All who have travelled or researched the Stuart Highway will know its attractions aren’t spread out evenly. They’re clustered, with long, sparse stretches of asphalt in between. Down south there’s the Flinders Ranges, then 550km later Coober Pedy; 680km from Coober comes Alice Springs; and from Alice, it’s another 1180km to Katherine, broken roughly in half by the Devils Marbles. Beyond Katherine awaits the biggest cluster of all, the Top End.
The Red Centre is defined by hot, dry heat, lapsing into cool nights. The moment you cross the Tropic of Capricorn, coconuts don’t suddenly line the roadside, but the climate rapidly changes to damp, humid heat, the sort that shade is powerless against. One thing’s for sure, wherever you are beyond Alice Springs, you’ll be longing for liquid — to drink, swim in, or sit near. To that end, here’s a few different watering holes to keep you entertained (and hydrated) on your way north.
Just beyond Barrow Creek, there’s a subtle righthand turn-off for the Davenport Ranges, marked once, a few kilometres in advance. Halting our speculations as to the true fate of Peter Falconio, we turned down this southern access road and drove the 169km to the Old Police Station Waterhole campsite. Near the start, the red dirt track is occasionally narrow, has some sandy patches that benefit from third or fourth gear treatment, and requires the passenger to open and close a few gates — predictably there’s cattle wandering the roads too.
After taking a marked turn, the travelling changes to bulldust holes and the occasional snaking creek crossing with a loose, rocky bed. These crossings ought to be dry in the dry season, so driving should be straightforward, if a little slow. That said, those towing an offroad van may consider taking the easier unsealed 161km northern access route via Bonney Well both in and out — although the official documentation recommends against bringing a van either way. The scenery while driving lacks distinct landmarks but is nevertheless sublime, particularly when the setting sun casts colour over the understated red ranges and copses of native trees, and glows in the plumes of bulldust.
On windless evenings on the road in, dust hangs like mist over the landscape, with the silhouetted shapes of termite mounds and feral donkeys poking up, here and there, through its shroud. Pulling up at the $3.30 per adult per night camp in the dark, we could hear the panicked braying of such donkeys on the far side of the long, narrow waterhole — a sort of demonic, haunted eeeeh-ohhh at odds with the tranquil stillness of the place and the gentle chattering of the cockies in the trees.
Rocking up in the afternoon positions you to enjoy the splendour of Old Police Station Waterhole in the morning. This waterhole, a permanent fixture in the impermanent Frew River, reflects the gums lining its opposite bank, and as the sun rises further and a slight breeze stirs, the movement in the water reflects onto trees in white ripples of light, adding to the peace and mystery.
Plenty of bird species rely on the waterhole. During a morning stroll to the old police station ruins — the unkempt relic of a short-lived effort to settle disputes among drovers, the Indigenous population and tungsten miners — we spotted butcherbirds, yellow budgerigars, brolgas, pelicans, corellas, zebra finches, night herons, and a few species we wouldn’t be able to identify without the aid of a bird book.
Other attractions include Whistleduck Creek (which also has campsites) and the Frew River 4WD Loop, which by all accounts is challenging and rocky. The 17km track allegedly takes two hours — from the first few hundred metres it was clear we’d struggle in our Mitsubishi Challenger. The track calls on high clearance and quality light truck tyres, and there’d be an argument for underbody protection too. Spinifex was growing to the height of the bullbar in the centre between the tyre tracks.
Filling up the tank at Alice Springs and then topping up at Barrow Creek should get you through, but fuel is available at cattle station stores at Murray Downs Station, Epenarra and Kurundi should you need it. Just beware that such stores have limited opening hours and trading days, and it isn’t always clear where you pull up, where anyone is, at what building you pay, and whether or not to trust the snarling dog.
Once you’re back on the Stuart Highway, it’s just 10km south to see the Devil’s Marbles.
