SPRING IN TO THE NEVER NEVER
Warm thermal springs, tame barramundi, and a quirky outback pub can all be found in the historic Never Never country
WORDS BY KARYN FANOUS, PHOTOGRAPHY BY KARYN AND JOSEPH FANOUS
In 1908, Jeannie Gunn wrote that the Never Never is so called “because they who have lived in it and loved it, Never Never voluntarily leave it.” In her iconic Australian novel “We of the Never Never”, about pioneering life on remote Elsey Station, Jeannie described the captivating Roper River as “gleaming through a graceful fringe of palms and rushes and scented shrubs, touched here and there with shafts of sunlight and murmuring and rustling with an attendant host of gorgeous butterflies and flitting birds and insects.” This describes exactly our experience of the Never Never.
Mataranka, a small town around 400km south of Darwin on the Roper River’s upper reaches, is known as “The Capital of the Never Never”. It is the gateway to Elsey National Park which protects the famed Mataranka Thermal Pool and Rainbow Spring, Bitter Springs, sections of Little Roper River, Waterhouse River, and Roper River, as well as the world’s largest stand of Livistona Rigida Palms.
The spring water comes from a huge subterranean limestone formation that soaks up the wet season rains. Water is heated underground and then rises to the surface at a consistent 34°Celsius. The springs provide a permanent source of water, which is very significant in an area that experiences long dry seasons.
MATARANKA THERMAL POOL
During World War II, Rainbow Spring was dammed by soldiers based at Mataranka, creating the Thermal Pool. With concrete sides, steps and ladders, it is quite like a swimming pool, but has a sandy bottom and is surrounded by palm forest and pandani. Its stunning turquoise colour is due to dissolved limestone particles. We found plenty of swimmers enjoying the alluring, warm spring water and soaking away hours of outback travel.
A short 500m walking circuit allows you to explore the surrounding forest filled with towering Livistonas and cabbage palms and home to colonies of the Little Red Flying Fox. The track takes you down to the Waterhouse River where you can see turtles, fish and fresh water crocodiles. The return track loops around via Rainbow Spring, the source of the water, flowing at 16,000 litres per minute!
Mataranka Homestead is located right next to Mataranka Thermal Pool. Originally an experimental sheep station in 1912, it later became a cattle station and is now the centrepiece of the Mataranka Homestead Tourist Resort. The movie “We of the Never Never” was filmed here. Check out the buffet table in the restaurant – it’s the old buggy used in the film. The daily screening of the movie at the resort is a real treat for visitors.
The original Elsey Homestead, once part of the remote Elsey Station in the midst of Never Never country, was home to Aeneas and Jeannie Gunn in the early 1900s. It was described by Jeannie as “our airy, fairy dwelling”. An authentic replica was made with hand cut cypress pine for the “We of The Never Never” movie in 1981 and now stands out in front of Mataranka Homestead. We felt as though we had stepped back to the early 1900s as we viewed the historical furnishings and information. Back then, life was obviously hard and comforts very basic!
The graves of many of the characters from “We of the Never Never” can be found at Old Elsey Cemetery, 21km south of Mataranka. Here rests Aeneas Gunn, Jeannie’s husband and manager of Elsey Station. The site of the original homestead is 500m behind the cemetery, beside Elsey Creek.
BITTER (KORRAN) SPRINGS
You’ll find this gorgeous spring (despite its unflattering title) in the north-west of Elsey National Park. It was given its name because of the bitter taste of its mineral-rich water.
According to the Yangman and Mangarayi culture, the springs were created when a Red-tailed Black Cockatoo jumped into the water and was pulled out by another cockatoo, making holes for the water to come out.
The springs are aptly described in “We of the Never Never” as “a chain of clear, crystal pools…that gleam azure-blue… shaded with graceful foliage and gleaming in the sunlight with exquisite opal tints.” They were our favourite springs because of their relatively untouched, natural beauty.
On the Little Roper River, Bitter Springs is filled with deep turquoise, crystal clear water and lined with River Pandani, Livistona Palms, Cabbage Palms and Paperbarks. Stairs and ladders make access easy. A short walking circuit meanders through tropical woodlands around the spring with interpretive signage along the way explaining the vegetation and formation of the spring. Toilets, picnic tables and barbecues are available.
We eagerly climbed down into the springs and floated down the stream with the gentle current, enjoying the serenity and lush scenery as we passed by. We had been advised to take snorkelling masks and were thrilled to see turtles and fish along the way. Before long we came to a bridge, climbed up a ladder and walked back along the pretty bush path back to the beginning, ready to do it all again and again!
BACK IN TOWN
The Never Never Museum makes for a fascinating visit. Here you can absorb yourself in local Aboriginal, pioneering and World War II history. To access the museum, you’ll need to collect the keys from the Rural Transaction Centre in the main street during business hours.
A unique feature in town is the Talking Termite Mound, a large man-made structure, where you can hear tales from many of the “We of the Never Never” characters.
On display in the Stockyard Gallery and Café are local Aboriginal artworks, sculptures and artefacts. The café’s shady garden is a beaut spot to re-charge before having your photograph taken beside the four-metre high statue of Henry Peckham, the postman from “We of the Never Never”.
We stayed at the Mataranka Territory Manor Motel & Caravan Park. The spacious and shady park-like grounds include a beautiful lily-covered billabong, and are home to a range of local wildlife. Wallabies, birds, creamy gekkos and green frogs abound. The in-ground pool and spa make it easy to cool off on a hot day.
We enjoyed a lovely meal at the caravan park’s covered outdoor licensed restaurant. The menu features home-style cooking, stone oven pizzas, barramundi and scrumptious desserts. Breakfast and lunch are also available.
A real highlight of our stay was the Barramundi Fish Feeding Show at 9.30am and 1 pm daily at the billabong in the caravan park. We learnt all about these amazing fish and then watched the barramundis being hand-fed. A very tame barramundi stayed surprisingly still as it was picked up and held aloft for us all to see. After it was gently put back in the water, the barramundi waited for a pat and another piece of pilchard before swimming off! Amazing!
During our stay, the local Sunday markets were in the grounds of the caravan park. We enjoyed wandering around the stalls and purchased delicious homemade brownies, scones and jam made from the wild rosella flower. We also bought seed necklaces made in Arnhemland, just to the east of Mataranka.
Also in the area, and relatively nearby at 170km south, is the outback town of Daly Waters. Interestingly, the first international airfield in Australia was located here. The international aerodrome was closed in 1965, but the original Qantas hangar, containing interesting memorabilia, can still be visited.
We pulled in at the historic Daly Waters Pub, established in 1930 and sign-posted as “The Reel Outback of Oztralia”. This quintessential, quirky outback pub “in the middle of somewhere”, has won numerous awards. The entrance is decorated with a striking, bright pink bougainvillea. Many more than ten green bottles adorn a wall outside, while quirky objects hang from the walls and beams inside – bras, shirts, underwear, and even money! Lunch offerings include wild caught barramundi burgers, wraps and bites, and at night, in the outdoor beer garden, you can enjoy the entertainment while you sample the Beef and Barra Barbeque.
Across the road, you can’t miss the similarly quirky “Daly Waters Soovynears” shop. This ramshackle building is literally covered in Pidgin English signs and oddities. One sign that particularly caught our eye advertised wooden handicrafts to purchase and take home – “WoodThingsTaTakOm”. There’s even an old helicopter on the roof!
Exploring this part of our country is certainly a unique experience. It is one that you are sure to never, never forget!