ELSEY National Park in the Northern Territory supports all types of native birds and animal life in a vast wilderness and, even more unlikely, has buffalo and camels roaming around.
It’s also home to Mataranka, which in the local Yangmanic language means “home of the snake”.
With a population of about 400, it was first gazetted as a town in 1928 after the arrival of the North Australia Railway. The narrow-gauge line closed in 1976 after being damaged by a cyclone – by then the new railway passed about 20km west.
Mataranka played a role in World War II as the Australian Army set up a hospital nearby, and the 10th Australian Advanced Ordnance workshops camped here in paperbark buildings. There was also an ammunition depot.
It is the closest town to Elsey NP and is located on the sealed Stuart Highway about 101km from Katherine.
There are two seasons – dry (May to October) and wet (November to April).
May to September is the most comfortable time to visit as temperatures in mid-summer can exceed 50C.
We arrived in mid-August and already the days were hot. At 4pm, close to “happy hour”, it was still 39C, although it did cool down later in the evening.
In the centre of Mataranka township is a well-maintained, lush green park for travellers to rest. Beware of the sprinklers and park well away from bore water spray which leaves a residue on paint work.
You can top up with supplies here if necessary, as there are two petrol stations, grocery store, hotel, dump point behind the park and other amenities including a police station and school. There are two caravan parks on the outskirts or stay at Elsey National Park an easy 17km south-east.
The national park, named for the old Elsey Station which was made famous in Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s 1908 book We of the Never Never, offers excellent swimming but only at Bitter Springs and Mataranka Thermal Pools. Swimming and canoeing are no longer permitted in the Roper and Waterhouse rivers, home of saltwater crocodiles. It is permitted to fish from the bank (with care) and by boat (max. 15hp). Barra is the preferred catch.
In the bar area of the Mataranka thermal pools complex, a sign showcases the fish of the day catch and records. During our visit the sign advised that “Whippy” had caught a 120cm barra in March 2020 which was the standing record – what a whopper!
Size and possession limits apply. The Department of Primary Industries and Resources website has details. Fishing with nets, traps and spears is also prohibited.
Excellent boat ramps are located at 4 Mile and 12 Mile Yards within the NP.
The campground – Jalmurark – is excellent, with showers, fireplaces, and picnic tables and barbecues in the day visit areas. Sites are spacious with shade and sun to accommodate all types of camping up to large vans.
National Park fees apply and are by self-registration, so there are no concerns about having to pay online, which is just as well as mobile reception is limited. (Reception was excellent a few kilometres up the road.) There are no powered sites and generators are not permitted.
The campground is an excellent base for driving to see the sights of Bitter Springs, Elsey Homestead and cemetery, and Mataranka hot springs. All are well sign posted and highlight pastoral and local history, including the old station sheep dip and Aboriginal Army Camp.
A riverside walking trail begins at the thermal pools and continues 16km through the park to Mataranka Falls, or choose different access points to the river and scenic picnic spots from John Hauser Drive, which leads into the NP and campground.
Be safe and observe the signs not to swim or paddle, even though the crystal clear water, rock pools and sandy beaches look inviting. The salties are lurking.
Hat, sunscreen, enclosed shoes, and water bottles are necessary as parts are sandy and unshaded. Some of the landmarks and picnic spots along this trail are Stevie’s Hole, Botanic Walk, and Korowan (Mataranka Falls).
Mataranka Thermal Pools has a privately-owned caravan park and cabins. Entry is free via a path through the resort. Beside the carpark is a replica of Elsey Homestead which was moved to this location after filming on We of the Never Never. A cairn and plaque are the only sign of the original homestead and outbuildings.
You can wander through the cemetery a short drive from the original site and find the clearly marked headstone of Aeneas Gunn’s last resting place.
The thermal pool and Bitter Springs are spring-fed, clear aqua pools surrounded by cabbage palm forests, weeping paperbarks and pandanus.
Bitter Springs is a beautiful creek where you can float peacefully in the warm current past ancient foliage to an exit point. Return along a concrete path and do it all over again.
This is truly a marvellous place for a traveller to stay and rest a while. As Mrs Gunn’s book says, a land of “wait a while”.