DALY WATERS AND LARRIMAH
Outback pubs are instantly recognisable by the random minutiae and memorabilia hanging from their walls, ceilings, beams, and uprights — shirts, guernseys, hats and other clothing, ID and business cards, epaulettes and badges, toys plush and plastic, flags and banners, road signs, post-it notes, number plates, polaroid pictures, framed photographs, old posters, foreign bank notes, empty wallets, discarded tools, branded stickers, stubby holders, bull horns, taxidermied animals, and all manner of other knick-knacks. Every bit of wall left over is generally adorned with handwritten sentences or initials or slogans.
Two great bush pubs exist between Alice Springs and Katherine, at Daly Waters and Larrimah. The Daly Waters Pub, a corrugated iron affair draped with blooming bougainvillea on the edge of the town’s only real street, first sprang up to give local drovers and shearers somewhere to spend their paycheque. Now it’s a tourist drawcard, with its most distinctive element being the hanging bras, left over by women who couldn’t drink the amount of beer stipulated in bets. Another 92km down the road resides the Larrimah Pink Panther Pub, with its iconic Pink Panther lounging out the front, plenty of plush pink panthers within, and its zoo — including crocodiles — out the back. Daly Waters Pub changed hands in 2017, Larrimah Pub in 2018 — incidentally after the much-publicised disappearance of local character Paddy Moriarty the year before — but both maintain their unique character.
The wet heat dries out your mouth as quickly as it drenches your forehead, and the few days on the way to these pubs will have the mermaid song of a tall, cold beer crying out like the curlews around camp. To yield or resist? A few beers and the dreamed-of refreshment will have gone up in a puff, transforming your tongue into a shrivelling raisin in its passing. But go on, you’d better have one. Make sure you have a designated driver, and leave behind any hopes of knocking back a pot of the up-and-coming craft beer with melon hints from Brunswick.
ELSEY NATIONAL PARK
After arriving in Mataranka on yet another cloudless arvo, we headed straight for Bitter Springs, falling in step with the patrons from the nearby caravan park, who were walking down from their campsites armed with pool noodles you can buy at service stations and other shops in the town’s main street. Small bits of algae and matter drifting on the surface of the unbelievably blue water hinted at the current, but it’s only when you lower yourself into the 30-odd degree water that you realise its subtle, steady influence.
Between the nomads floating on noodles and the kids on inflatable donuts, we breast-stroked down the curve of the long, narrow pool, underneath hanging pandanus fronds, river reeds and cabbage palms, ducking our heads to avoid the occasional orb spider sitting placidly on its web over the stream. When we reached the bridge on the far end, we hopped out via the installed metal staircase, walked to the start, and enjoyed the lap all over again.
For majority of the pool, the bottom is out of reach, but it’s always narrow so you’re close to a muddy edge, and submerged logs and shallower sections provide a respite for independent swimmers should they need it. If swimming, you’ll inevitably move quicker than people floating on noodles, so prepare to be forced into a few rude overtakes!
To the naked eye, the Bitter Springs pool looks croccy, but rangers actively manage it to reduce the risk to ‘very low’. You’re also quite far inland here, which reduces the risk of saltwater crocs, even in streams that aren’t managed, without eliminating it. Freshies have been detected and removed from Bitter Springs over the years, the most recent occasion we can uncover being in 2017. Still, it’s one of those pools in which we felt safe.
The associated Roper River is a different story. John Hauser Drive runs parallel to it for about 10km, passing by multiple day use areas and minor historical attractions, before arriving at the Jalmurark campground. In the morning, we departed from here on the 4.2km one-way hike to Mataranka Falls, and about a kilometre in, had our first ‘run in’ with a croc — albeit, it was dead. We had been enjoying the soapy smell of the rainforest – which, smells like ‘tropical soap’ — when an astringent scent confronted our nostrils. There the 2m beast lay, on the bank, 10 metres from the path, swarming with flies.
