West to the land of the Never Never

From Roper Bar we drove west towards the town of Mataranka and surrounding Elsey National Park.   Elsey National Park was formerly part of Elsey Station, the area featured in the classic Australian novel “We of the Never Never” by Jeannie Gunn where she describes the year in her life where she accompanied her husband in 1902 to manage a cattle station in what was then a very remote part of the country.   I have just started reading the book, but from the preface it seems that the term “Never Never” refers to the fact that people who pass through either find it harsh and dangerous and never never want to return, or they see its beauty and never never want to leave.    It seems Mrs Gunn fell into the latter category despite the fact that her husband died of malarial dysentery a year after arriving whereafter she ended up returning to Melbourne.

Our first night was in the national park camping area about 15km east of the town of Mataranka situated on the banks of the upper Roper River.    Having arrived at dusk, we set off on an 8km return walk the next morning along the river bank to the Mataranka Falls – a wide cascade over a tufa platform.

mataranka falls
Mataranka Falls
cotton tree at Elsey NP
Along the way we noticed what appears to be cotton growing along part of the river bank.    I see it is listed as a weed in the National Parks plan of management document, but there is no description of how it got there – I guess there was once an attempt to grow cotton in the area. 

After the walk, the first job was to change the tyre that we had noticed was going down the day before.   After removing the wheel it was easy to spot a guilty roofing bolt.   After taking photographic evidence it was quickly removed, and the tyre repaired with one of those magical gooey inserts.    It’s looks ugly, but quite effective.     Amazingly, the day before this happened we were just discussing how we had managed over 6 months of travel on some pretty rough roads without any tyre damage.    There are a few other little mishaps that we have so far manage to avoid, but I won’t mention them for fear of jinxing ourselves again.

Before moving on, I noticed that our folding boat was looking rather sad and covered with dust after many weeks crossing the desert without enough water to buzz around.   Since there was a boat ramp at the campsite and about 4km of flat river between rapids, I took the opportunity to get the dust off it and go and explore the area from the water.    There was a sign at the boat ramp saying that there may be saltwater crocodiles present and recommending against the use of small boats like kayaks, but the Guppy is certainly bigger and noisier than a kayak.  Also, there were not going to be any undetected 5 metre boat eating salties this far up the river and if there was one, the authorities would probably close the nearby Mataranka thermal pools until it was caught.  However Maddy decided that she would prefer to get some dust off the caravan while I got the dust off the boat.

 Some scenes from the upper Roper River – it was lovely idling along the river banks under the pandanus looking for birds and animals.

I did see one very small freshwater crocodile jump off a log into the water, but it got camera shy and dived down straight away.  However I did see a few birds and monitor lizards along the banks

After packing up the boat, we headed for a relaxing dip in the Mataranka thermal pools.  We were now back in familiar territory having visited this area about 7 years ago, but we were certainly not going to let the opportunity go by to test the waters again.

mataranka thermal pool
The pools at Mataranka have been civilised by the creation of concrete banks and steps that are kept free of weed and algal growth, so while not purely natural they are still beautiful with a sandy bottom and canopy of shady palm trees.     

Interestingly, the hot springs around Mataranka, Katherine and the Daly River are fed by the same aquifer that feeds Lawn Hill Gorge that we visited right at the start of our journey (see Arrived at Lawn Hill).  Basically its a layer of limestone on top of impervious basalt, so all the water that falls over central Northern Territory in the wet season makes its way to these two areas.

aquifer map

After the swim at the Mataranka Pool, we headed to the less known, but in our opinion far better Bitter Springs – only a few km away where we camped for two nights for a spell of R&R.    Bitter Springs are far larger than the Mataranka pool and apart from the access path and 3 sets of access steps, they have been left in their natural state.   Apparently some people don’t like this because it makes it look “crocky”, but in our opinion, these springs are far more beautiful.    It is an amazing experience to drift down the creek in 33 to 34 degree water that is absolutely crystal clear as you pass by the river banks.

bitter springs pool 3
Access steps at Bitter Springs
bitter springs pool 2
You can drift down the river for about 200m.   It’s about 2 to 3m deep and varies between 5 and 1m in width.

bitter springs pool

bitter springs at dawn
Mist rising from the warm water in the early morning. 
maddy at bitter springs
Stunning beauty
turtle at bitter springs
While fish don’t survive in these waters due to lack of oxygen in the water that has just emerged from the earth, air breathing turtles thrive.
bitter springs under water
Algal growth on the bottom and weed mats on the sides and surface make a spectacular waterscape
bitter springs under and surface
Algae, water plants, their reflection on the water surface with paperbark trees above.
shining flycatcher
To cap things off, several shining flycatchers (a new bird for the list) were darting around.  The female photographed above enjoying breakfast is arguably more striking with black white and brown colouring, while the male appears to be totally black.  However up close, it is a beautiful iridescent blue.  On one occasion I floated past one merely 2m away but sadly the underwater camera was nowhere near up to the task photographing birds

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