Overnight stays: Mataranka Homestead Tourist Resort, Mataranka (2 nights); Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk) Campsite, Nitmiluk National Park (2 nights)
In most parts of the world there are four distinct seasons every year (and weirdly, Australia seems to start them at different times to the rest of the world; but whatever). In the Top End, there is only two seasons: Wet and Dry. We had kind of laughed that off before visiting, thinking perhaps that Territorians just didn’t like counting to four, or it was too hot all the time to even care.
We arrived in earlyish May which is technically the Dry Season, but sometimes forms part of the Wet. This is important because life in this part of the world revolves entirely around these two seasons. And thankfully it was dry, meaning we would be able to experience most attractions, largely closed for half of the year due to flooding, crocs, and access.
Mataranka & Bitter Springs
First stop in the Top was the strangely located springs of Mataranka and Bitter; providing spa-like pools in one of the hottest parts of the country.
Springing to a decision
Caravanners have the luxury of detaching their van, setting up, and using their car at leisure for day trips. Motorhomers don’t have such luxuries, as once we’re setup, we’re rarely moving until our next destination. For this reason, we are very fussy about the location of where we stay; ensuring it’s either in town, at the attraction, and/or within walking/riding distance.
After tooing and froing for way too long, we eventually decided to stay at Mataranka Homestead, bang on Mataranka Springs. It had a great vibe about it, and our mate from Tamworth Country Music Week, Whippy Griggs was performing there, so we couldn’t say no.
Mataranka Springs‘ water is nothing short of perfection. Although the outside temp is over 30’C, the similarly tempered water is as refreshing as the fact that the two clowns who lead America and North Korea haven’t yet blown the world to pieces.
The pool is beautifully shaded among perfectly tall palms, and the water is as crystal as I’ve swam in, clearer than trying to understand the history of Israel and Palestine.
Hot Springs and Grey Nomads have a strange connection. The magnetism between them is almost sickening, with Nomads chasing them like a pimply drunk teenage boy at a party looking for a mate.
As they bobbed on their noodles and shared stories about their travels and the supposed health benefits of artesian baths etc, we couldn’t help but join the conversation and share in their wisdom. Regardless of age, race, gender, there’s always travel stories to bring people together; something everyone on the Top End trail has in common.
Mataranka Homestead shot straight to the top of the list as one of the best parks to stay on the trip. The sites are big, the mix of people is awesome, it has a great vibe, you can have campfires, and they have entertainment and happy hour every night of the week. Not just entertainment, but the best whip-cracker since Cracky McCrackenson, Whippy Griggs. The man knows how to entertain, and he calls Mataranka Homestead home when he’s not traveling the country breaking hearts and Guinness World Records (he currently holds three).
Best of all, he doesn’t charge the venue or guests, but simply asks people to donate whatever hard-earned they’re willing to part with at the end of the show. Doing business that way is a win for the venue (they don’t pay, and people come and buy drinks and meals), a win for guests (it gives them all-but free entertainment), and a win for Whippy as he can pocket the donations and tell the taxman whatever he wants; mullet genius.
A whipped wombat
It was during Whippy’s impressive show that Liv seemed to grow up ten years and crush on him more than the Swans did with the Saints recently. She seemed weak in the knees and was blushing more than Loz when I beep the horn in the WomBatmobile in public places to let her know where we are. She kindly informed us throughout and after the show that he definitely “eats all his vegetables because he is very strong”, while smiling with her heart appearing to skip several beats.
Our couple of nights at Mataranka were delicious, and it was nice to settle for a couple of nights, after the long days of The Red Centre.
While Mataranka Springs are a shallowish calm, warm pool to chill out, Bitter Springs offers a totally different relaxing experience. Instead of sitting on the ledge and chewing the fat with the geriatrics, you float amongst them, from one end of the spring, downstream through the much deeper and more diverse and interesting waters to the bottom end. Once you reach the end you get out, race back to the start and do it all over again; and again.
The water is just as warm and clear, and with monster Golden Orb spiders seemingly centimetres above your head, it couldn’t feel any more similar yet different to Mataranka.
Both springs became instant swimming hole favourites, and places I’m certain we’ll return to when we’re grey, to tell travel tales and share stories of the magical healing powers beneath us.
With our recent amazement at Lawn Hill National Park in Outback Queensland, and a series of Facebook comments suggesting “if you think this is good, wait for Katherine Gorge”, it’s fair to say our expectations were higher than Liv’s heart rate at any mention of Whippy.
Waking up with Katherine
We didn’t hesitate to book a sunrise cruise, knowing that there’s something special about being first on the water, and seeing the rock colours evolve and sort themselves out as the sun wakes.
As we cruised up the beautiful brown river, surrounded by an endless array of bohemith cliffs, in parts painted by inhabitants thousands of years ago, we couldn’t help but make direct comparisons to Lawn Hill. And sadly for Katherine Gorge, it just didn’t hold a candle to the diversity and richness of colour its smaller Queensland neighbour offers.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice place, and if we hadn’t been to Lawn Hill I’d be singing endless praises of Katherine Gorge. But if you had to pick between the two, I know where I’d go, again and again.
For the afternoon we hiked up the gorge for a ripping sunset and a couple of beers, which is fast becoming habit as we migrate west.