Hi there,

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Friday, 12 May 2017

Mataranka: Thermal Region

… I’m not exactly sure how any of us managed to get any sleep last night, but what I do know is that in the morning we were all thoroughly in need of a cool off!!

So, packing a few sandwiches, a couple flasks of water, and a bit of cake (purely to keep up our energy, of course) we three lads jumped in the car and drove back to Mataranka. Out destination wasn’t primarily pie related – rather we had our sights firmly set on exploring the hot water springs that flowed through this region.

Returning the 100km to Mataranka, we took the first turn off from the Stuart Highway to a place that was curiously named Bitter Springs. The itinerary, which Nat had left us, didn’t contain specifics as to which of the many lakes and rivers we should check out – so, of course, we turned to our old friend Google to step in to lend a helping hand. “If you want raw nature in all her glory, go to Bitter Springs”, said one website. However, “The best place for a dip is Mataranka Thermal Pools and Rainbow Springs area”, said another (I may be paraphrasing here slightly, but you get the idea). When faced with conflicting information, as is often the case from our web crawling pal, Mr G, I’ve generally found that the best thing to do is to check out both and make up one’s own mind. And that, is exactly what we did….

So, first on the agenda was Bitter Springs. A short drive off the Stuart Highway, we pulled into a desolate car park with only one other car in sight. As we were disembarking, coming towards us, strolling along the trail towards the car park, came a gaggle of scantily clad foreign youngsters – the likes of which would not be out of place on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“How was the water?” we asked conversationally.

“Amazing” came the reply, with a heavy South American accent. “A little, ah, too warm!”

“Fantastic,” I thought… That’s exactly what we need on a hot day (after a long hot night); Oh yes, lovely, hot, sweltering water!

Onwards boys, onwards!

But, undeterred, we wandered down the palm and fern lined track to one of the most gorgeous water holes we had seem on our travels (and, by now, we’ve seen a few!). Actually, this was no mere water hole. No! Rather it was a stream of crystal clear water, that was so pristine that you could see to the bottom (which measured a full arm’s length over my head - and I’m a fairly large bloke at 6’ 2” at last count!). Not even the warnings about fresh water crocs put us off… (For those unaccustomed the such scaly repitles, in Aussie, ‘freshies’ are ok – you can swim with them, ‘salties’ are not ok – they will eat you for dinner!  It pays to learn how to spot the difference…)

Ahhh, pish and tosh, no measly 'freshie' will stop me from dipping my toes in this gorgeous water!

The path of fine gravel that led down to the river soon burst into a clearing the in forest – hidden from car park by a mere 500 meters. The cosy clearing was almost manicured in its appearance. There were even sturdy aluminium stairs leading down into the water.

And, oh, the water. Lilly pads dotted the edge of this gently flowing sapphire river. Yes, there was a slight azure-bluish tinge to the stream, both from the minerals in the waters and from the reflected sky through the dapped light of the trees. Bitter Springs, or so the helpful information sign said, was given this moniker by a man named Steven King (no relation to the author), who was a worker on the overland telegraph line in 1871. The story goes that he had found the taste of the water to be, well, bitter; but despite tasting a few mouthfuls while diving in, I must say I thought the water tasted better than that which usually comes out of our kitchen tap in Hurstbridge. As an aside, John Anderson, who eventually bought these lands renamed Bitter Springs to be ‘Mataranka’, as he worried that the former name would put people off from visiting. Digging a little deeper into this history of this area, it also seems that these waters were an attraction for early settlers as far back as 1902. In her book, ‘We of the Never Never’, Jeannie Gunn described Bitter Springs as:

“A chain of crystal clear pools with emerald-green mossy banks and everywhere
sunflecked, warm, dry shade”

Not a bad description, and it certainly still holds true today.

These pictures, I feel, need no captions….

Ben, as always, was the first to dive in. Unfortunately, we hadn’t bought the boys goggles (actually, being a Kiwi Kid, who had grown up with warnings about the high risk of acquiring meningitis from putting one’s head under water in hot springs – I had purposely left them at home) but from the bank, you could clearly see every rock, fallen branch and boulder under the water without the aid of such ocular devices.

I mean, how clear is that water?

However, as others arrived and dived in head first, I whipped out my phone and performed a quick Google search to find out if the same ‘death-by-hot-water” rules apply in Australia… As it turns out, there hasn’t been a case of such brain swelling badness recorded from immersing one’s head under water in these warm (perhaps ‘slightly hotter than tepid’, would be a better description) spring fed rivers. So, with my fatherly conscience happily assured, the boys were let at it – and under water they went.