When you reach the falls, the bank is dense with plants, so there’s no open view of the low, river-wide falls, but their sound reaches through the foliage as a reward. This walk is part of the 16km Riverside Walk along the weirdly green Roper River. If you can handle the heat, you’ll enjoy plenty of simple moments observing the shadows of the leafy canopy falling through the clear water and waving on the sand of the riverbed, where they lay next to the blotchy patches of golden light that have broken through. It’s pretty clear there’s barra about. We wished we’d had rods and lures to fling around at the day-use areas.
Mataranka Hot Springs are the best-known feature of the park, and accordingly the most popular. As with Bitter Springs, these have a caravan park located within a few hundred metres of them, which you can decide to stay at for ultimate convenience. It’s a welcome bit of monetisation, putting some cash into these outback communities, in what can still be — quite luckily — a free experience. In what other country could you freely submerge yourself in hot springs like this? We paid over $200AUD each to swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland!
Mataranka Homestead has an entertaining area near the bar with big central firepit, a stage for performers, regular performances in the evening, and all-day meals, making it quite the place for the social nomad. Parked out the front, you can also see the replica homestead of Elsey Station, famously written about by Jeannie Gunn, young bridge of then part-owner, in her novel slash autobiography, We of the Never Never.
Elsey National Park heralds the true beginning of the Top End. From this point north, the days become an endless hamster wheel of tropical attraction after tropical attraction — from waterfalls plummeting off the edge of tablelands, to croc-filled billabongs, to palm trees waving in salty sea breezes. Wheel away!
Alice Springs to Old Police Station Waterhole — 500km; Old Police Station Waterhole to Devils Marbles — 170km; Devils Marbles to Daly Waters — 502km; Daly Waters to Larrimah — 92km; Larrimah to Mataranka — 75km; and Mataranka to Katherine — 107km.
WHEN TO TRAVEL
During the dry season, May–September. Roads to Davenport Ranges and Elsey National Park should not be flooded, the pools at Elsey National Park are at their safest, and the climate is most pleasant — less humid and without wet season storms and rain.
Most highway towns have fuel pumps and the distance in-between is never great. Expect best prices at Tennant Creek and Mataranka. Fill up at Barrow Creek to visit the Davenport Ranges and make it through to Tennant Creek without having to rely on cattle station stores. A big grocery stock-up in Alice Springs should see you through this journey. There’s an IGA in Tennant Creek, generally a good midway point to grab anything you’ve forgotten, but a fire in 2020 has closed this for the time being. Pool noodles are for sale in Mataranka’s main street if you want them for Bitter Springs.
Find the NT Government/Parks and Wildlife fact sheet on Davenport Ranges, take photos of the information signs at the turn-offs, and check road conditions beforehand with the Alekarenge Police Station (08 8964 1959) or at roadreport.nt.gov.au/home.
If you’re interested in staying or want to know more of the backstory of either pub, visit dalywaterspub.com and larrimahwaysideinn.wordpress.com.
Find the NT Government/Parks and Wildlife fact sheet on Elsey National Park for basic facts or stop at the info shelter in the park to figure out your itinerary. Pick up a copy of Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never beforehand so you’re across the region’s pioneering history.
There are three campsites in the Davenport Ranges, at Old Police Station Waterhole, Whistleduck Creek, and partway along Frew River 4WD Track. These camps cost $3.30 per adult per night and $1.65 per child and have basic facilities and no bookings. Back on the Stuart Highway you can camp at the Devils Marbles for the same price. The Davenport Ranges could be an extended daytrip from here if you prefer not to risk the van.
There are caravan parks at Daly Waters Hi-Way Inn (dalywaters-hi-wayinn.webs.com) and at the pub (dalywaterspub.com/stay-here/camping), and also at the Larrimah Pink Panther Hotel (larrimahwaysideinn.wordpress.com).
In Mataranka, you can camp at Mataranka Homestead (matarankahomestead.com.au) for best access to Mataranka Hot Springs, or Territory Manor (territorymanor.com.au) or Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping (bitterspringscabins.com.au) for best access to Bitter Springs. For $6.60 per adult, $3.30 per child, you can also stay at Jalmurark Campground within Elsey National Park.