Mataranka, NT: Destination Guide

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Words and pics: Ben Murphy

You’ll never never find anywhere else like Mataranka.

About Mataranka

One of the things we love most about the Northern Territory is its complete uniqueness and ability to surprise us with something different at every turn – not that you’ll even remember what a turn looks like once you hit the Stuart Highway! The quaint little village of Mataranka and Mataranka Homestead are no exception and provide a welcome break from the long, impressively straight stretches of tarmac through the red-painted landscape of central NT.

The township of Mataranka is located about 420km south-east of Darwin on the Stuart Highway and, with a population of only hundreds, it is but a dot on the map in terms of size. However, this little place has more character than most, offering something very individual as a travel destination.

Things to do

Mataranka Homestead is just a few kilometres off the highway heading east and borders the Elsey National Park. The homestead is part of the former Elsey Station which was established in the late 1800s after the owner Abraham Wallace and his nephew purchased nearly 3000 head of cattle and drove them from Bowen Downs in Queensland, around the Gulf, before settling at Elsey Station.

It was another manager of the station that really put the area on the map, though. After Wallace tragically committed suicide and a string of new owners took management of the station, a couple by the name of Aeneas and Jeannie Gunn took over the station in 1902. Jeannie went on to write about her experiences and the characters she met in her book, We of the Never Never, which formed the plot of the 1980s film by the same name.

Most of the film was actually shot around Mataranka and nearby Pine Creek. A replica of the original homestead was constructed for the film and is still on display at Mataranka Homestead today. Statues of the characters from the film are scattered throughout the town’s park – a lasting tribute of the town’s claim to fame. And, for our kids, a trip to the park was a definite highlight.

The area also has plenty of World War II history to explore and, in fact, it was after the war that the homestead started to take on its new lease on life as a tourist destination. Today, the homestead is a fantastically set up resort offering a range of accommodation from powered van and camping sites, through to fully-contained cabins and backpacker-style dorms. 

It really has that Top End Territory feel, complete with red dirt sites, lined with amazing tropical rainforest foliage, barra-filled rivers and the centrepiece of the entire homestead – the Rainbow Springs Thermal Pools. Mataranka lies in the tropical region of the Territory, which has some of the most contrasting and spectacular landscape scenery you’re ever likely to come across, and this place has it all steamrolled into one little location.

The wildlife here is nothing short of spectacular and you’re greeted at the front gate by peacocks, wallabies and any number of native bird species. The homestead is situated between the Waterhouse and the Little Roper rivers which are both ripe with barramundi and several other freshwater species. If you’re lucky, you’ll even spot a freshwater croc basking in the sun on the banks.

Occasionally, the rivers can be off-limits for swimming, particularly after the wet season, as the more aggressive and troublesome saltwater crocs have been known to wash downstream from time to time. The park’s staff run regular patrols of the area and advise patrons accordingly. The swimming doesn’t get much better than taking a dip in the thermal springs, though, and the constructed pools that fill from the natural thermal springs provide easy access in and out of the warm waters.

If you happen to be there at the right time, like we were, you’ll get to witness the flight of the little red flying fox. The nomadic ‘little reds’ arrive in October and use this small patch of forest as a daytime resting place for their ritual evening feast in the neighbouring forest. Just on dusk, you can watch the impressive sight of up to 200,000 bats taking flight and heading east in search of their favourite food. It really is mind-boggling!

Attractions

Rainbow Springs Thermal Pools

The thermal pool is set in the middle of a small patch of dense rainforest, providing a shady canopy to protect you from the harsh sun. There are a series of scenic boardwalks through the forest that showcase a spectacular display of what makes the Top End so unique. You step straight off the barren red dirt and into a tropical oasis, overflowing with life.

Getting to Mataranka

Mataranka lies 420km south-east of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. The homestead is located 7km east of the township along Homestead Road. It’s a sealed road right up to the homestead and partially sealed into the national park.

Where to stay

Mataranka Homestead has a peaceful, relaxing and isolated feel about it, yet there are enough facilities here to keep you going for an extended stay. There’s a shop that sells basic supplies, fishing gear and souvenirs, a bar and restaurant with meals available seven days a week, and hot showers and laundry facilities. There are around 100 powered sites and plenty of unpowered sites for the self-sufficient. There is a pet-friendly camp area if you’re travelling with your favourite four-legged friend (although it’s best to check with management before you arrive), and in peak season they even have live entertainment in the bar.

There’s also camping available in Elsey NP at the 12 Mile Yards. Suitable for caravans, the campgrounds here have hot showers, toilets and large, grassy unpowered campsites. Bitter Springs provides another great swimming opportunity within the park and there is also a canoe launching point at 12 Mile Yards. The park is open year-round, but access may be restricted in some areas during the November to April wet season.

More accommodation is available at the Mataranka Roadhouse on the Stuart Highway. The roadhouse also stocks an extensive array of supplies to keep you going, including a full grocery store, auto parts and accessories, as well as a dine-in and takeaway restaurant.

For more accommodation options in and around Mataranka, click here.