Monday, June 24, 2013

Northern Territory travels - Mataranka, Tennant Creek, and campervan fun

Darwin was just the start of our Northern Territory travels. After three nights in the N.T. capital we were off and away in our camper van!

We actually had the van for the entirety of the trip, despite not sleeping in it the whole time. It was easier (and cheaper) to hire a camper van for 2 weeks than to mess around with a hire car some of the time and a van the rest. In fact, it was the same price to hire a camper van for 2 weeks, with the one way surcharge from Darwin to Cairns, as it would have been to hire a car.

We had the smallest model offered by Britz, the Hi-Top. It sleeps two, or three at a squeeze if you use the upper level pull out bed. The main bed is formed by laying flat the seats in the main section of the van, using  some slats and the table as the base, and when set up takes up most of the space in the van. The table is stowed away for travel and only mounted when needed, but it is easy to put up and down. There is a small fridge (which runs off its own battery, charged by the car when driving, or on mains power when plugged in at a camp site), a microwave (mains power only), sink, and gas stove top. It is full of hidden storage compartments. It uses a lot of fuel (!) but does the 130km / hour Northern Territory speed limit with no trouble, and once you get used to driving up high and at the very front of the vehicle, it's quite fun to drive.

Camper van interior

Britz actually offered to upgrade us to a larger camper van with toilet and shower, not to mention such luxuries as a TV and a bed that was separate to your dining area! However, we declined the upgrade, as driving and parking such a vehicle would have been tough. I'm glad we did; the smaller size was perfect for our needs and meant we could get away with driving it in the Darwin and Cairns city centres. I don't think I'd want to sleep in a camper van for weeks on end - the packing everything up each morning would get draining - but for our short trip it was fun.

Before leaving Darwin, we stocked up on food with the view to self-catering at least three of our four 'outback' nights, as well as breakfasts and most lunches and snacks. I wasn't sure how much fresh food we'd find and didn't want to risk road house catering. Poor Mr Bite had to endure a rather lengthy supermarket visit on our last Darwin afternoon, but I think he agreed with me at the end of the trip that the stocking up was worthwhile.

What does one buy when setting off in a camper van? I can't speak for others, but our shopping looked like this:
  • Fresh fruit - apples, mandarins, bananas
  • Fresh vegetables - bagged washed spinach leaves, bagged washed and grated carrot/beetroot/brocolli stem mix, and two large potatoes
  • Fruit bread, jam and apple juice for Mr Bite's breakfast
  • Cereal, almond milk and coffee for my breakfast
  • A 6-pack of rolls
  • Dinner option 1: Microwavable veggie burgers, and cheese slices (for Mr B)
  • Dinner option 2: Potato fillings, in the form of butter beans for me and tuna (to go with cheese) for Mr Bite
  • Dinner option 3: Indian-style Pujab Eggplant and Bombay Potatoes courtesy of 'Tasty Bite' (also reviewed as useful for camping by Mel of Veganise This), plus microwavable rice - pictured below
  • Dinner option 4 (back up): Soup
  • Baked beans
  • Individual stewed fruit tubs
  • Crackers
  • Digestive biscuits
  • Muesli bars
  • Rum and raisin dark chocolate
  • Tea
  • Water - lots and lots of water (I didn't trust the availability of clean water)
  • Tissues, Wet Wipes, soap and mosquito spray

On our first day, we left Darwin to drive via Katherine to Mataranka, which is a tiny town that borders the Elsey National Park. I was interested to see Katherine, known as one of the larger outback towns in the N.T., but we found it rather lacking in spirit. As with Darwin, I was also saddened to see Indigenous Australians on the streets and pavements and in parks, but not noticeably engaged in activities, work, shopping, or interactions with non-Indigenous Australians. I struggled with this issue across our trip. I am aware I'm imposing my ideas of what is 'good' or 'worthwhile' onto a different culture, and they may not want to be working or shopping or interacting with non-Indigenous people. However, the people I saw did not generally look happy, and the division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous did not seem ideal for either side. I don't have a solution, and that clearly is the problem - no one seems to - but I was very much left with the sense that a solution was needed.

