In terms of the big attractions of the Northern Territory, Bitter Springs doesn’t really rank. It’s overshadowed by it’s more well known cousin: the Thermal Pools of Mataranka. Bitter Springs, sometimes called the Thermal Spring of Mataranka, is a steam that branches off a naturally warm spring. The water is a pleasant 34 degrees, and surprisingly refreshing even on a balmy Territory day.
We stopped at Bitter Springs for the night on the first day of a three-day road trip to show Dean’s cousin and her boyfriend around the sights of the Top End. I like to camp the night at Bitter Springs because the spring is best in the afternoon and morning, instead of in the middle of the day. It does take some getting used to. The water isn’t just bitter in name, and the smell can surprise some people. Adjusting to it happens pretty quickly, as does adjusting to sharing the waterway with more than a few large clumps of algae, as well as the occasional fresh-water turtle.
At first glance, Bitter Springs doesn’t even look like the kind of place you would happily swim in. While the water is crystal clear and a stunning blue colour, the stream is fringed on all sides by palms, reeds, and sheets of algae. Along the edges, the thick vegetation make it seem dark and a little scary, as if something might be lurking unseen. But when we put on our goggles for a peek under the waterline, what we’re presented with is an alien blue landscape of fallen trees and leaves, slimy roots and logs. It mightn’t sound it, but it’s visually stunning.
We swim at Bitter Springs all afternoon in the end, eventually emerging from the warm water to an evening that seems much cooler after our long natural bath. The next morning at sunrise we’re down there again, capturing the sunlight on a pool yet undisturbed by people. While we don’t swim in the end, we do spend time dipping our feet into the gentle warmth of the pools as the sun rises. Maybe it’s better that this place stay off the radar.
Tips For Visiting Bitter Springs, Mataranka
- Swimming: Bitter Springs is a flowing river, and reasonably deep, so you will find there is a current there. Many swimmers choose to swim wearing their shoes, and with a floatation device like an inner tube or a pool noodle, as the current takes you down to exit points along the stream. From there you can walk back. While you can walk back barefoot, it is a little uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to swim against the current.
- Staying: We stayed at a private campsite just up the road from Bitter Springs as we wanted access to a camp kitchen and bathrooms. The place we stayed is called Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping, and it’s about 500m or so from the springs. There are also places to stay close by within Elsey National Park, so check that out as another option.