It’s the Northern Territory’s newest camping experience and no bull, this stock camp and travellers’ rest on the edge of Mataranka Hot Springs is the real deal. Run by ex-ringer Des Barritt and wife Telka Zotz-Wilson, who partnered up as teachers on a remote Indigenous school east of Mataranka four years ago, the Little Roper Stock Camp opened in April this year but has been booked out just about every night since. Why?
Firstly, the location is stellar: bordered by the Little Roper River and Elsey National Park on three sides and close to the thermal pools at Mataranka Homestead and Bitter Springs, riverside walking trails and awesome barramundi fishing holes.
Secondly, it’s affordable and unique: shady bush campsites cost just $15 per vehicle, there are spacious powered sites and hot showers, and enough bulls and buffalos to fascinate the city kids who prop themselves up along the rails, play on the hay bales and curl the camp’s pet python around their necks.
Finally, there’s real generosity here: every morning Des and Telka gather travellers together around the communal campfire for johnny cakes and billy tea, which you can pay for with a single silver coin. Their twice-weekly stock camp show and campoven dinner is a starry night feast you won’t want to miss, and did I mention that kids stay and eat for free?
“I’d recommend it over just about every campground we’ve stayed at in our latest adventure”
Not only does Mataranka easily slide into my Top 5 favourite NT destinations, but Little Roper Stock Camp is so unlike any place you might spend a night in the Top End that I’d recommend it over just about every campground we’ve stayed at in our latest ‘across the top’ adventure.
Why the big recommendation?
Let’s say you pull into Little Roper Stock Camp after some long hours on the Stuart Highway, park your rig or pitch a tent in any shady bush nook you choose – powered or unpowered – and set off for a tropical snorkel through the hot, limey channels at nearby Bitter Springs, drifting downstream in the gentle current.
You might prefer to warm up a different way, on the short walking trail that follows the Roper River downstream and over the limestone tufa dam at Mataranka Falls, stopping to fish for barramundi en route. Afterwards, you plonk yourself in the deep pools at Mataranka Hot Springs to wallow beneath the world’s largest stand of livistona rigida fan palms.
When you finally return to camp at dusk, you grab a hot shower and a couple of cold drinks and make a beeline for the camp’s communal fire pit. Travellers are already gathering as the sun begins to set through the trees and there is Des Barritt, stoking a hotbed of glowing coals and chatting away, preparing to unearth a trio of campovens slowly roasting the buffalo, beef and tender lamb on tonight’s stock camp menu.
See Mataranka’s ringer in the raw
With a bit of luck you’ve booked yourself a seat at the table because this three course bush feast is not only a substantial feed but is teamed with Des’s quirky camp show – the showman himself hosting in proper dinner attire (that means footwear and clean sleeves in these parts). He’ll gather you around the rails and introduce you to his buffalo and bulls, open the campovens and teach you how to cook in them, and strum guitar while belting out a menagerie of Slim Dusty tributes, laughing and joking and spinning yarns about cattle and kin and the Never Never country he calls home.
You might get to meet one of the ‘black fella’ mates who taught him how to wrangle and hear how while teaching at Roper Valley Station decades ago, Des became a ringer by default. By the time his kids has outgrown the classroom, Des felt right at home and didn’t have the heart to leave, so Roper Valley’s Indigenous ringers taught him to ride a horse and throw cattle and turned this teacher into a stockman.
Years later Des was back to wrangling kids as principal at a remote Indigenous community outside of Mataranka when he met Telka and kick-started the dream to turn nine abandoned acres into Little Roper Stock Camp. With the camp running at full steam, Des is taking a sabbatical from school life but his soft spot for kids means he won’t charge for them to stay.
Save big when travelling with kids
“We’re really quite biased towards kids,” he says. “It’s just so difficult for families on the road (in Australia). It’s ludicrous what they have to pay and I really appreciate the fact that they are actually coming here and not going to Bali because it is heaps cheaper for them to go to Bali. They are showing their kids Australia and that’s pretty important.”
Families have been quick on the uptake and are talking loudly about the ultra affordable campsites, the animals that keep their kids entertained and being able to kick back and enjoy a few drinks and a campoven feast that may just be the most affordable three-course dinner around because everyone under 10 years eats for free.
According to Des, “the feed’s worth $44.90 and the show is ten cents”, but he manages to front a pretty entertaining show while campers fill their bellies with pumpkin soup and homemade damper before those campovens are opened, full of oh-so-tender meats and baked veggies, gravy and home-made bread “and me Mum’s cauliflower cheese”, says Des. You can eat as much as you want, and thanks to his trusty CWA cookbook, Des is a dab hand at dessert, serving up Spotted Dog, custard and Telka’s apple crumble and ice cream.
Despite a complete lack of advertising, the word is out about Little Roper Stock Camp and the soon-to-arrive estuarine crocodile is bound to create a buzz around the Top End, but Des isn’t getting carried away. “Tonight I’ll shut the gates early again so obviously I could be charging a heap more per caravan but I don’t want to get too greedy,” he says.
“When we’re full up we close the gate, go collect firewood down on the airstrip and I have a few beers with Telka. It’s very easy going and I like doing this,” Des says. “Seeing the kids here playing on the trailer and the hay bales is bloody brilliant and the parents love it because they don’t even see them, they just go away and get dirty.”
Little Roper Stock Camp is located on Homestead Road in Mataranka, 2km from the hot springs www.littleroperstockcamp.com.au