REMOTE FREE CAMPING HOTSPOT
Hot springs, brilliant riverside camps, and a brilliant lost city – the Gulf rivals any big trip destination in the country
WORDS BY TIM FERRIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID WOLTSCHENKO
Sit around the campfire with good friends and family for long enough, and naturally talk will lead to this year’s big trip. We can already hear the bucket list destinations getting thrown about – Cape York, the Kimberley, Flinders Ranges, the Nullarbor – sounds pretty familiar, right? While these are all world-class RV hotspots in their own right, we’re going to show you why the Gulf of Carpentaria is arguably number one for remote free camping lovers.
The starting point of this sensational tour is at Mataranka, one of the true bucket list regions of the north. Why is it so popular? For starters it’s either the last main hub before heading east along the Gulf track, or the first stop after an epic adventure heading west from Roper Bar, so naturally it gets plenty of traffic. It has a good roadhouse, and a couple of caravan parks, but the real reason people love it are the sensational hot springs.
Mataranka has two hot springs to choose from; the main Mataranka Springs which are closer to town, and has been turned more into a concrete pool. These springs are sensational, and if they were anywhere else, you’d be blown away by how refreshing this experience is. However, just a short drive away is the amazing Bitter Springs, arguably the best hot springs in Australia.
The best place to stay in Mataranka is Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping. This lovely, grassy caravan park is just a short walk from the springs, and has all the modern facilities needed for a comfortable stay. It gets quite popular from May through to July, so we recommend you plan your stay and book in advance.
Guests at this caravan park get a pool noodle from the kiosk, and can either take the leisurely five minute walk to Bitter Springs, or drive down and park their tow rig in the area provided. Bitter Springs is an incredible warm water oasis in the middle of Australia’s most arid country. The water is the brightest of blue, and the man-made steps make it easy for anyone to slip into the warm water. Whether it does or not, spending time in the wonderful Bitter Springs feels like it’s doing you good!
From Mataranka east, you’re off the bitumen and onto dirt, so ensure you’re van and tow vehicle are well prepared for the trip, and grab any last minute spares and supplies before you make the 180km venture to Roper Bar.
Your first stop heading east is Roper Bar. The track across here is one of the easier stretches of dirt on the trip – we averaged about 60-70km/hr here. Tyre pressures should be dropped to about 26psi to save your tyre tread on the sharp stones, and help you float along the corrugations. There are a couple of cracker campsites around Roper Bar, the closest to the bar, water crossing and roadhouse is Leichhardt’s Caravan Park. It has good facilities, it’s well-priced, and is just a stone’s throw from one of Australia’s most famous barra fishing hotspots – the mighty Roper River.
Time your trip here with the new moon in September, and you’ll experience a phenomenon you usually only find on David Attenborough. Every year a huge mullet spawn occurs right at the Roper Bar Crossing, bringing with it dozens of crocs, barra and more – what a sight!
We caught up with some avid fisherman here, who head north every year to catch barramundi. The inside word is the local cherabin (freshwater prawn) is the gun bait to use, and to catch them the experts use Sunlight Soap – yep, you heard right! Throw a bar of this into a trap, and you’ll be in business.
LORELLA OR BUST
While Roper Bar is a destination in its own right, the real hotspots of the Gulf are further east. First up is Butterfly Springs. After a decent wet season, you’ll bare witness to a huge amount of water cascading down prehistoric rock-faces into what can only be described as an oasis of a swimming hole below. It’s the perfect spot to wash that red dust out of your ears. Be warned though, it’s tough to leave!
Just another half an hour down the Gulf Track is the Southern Lost City. You’ll see these ancient tower like rock formations on the drive in, and you won’t believe just how gigantic this ‘city’ is until you park your caravan right next to it. Spend at least a couple of hours walking around these huge sandstone pillars, or better yet pull up right below them at the campsite overnight.
Lorella Springs is your next stop, and if you thought the Gulf Track was bumpy, wait till you point the bull bar north along Lorella’s ‘driveway’. It’s about 30km of rough, rocky corrugations with washouts, dry creek crossings, and the odd bit of wildlife just for good measure. Take your time along here, you’ll average only about 20-30km/hr, but it’s worth the patience!
Most caravanners make camp near the homestead, enjoying the hot springs and a few coldies at the bar, then unhitch their tow vehicle to explore the station further. If you’re heading to Lorella Springs, we recommend you throw in a touring tent and camping gear, so you can make your way northeast towards Rosie’s Camp and out to the coast for a remote camping adventure.
Unfortunately the lack of rain over the last few years has resulted in a number of Lorella attractions losing their spark, but here’s hoping a big wet this year will once again bring life back into this brilliant northern paradise. Be sure to check out Blue Lagoon, The Arch and its cave system, and Wuraliwuntya Creek, otherwise known as the ‘secret fishing spot’, or ask Rhett and the boys to tell you some secret hotspots over a few at the bar.
THE GULF’S BEST CAMPSITE
It’s hard to believe Lorella Springs is just a stepping stone on this Top End adventure. This place has so much to offer the traveller! With that in mind, we moved east towards our next beaut campsite – King Ash Bay. They call it the caravan capital of the north, but what they don’t tell you is just how much riverside camping is on offer here, away from the crowds.
Before you head up, grab your supplies at Borroloola – one of the bigger towns up here. They’ve got plenty of fresh food, good drinking water, and TJS One Stop Shop is one of the best remote mechanic and repairers in the north.
King Ash Bay started off as, and still technically is, a fishing club campground. Over the years, more and more travellers make their way along the 30km of dirt to get there – the open riverside camping, and barra fishing are just too good to miss! It gets pretty busy here in April to June, but come September, it’s quiet, the fishing is still good and the sunsets are jaw-dropping.
Campfire blazing, good company, and a couple of refreshments as the sun hits the horizon – you just don’t get a better campsite than King Ash Bay. A little bit further up is a cheaper camping option, called Batten Point – it offers just as good a view, and is a little less crowded.
There’s no doubt about it – The run from Mataranka to King Ash Bay is an epic destination in its own right, and this is only a small snippet of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Croc spotting, riverside campsites, and prehistoric rock formations all joined together by 1,000km of red dirt track – if there’s a better way to spend a few months, I’d like to hear it!