubbles to the surface through cracks in the underlying rock. Settlers called them ‘bitter’ springs because of the mineral content but any water is vital in this dry landscape.

Bitter Springs

We camped at Bitter Springs caravan park, just outside the town. The park was pleasantly low-key, with plenty of tall trees and a river running along one side of it, and the hot springs were within very easy walking distance.

swimmers in blue stream
Swimmers in Bitter Springs

The hot springs area comprises a loop track around a stretch of the almost-natural watercourse running through fan-palm bushland, all served by the usual carparks and amenities. Most swimmers jump in at one end with a pool noodle and drift gently downstream, hop out at the other end, walk back up the path and do it again. Access ladders and broad paths make it all very easy, and the water is beautiful – so clear that you can’t judge its depth, warm, and the most gorgeous blue. It’s astonishingly pretty, especially after a day driving through the dry country to reach the town.

Mataranka Thermal Pool

We drove the few kilometres into town and back out to visit the Mataranka Thermal Pool, constructed during WW2 by US forces who damned the stream from one of the springs. It’s now a beautiful and deservedly popular ‘rustic’ artificial pool at the end of an attractive walk through paperbarks and fan palms.

There is plenty to fill a few enjoyable days in the area. A walking trail follows the river downstream for several kilometres, or visitors can simply drive to a camping ground at the end of it.

Both pools, and the walks, are in Elsey National Park. This section of it is served by Mataranka Homestead, a private operation combining resort-style accommodation and a caravan park, just outside the gate to the pool reserve.

We of the Never-never

There’s a colonial home near the resort entrance. The Gunns’ old homestead was recreated for the movie We of the Never-never (1982), based on a classic Australian autobiographical novel (1908), and visitors are invited to look around the replica which by now is gently weathering away. The real Elsey station homestead was about 15 km south of the modern resort.

I tried to read the book fairly recently but failed: its attitudes are problematic, to say the least.

Hidden connections

We were somewhat puzzled to see signs at Bitter Springs identifying the creek as ‘Little Roper River’ but that is indeed what it was. The Roper Highway runs parallel (but not close) to the river all the way from the Bar to Mataranka, and the Bitter Springs are one of the river’s main sources. The Mataranka springs, only about five kilometres away in a straight line, are on Waterhouse River which joins the Roper a few kilometres downstream.

murky river
The infant Roper River

Palm forests around open water in an arid landscape had me thinking ‘oasis’ and I was right. The country here isn’t quite as dry as the Sahara but yes, the classical oasis centres on underground water in exactly the same way.

All of the springs here are outlets of a single underground water supply. They are called the ‘Mataranka Springs Complex’ in this scientific paper. (It’s technical, but very informative if you like that sort of thing. Anyone who does like that sort of thing may also enjoy this overview of the Great Artesian Basin and its mound springs. It is less specific to Mataranka but more readable.)

artesian spring
Rainbow Spring near Mataranka thermal pool

When we left Roper Bar our plan was simply to visit the hot springs before heading down the Stuart Highway to Tennant Creek, then east to Mt Isa and home. At Bitter Springs, however, we decided to continue to Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) about 100 km north since we were already so close to it.

Introduction and index to Limmen (Mataranka, Nitmiluk, etc) blog posts August – October 2023.

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