Katherine main street - I was struggling to find things to photograph,
so signs to Tennant Creek and Alice Springs were it.

The real attraction of Katherine is, of course, the Katherine Gorge at Nitmiluk National Park. We didn't have time to incorporate this in any meaningful way, and as most of the National Park is closed to cars, we skipped over it to keep most of our afternoon free for Mataranka. This first day of travel was relatively short, at just 5 hours driving time, which meant we had time to explore the thermal springs that make Mataranka and Elsey National Park an attractive destination.

Mataranka thermal springs

The thermal springs were everything the name would suggest: warm, tranquil, relaxing, and safe from crocodiles or other worrisome water creatures. Swimming in the middle of a forest in 30'C water is something I highly recommend!

Our camp site at Mataranka, the Mataranka Territory Manor Motel and Caravan Park, was also well equipped and could even have provided an afternoon Devonshire tea! We were provided with a site well located for semi-ensuite bathroom facilities (I'm not sure 'semi-ensuite' and camping really go together, but the term is used), and we enjoyed our first evening with a veggie burger dinner rounded off by chocolate. It was excellent.

Camper van dinner #1.

From Mataranka, we drove on the next day to cover the 700km to Tennant Creek, which is then only about 600km north of Alice Springs. Tennant Creek was a reasonably sized town, but not an inspiring one. As there are few noteworthy stops between Mataranka and Tennant Creek, we also managed to reach it by about 4.30pm, and so decided to push on a bit further before stopping for the night.


From Tennant Creek our journey stopped being south and started moving east. There are no towns between Tennant Creek and the Queensland border, but there is a well established (and well reviewed) road house, motel and campsite at Barkly Homestead, about 200km east of Tennant Creek itself. We pushed on to there and enjoyed our second night of camping in a tranquil and spacious campsite.

More driving...

Night number two was our baked potatoes, with our respective fillings and salad on the side. My plate was photographed at such an angle that you can't even see the potato, but I can assure you it is there! Once again, we finished our meal with chocolate - that rum and raisin block was an essential investment - and took advantage of the isolated setting to do some star gazing. There is something quite special about being in the middle of Australia with a patch of land and clear sky all to yourself.

Camper van dinner #2.

After Barkly Homestead, it was just half a day of driving until we reached the Queensland border...but I shall leave Queensland for another post.

I will say, to finish this section on the Northern Territory, that I would highly recommend the territory as a travel destination. There are vast amounts of space. There are pockets of amazing scenery, beautiful sights and impressive culture. The towns aren't necessarily inspiring, but the landscapes they serve are. It is a different side to Australia, and one worth seeing.

Travel links -

Have you done much camping, by camper van / caravan or tent? 


  1. Sounds like a fascinating trip - and you seem very organised - I love your shopping list - I could eat my way through it happily - my worry about this sort of driving trip is breakdowns - do either of you have much of an idea about cars or did you have contingency plans for break downs?

    Having said that, when we went to kakadu as part of a tour our tourbus did breakdown in an isolated part just after we dropped off all our food - it was seeming a bit worrying (I don't think we had mobile coverage if I remember rightly) and then one of the other tourguides came to check we were ok because we were late - I was quite impressed at the bush mateship of looking out for one another.

    1. It's interesting that I wasn't more concerned about break down possibilities, given my propensity to worry...I suspect it stems from my misguided and naive trust in cars going when you want them to! Mr Bite did ask the Britz people about where the spare tyre and tool kit were, which made me confront the possibility of us needing them, which I found rather offputting (I'd have been useless if we had). I do think I'd have been far more worried if we were doing any driving off sealed roads, but there is really just one main road south from Darwin and then one main road across to the east. Whilst we had lots of space to ourselves, we probably averaged seeing one car or truck per hour, so we wouldn't have been too abandoned if we'd got stuck. Once we had access to a phone somewhere, we could then have called a Britz 1800 helpline 24/7, and we had travel insurance. I did pack a first aid kit for this holiday though and that's not a usual thing, so I guess accidents and problems were on my mind a bit more than normal!

