Driving through the outback was not what I thought it would be. I expected vast stretches of nothing: flat land, red dust, and few cars.
What we got was a versatile landscape that is full of life; hills that rise out of the scrub, trees and bushes that change in height with each kilometer you travel. After six warm days and cool nights in Alice Springs, I had one thing on my mind: chasing the warm.
We were so close, but not quite there. My obsessive monitoring of the weather promised me that by the time we hit Mataranka, we’d be shedding layers with no looking back.
Our first night out of Alice Springs was 375 km north, in Wauchope. Just before arriving we stopped in Wycliffe Well, Australia’s self-proclaimed UFO capital, for fuel.
I was pleased to note that it was too hot for the full-length leggings I had on, and stripped down to one layer on top instead of the standard four. The aliens were already appropriately dressed for the weather.
I didn’t see any UFOs but I did notice a mini-freezer full of kangaroo tails for sale.
We set up camp in Wauchope and drove up the road to see Karlu Karlu, commonly known as the Devil’s Marbles. These giant granite boulders do look like an abandoned game of marbles, and they can be seen on either side of the highway.
Daly Waters Pub
The next morning we packed our tent in record time. When I closed the campground gate behind us, it was an astonishing 7:30am. We are never on the road that early, and it led to the decision to push on to Daly Waters, 540km up the road.
It’s a classic outback pub, stuffed with memorabilia left behind from previous travelers. Bras dangle from the ceiling along with t-shirts, flags, patches, and, somewhat worryingly, old ID cards. Basically if you need a new identity you know where to go (and we never had this conversation).
The pub must make all of its money in the dry season, when it is packed with grey nomads every night. They have two regular live music acts: a country singer and a rock-and-roller. Most people order the ‘beef & barra,’ a platter of…you guessed it, beef and barramundi, along with homemade damper and a generous salad bar.
I didn’t want the whole platter but I did want to try some of the famous wild-caught Daly River barramundi so I got a barra burger for half the price. YUM.
Fran’s Devonshire Teas in Larrimah
On the home stretch to Mataranka we drove through Larrimah.
Hand-scrawled signs for Fran’s Devonshire Teas lined the road as we approached, advertising a range of goodies that included camel burgers, meat pies, lamingtons, and morning tea. Fran’s place is set up for outdoor dining, in a garden populated by gnomes, stuffed animals, and more signs than you’ve ever seen.
We rang the bell. I could hear her on the phone inside, ordering 10 bags of buttermilk scone mix.
“What would you like?” she asked. “I’ll do you morning tea and coffee. It’s good coffee.”
As we waited I noticed a sign with a lengthy description of her policy. It basically said that if you don’t like her prices, you could get stuffed; she was 72 years old and had been selling cakes for 44 years, 30 of them in Larrimah, so she must be doing something right.
The sign reminded me so much of my Grandma, whose name had also been Fran. I didn’t care what it cost, the nostalgia was strong and I was glad we had stopped.
Not-my-Grandma-Fran re-appeared with a paper plate of half-frozen cakes covered with a napkin and a red Solo cup full of steaming coffee that may or may not have been instant.
“Now that’s 11 dollars for the morning tea and six dollars for the coffee. Make sure you pick the cup up from the top, darl, or you’ll burn yourself.”
I headed back to the car with a plate of cold (but tasty) cakes and a plastic cup of coffee, suspecting we’d just been fleeced. Grandma Fran would have loved it. Unless she was the customer, then she would have raised hell.
Bitter Springs Caravan Park
We stayed at the Bitter Springs Caravan Park just outside of Mataranka, and our spot was heaven: large, with plenty of leafy shade, a ten minute walk from the hot springs.
We’d been advised to rent noodles by nearly everyone we’d met, so we did. It was a good tip, as floating in the 34 degree (Celsius!) water was made easier with the help of a noodle, though it wasn’t as buoyant as I remembered noodles being as a kid. Still, I was wearing a swimsuit and I wasn’t cold. It was pretty damn good.
Of course I was paranoid about crocs the whole time, thanks to the conflicting signage at the beginning of the trail: one sign saying that crocs ‘could’ inhabit the area, another saying that it was safe to swim. We didn’t see any crocs, but apparently they could have been there.
There wasn’t much else to do and we stayed for two nights, so we floated down the springs several times. At one point we met a chatty Aussie kid of about 8 who decided to test his material on us.
“So I’ve got a joke,” he said.
“All right,” we responded, our expectations low but hopeful.
“You know how they give cyclones names? Like, Cyclone Tracy or Debbie?”
I was losing hope in his punchline at this point but remained engaged.
“Well, why don’t they call them something scary? They should give them scary names, like…”
He paused for dramatic effect as we floated, clinging to our noodles.
“Like CYCLONE TRUMP!”
I absolutely lost my shit. That kid will probably never know how perfect his audience was.
- The distance from Alice Springs to Mataranka/Bitter Springs is 1,077km.
- The drive took us three days.
- There is no charge to visit Devil’s Marbles or Bitter Springs.
- If you want the Beef & Barra at Daly Waters, book in advance when you arrive.
- Daly Waters Pub has a happy hour from 5-6, where you can get $4 middies of beer.
- Noodle rental from the Bitter Springs Caravan Park was A$1: there’s a A$5 deposit for each noodle and you get back A$4.
- When in the Northern Territory, always be crocwise.