Mataranka - Land of the Never Never

Mataranka Thermal Pool

As mentioned in the previous section, the deep pools of Lawn Hill Gorge are fed by water percolating into the Barkley Tableland and flowing eastward through the limestone to emerge from springs into the creek system that feed the gorge. Far to the west, over 1200 km by car, a similar phenomenon has created a series of thermal pools on the western end of the tableland.

The most famous of these thermal pools is Mataranka, made famous by the biographical book "We of the Never Never", describing life in the outback at the end of the 19th century.

Here, Rainbow Spring pours water out from the limestone bedrock at a rate of 450,000 litres per hour, from where it flows into a long well engineered pond in the midst of a forest of Livistonia palms before flowing out into the Roper River. Tourists have been coming here since the 1940s to soak in the warm crystal clear water of the pool.


Campsite at Mataranka Homestead

As such we felt we had to visit the pool. It took two days of driving to get there from Lawn Hill, including a brief stop at the Northern Territory border to show our covid entry permits and a nice overnight at Barkley Homestead. Once arrived at Mataranka Homestead, we found a pleasant spot to set up our tent, with shade and garrulous apostle birds for company. However, Mataranka has become a victim of its own fame and the large camping ground was full of grey nomads in their vans and camper-trailers. The pool is not large enough to cater for such crowds, though we quickly discovered that, by wandering down for a morning soak in the turquoise waters just after sunrise or for a nocturnal soak after sunset, we could avoid most of the crowds.

Rainbow Spring at Mataranka

Path beneath the cabbage palms to the pool

Early morning swim at Mataranka thermal pool

More recently, a second thermal pond has been opened at nearby Bitter Spring. We would check that out, but first a walk to Mataranka Falls on the Roper River was in order - that would be away from Grey Nomad Central.

Mataranka Falls Walk (9 km - 20m ascent - 20m descent)

You can only spend so much time soaking in a thermal pool and our bodies were calling out for a bit of exercise. So, despite the 30 plus heat, we decided to do a short walk to see Mataranka Falls (or Korowan as the aboriginal people call it), deeper into Elsey National Park, on the Roper River. Now the Roper is a major river in Northern Australia, so I was curious to see what these falls might look like.

We set out mid-morning from 12-mile Stockyard, a remnant of the old Elsey Station property. The well marked track quickly led us through a section of shady bushland along the southern bank of the Roper River.

Starting out across the river flats

A side-creek flowing into ...

..... the Roper River

Crossing one babbling side stream with a very small waterfall and another trickling stream with no waterfall, we found ourselves trudging along a deep dusty-sand track, with glimpses of the pandanus-lined river on our left.

an impressive termite mound

For a while the track deviated inland through more open grassy country, dotted with the columnar mounds of termites, some over 2m in height.

Then it was back to the river to pass by some picturesque clay cliffs. The route continued on in a similar fashion - inland for a bit and then back to the river's edge. This time the sound of rushing water told us we were approaching the falls.

Clay cliffs on the bank of the Roper

Crossing a patch of savannah woodland

View down the Roper River

We soon reached a small cliff of jagged tufa beneath a grove of cabbage palms, where beneath the overhanging branches we discovered the secret of Mataranka Falls - only one metre in height, but stretching across the width of the river. Like Lawn Hill Creek before, turbulence had led to deposition of limestone from calcium-rich spring-fed waters, which over time formed a tufa barrage. At several spots the water flowed through in a series of mini-falls.

Cabbage palms and monsoon forest

The tufa falls of Korowan (Mataranka Falls)

Limestone cliff near the falls

It was getting very hot now, but a swim was out of the question - not just because the river is difficult to access here, but because the Roper River is home to saltwater crocodiles, which fairly regularly eat unwary swimmers and fishermen in the far north. There was only one choice to be made - make a bee-line back to the car and head back to Mataranka Homestead for one more dip in the thermal pools. Hopefully, we could spend a bit more time soaking in them, especially after a warm bit of exercise.

Bitter Springs Creek

Bitter Springs lies just to the north-east of Mataranka village and is in a much more natural setting than the thermal pool. Here the springs pours out over a million litres of crystal clear water per hour, and this flows down a creek set in monsoon forest. The attraction here is to float along and let the current sweep you down the creek for a few hundred metres. Alternatively, upstream from the main entry point is a large waterhole, where you can quietly soak in the clear turquoise water.

Unfortunately for those who like their thermal pool soaks on the tranquil side, Bitter Springs has been discovered and the carpark was full, with lots of people in the pool and creek. We still enjoyed our soak in the pool and drift down the creek and you can't begrudge other people the same activity, but sometimes I fear for the fate of natural beauty spots that have yet to be "discovered".

Fast flowing Bitter Springs Creek
(normally full of people but temporarily closed for a film shoot)


The crystal clear water of Bitter Springs swimming hole