      I love your story about help in Kakadu, and you've reminded me that I should have mentioned our experience of being pulled over by police in the park. I was driving, and was very concerned about what rule I'd inadvertently broken, but they were just flagging us down because they thought we looked lost and they wanted to offer directions! I'd just turned right instead of left by mistake and we probably did look a bit confused in where we were was quite a lovely experience.

    2. I am heartened by the bush spirit of mateship and looking after one another in a hostile environment - it is good to see it is still alive and kicking

  2. That sounds like such a fabulous trip! And i love that you guys actually kind of cooked while driving along!

    1. It did make it seem like even more of an adventure!

  3. What a cute camper van! I would have gone with the smaller size too. My parent's have a motor home and it is huge. I can't believe my dad isn't petrified to drive it and park it. I believe it is 40 feet long.

    Loved the crosswalk sign with the legs. That cracked me up. We don't have those in the US, but I am assuming it means there is a crosswalk. :-)

    1. Eek! I can't imagine parking something that large, or even driving it for that matter. I suppose you must get used to it but I'm not sure I'd ever be able to push myself to do it in order to adjust.

      I always laugh at how different signs are in different countries! Yes, that's a crosswalk sign here :-)

  4. I have never traveled in a campervan but I would be keen to give it a try if it was just Mr GG and I.
    You certainly made good use of the vehicle and your time on the road. Love the stories :)

  5. I loved hearing about your campervan experiences and seeing your shopping list. I can relate to Mr Bite being dragged along to lengthy supermarket trips, the man was so over that by the end of our trip. I'm pleased you found the Tasty Bite curries useful, I still have a few leftover in my pantry for the next camping trip ;)

    We camped overnight at Katherine Gorge which was such a beautiful location but our thoughts about the town Katherine are similar to yours. It was very depressing to see many indigenous people just hanging about the streets and parks. The man assures me that Alice Springs is even more eye opening. Glad you got to relax at the thermal springs at Mataranka, such a peaceful little oasis in the middle of nowhere. How did you find sleeping in the campervan? Was it roomy and ventilated enough?

    1. I'm sure your man enjoyed the food you bought as much as Mr Bite did's funny how they don't necessarily link the supermarket trip to being fed for the next week ;) And those Taste Bite curries were great, I can see myself keeping some at home for 'back up' meals!

      Sleeping in the van was actually great. It was probably wider than a double bed - we didn't seem to be hitting each other anyway - and we kept the windows open with the curtains across which meant we had plenty of air and even got quite cool by the middle of the night. We used the sleeping bags provided as blankets over sheets. It seemed to be fairly quiet at the places we stayed so I'd almost go so far as to say I slept better camping than I usually do at home with the threat of work the next morning :-)

  6. I'm ashamed to say I've never been to the Northern Territory but that doesn't mean I haven't wanted to get there. You always have to time it just right with that lengthy wet season they have. Shame about Katherine but the thermal springs look like a great experience. Shame too about the Aborigines. I have no solution either. It seems so much has been tried and failed but I think a big problem has been the constant hand-outs. They just create generations of dependency on welfare which creates a lifestyle of poverty. Anyway, it's a big topic! xx

    1. The wet season does indeed warrant avoiding - it seems to carry with it all manner of problems even aside from the weather (stingers, more bugs!). I hope you get there eventually. I also hope we keep trying to find solutions to the welfare issue. It seems to be a black hole kind of issue at this stage and one that is kept out of sight and out of mind - easy enough when Australia is so big, but not ideal!

  7. Childhood Hannah is so envious of you! I thought campervans were SO cool growing up.

    Those thermal springs look amazing.

    1. They were :-) And warm! Definitely good for those of us with poor circulation...

      I thought tents were cool growing up, but as an adult I'm definitely leaning towards campervans instead ;)

  8. OMG I loved Mataranka when we went when I was a kid. It was so amazing!! I remember there was a frog in the toilet block though.

  9. Van looks awesome! sounds like you had a fab time. Yay for easy meals :-) the thermal springs looks amazing!

  10. What an amazing trip. Love your cute campervan, and the food sounds amazing.

  11. This is very effective information for me because i have not found anywhere to get van for traveling and it has special comfortableness seat and also special food items. I swear, i really loving it.

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