When opening your eyes under water in these warn spring-fed rivers, it was just as clear as looking from above. And so, they boys and I spent several hours tootling about this gently flowing waterway.


We’d been there for about an hour, when a bunch of locals turned up carrying what seemed to be a flotilla of pool noodles (link added to assist with translation for those not from the southern hemisphere). They jumped in and, without hesitation, floated down stream. About 15 minutes later, their party emerged from the forest behind us and half of their number proceeded to jump in and float off again. Curious, as always, the boys and I struck up a conversation with one member of their group; a heavily pregnant 20-something lady.

“You should go for a float down-stream,” she said. “It’s awesome”.

After a bit of conversation later, we learned that the stream went for about 500 meters through thick (yet, open to the sky) forest, where it met up with a bridge that marked the jumping out point. There was even a trail back. “Take our noodles,” she said, proffering the noodles she and her partner were carrying. Rubbing her baby belly, she assured me that one trek through the forest was enough for her. With the lucky find of a third noodle emerging from another member of their party, off we went down stream.

Daniel, the ever cautious one, didn’t have a great time over the first 100 meters. In fact, as soon as the first blade of water grass touched his tender toes, the turned about and tried to high tail it back up stream. But the current was too strong for our little tender foot; so, through a mix of gentle coaxing and sheer exhaustion, he let himself be carried further downstream – close by his dad’s side. As soon as the field of water grass disappeared, he actually started to enjoy himself and was nipping around here and there in the eddies and gentle currents of the stream. Ben, on the other hand was away like a rocket. “Slow down!” we called, “take your time, or you’ll miss everything”. And so, like a true noodling pro, he turned on a dime and zigzagged his way back to us.

Looking skywards, from our water-level vantage point, the river was found to be criss-crossed by a thousand (or more) spiders – each having strung their gossamer webs beautifully across the water. There were also fish, dull in colour, but abundant in numbers hiding amongst the reeds all along the edge. Tropical plants of a variety of shapes and forms stretched their roots deeply into the river and had each managed to make a tidy life for themselves here. An abundance of flowers were also in bloom, many dangling – just out of reach – above the water.

Slowly, the current took us down-stream. But all too soon, our ride came to an end. A stainless-steel bridge, emerging out of the watery forest, signalled the end of our journey.  As our new-found Matakana friends had suggested, awaiting us at the other end was a stony path; which meandered its way back through the forest to the clearing where we found our original jumping in point.

The boys dived straight in again, but for me it was time for lunch. Having eventually dragged them out of the water to eat the slightly wilted sandwiches that I’d slapped together a few hours earlier, we got chatting to a couple of other families that had since arrived. Both families agreed that their kids loved Bitter Springs; but the parents each preferred Mataranka Thermal Pool. The boys made friends with the off-spring of these families and spent the next hour playing with them in the main pool of Bitter Springs, giving names to all the cracks, ledges and crevasses that this bend of the river had to offer.

Bitter Springs: Northern Territory 

Soon, one by one, these families left. So, the boys and I decided it was time to check out the other river in this hot water region. Hopping back into the car, we followed a trail of other families back to Mataranka Thermal Pool.

There was a road house and camp site here – but it didn’t look anywhere as appealing as our own Shady Lanes stopover (great sleuthing work Nat! – where ever you are…).

Wandering down the forested track to Mataranka Thermal Pool, we saw more of the shady palms and tropical trees we had now become accustomed to (isn’t it amazing how quickly one becomes used to things one had never seen until a few hours before?). The track eventually opened onto a man-made lagoon, amidst a heavily forested area, just waiting for us to take a dip. It’s also amazing how quickly one heats up in the tropical north. In fact, no sooner had we left Bitter Springs than we were waiting for our next dip in the waters of Mataranka.

Mataranka Thermal Pool: Sure, it was lovely – but it was no Bitter Springs

As you can probably see from the photos, Mataranka Thermal Pool certainly had had a bit more tinkering with it than Bitter Springs. In fact, if it wasn’t for a turtle merrily going about its business at the upper end of the river, it would be easy to mistake this for just another caravan site. If we were to return to Mataranka, the boys and I would certainly back Bitter Springs over Mataranka Thermal Pool. But saying that, we did spend the rest of the afternoon there. And quite happily too!

Several hours passed in this sumptuous river, before we decided it was time to wander home for the night. Having showered and feeling content, we filled our bellies and headed to bed.

And you know what? Having had so much fun at the two hot water springs… we even forgot to buy more of the award-winning pies in our favourite service station, part grocery store, part hardware store, and part bakery...

Oh well, maybe next time we’re in the area, we’ll drop in to see what’s on the menu!

Bye ‘d bye,