We’ve made it! We’re officially at the Top End, the Northern Territory. We’ll CU in the NT as the unofficial tourism board says up here. That should tell you all you need to know about the local sense of humour.
There’s still many miles to go and much to explore before we reach Darwin, the official end of Australia’s iconic outback road trip – the Stuart Highway, Adelaide to Darwin. But so far, we’re having a great time at the top.
On our way around this pretty amazing country we’re met many local people who give very good advice on where to explore on our travels. One absolute gem that wasn’t on our radar at all is a beautiful little place called Bitter Springs.
When we told one guy we were going to Katherine, he said to make sure we stop at Mataranka for the hot springs. A few days later we were chatting with some more friendly Aussies about our plans to go to Mataranka and they said “Oh don’t go to Mataranka, that’s too busy and pretty much a swimming pool these days… if you want to experience some real hot springs, go to Bitter Springs”. So we did.
Bitter Springs is a few km to the east of Mataranka, which is a tiny town an hour south of Katherine on the Stuart Highway. Mataranka is best known for it’s natural hot springs, but what we love most about it is definitely the homemade beef pies at the petrol station – if you’re there, get them.
We stayed at the Bitter Springs Caravan Park, which is only a 400m walk from the hot springs. It’s up there with my favourite places to stay in Aus. Each of the unpowered sites (the cheapo ones where you don’t hook up to electricity) are surrounded by tropical palm trees and lush vegetation, creating a little oasis where you feel like you’re actually in the jungle, with the odd kangaroo hopping by… but with the bonus of 4G phone signal and a nice toilet block a 2 minute walk away.
We rented our foam pool noodles from the campground reception and, noodles in hand, tramped off into the swamps to find the hot springs. The first thing we found was a big sign warning us that crocodiles are found in the waterways so be careful to only swim in designated areas. I don’t know how the crocodiles know which the designated swimming areas are…
We followed the path and came up to the hot springs. All I can say is that you must go there. If you’re up this end of the world and have a free afternoon, please visit. They’re natural, they’re completely free and they’re wonderful.
Have you ever floated down a lazy river in a water park? Bitter Springs is just like that, but in a tropical swamp surrounded by palm trees. A current of 32 degrees C water flows in at one end of a deep crystal clear pool and then the channel narrows into a river, twisting through the trees to a set of steps that have been constructed to get you out before you float off into the swamp. It takes about 20 minutes to float from one end to the other, then you hop out and walk back to the beginning (takes 2 minutes) and do it again.
The first time we went down, we were searching for crocodiles… expecting any minute to feel something nibbling our toes. The second time we were more worried about the MASSIVE spiders lurking in their giant webs above our heads. They were horrifying and they were everywhere.
We’ve done some amazing things on our trip so far, but I’ve got to say that the afternoon we spent at Bitter Springs has been one of the most unexpected, just relaxing and enjoyable. Even the spiders couldn’t stop us from spending a whole afternoon there.
After Bitter Springs, we carried on with our original plan of going to Katherine (with a quick stop in Mararanka for another pie).
Katherine is high on list for most tourists visiting the Top End because of one pretty spectacular feature in Nitmiluk National Park – Katherine Gorge. The gorge system is made out of sandstone over one thousand million years old. That’s pretty old. You can’t even find fossils in the rock there because it was created before life even existed.
Over time, the sandstone has been pushed up and fractured into a grid like formation, and the cracks between the outcroppings fill up with rainwater in the wet season and flow from one gorge to another, through 13 in total. This is Katherine Gorge.
We wanted to hire canoes to explore the gorge system but canoeing isn’t available until well into the dry season because the rangers have to spend the first month turfing out all the big saltwater crocs that make their way in with the flood waters and like to eat tourists. From June onwards you can canoe and swim in the gorge but we were a month too early.
Instead, we took the 2 Gorge river cruise with a local aboriginal guide who told us the dreamtime story of how the gorge was created and showed us some of the area’s rock paintings ranging from 150 to 8,000 years old. He told us the history of the traditional landowners who created these paintings – the Jawoyn people. They lived pretty peacefully in the area, using the gorge for food and water for thousands of years, fishing the waters and hunting kangaroos and crocs for meat.
Then the settlers came along and wanted the surrounding land for cattle grazing and the water to keep their cattle alive. Aboriginal people traditionally held no concept of ownership in terms of animals… they didn’t understand that killing and eating the cows was stealing. This didn’t go down well. Fighting and dead ensued. Long story short… after many years, the land was finally given back to the traditional keepers, hurray.
Floating down the gorge with the massive sandstone cliff faces rising up to either side was incredible – especially while listening to the stories of the land and the people. It wasn’t cheap – $95 per person for the two hour trip, but it’s worth it.