Devil’s Marbles, Mataranka and Katherine Gorge – Northern Australia

Before heading out further afield we decided to spend a day in Alice Springs to visit the Desert Park to see the endangered Princess Parrot.

While I don’t particularly like viewing wildlife in captive settings, the Desert Park has walk-in aviaries that are more like spacious islands of native habitat that only house the species that naturally co-occur in a given habitat type.

Princes parrots (Polytelis alexandrae) are one of Australia’s most elusive parakeet species and therefore least known. They are a nomadic species that arrive in an area to breed and then disappear, making them very difficult to see in the wild.

Princess parrot
Princess parrot

Wycliffe Well – UFO Capital of Australia

From the Desert Park, we got back on the road for a long drive to Wycliffe Well – pretty much the only camping stop between Alice Springs and Mataranka. It is also a convenient overnight stop for visiting Devils Marbles in the morning.

Wycliffe Well is known as Australia’s prime UFO hotspot, boasting more UFO sightings than any other area in the country. The entire holiday park is decked out with the alien theme.

We didn’t spot any notable wildlife on this drive, with an exception of a Little buttonquail on the side of the road and a Brown snake at the campsite. No aliens either this time. 

Wildlife of Devils Marbles

Devils Marbles is a spectacular formation of rounded boulders stacked precariously on top of each other. Though it lies close to the tropical north of Australia, this area still has a rather dry climate and provides a unique habitat for a wide suite of species.

Devil's marbles habitat
Devil’s marbles habitat

As we pulled in to the car park we were greeted by a Dingo that was quite happy to laze around in broad daylight.

Wildlife of Devils Marbles - Dingo
Dingo at Devil's marbles
Dingo at Devil’s marbles

Amongst the rocks of the Devils Marbles, we were treated to a rare sight of a pair of courting Painted finches. As part of courtship, the male of this species presents the female with a gift of some nesting material – dry grass or small twigs. Holding the gift in his beak he then proceeds to perform a dance around the female until he sees a favorable sign.

Male Painted finch performing the courtship dance
Male Painted finch performing a courtship dance

Once his efforts are approved by the female, he gets down to business.

And he is in business
And he is in business

While the amorous part is a fairly quick affair, the pair stays together and continues to build the nest.

The happy couple
The happy couple

The finches’ antics brought in a curious visitor – one of Australia’s smallest birds – a Weebill.


The Spinifex grass at Devils Marbles is home to the aptly named Spinifexbird.

Spinifex bird

There were also a few Dimond doves amongst the rocks.

Dimond dove
Diamond dove

The road from Devil’s Marbles to the tropic of Capricorn marker turned up a wide variety of birds of prey: Australian hobby, Black kite, Grey falcon and Spotted harrier.

The tropic of Capricorn marks the formal transition to the tropical North of Australia and the next part of this blog.

Elsey National Park

From the Devils Marbles, we headed to Australia’s Top End and drove from the desert heat to the tropical sauna. Our first order of business in the Top End was to see the wildlife of Mataranka and Katherine Gorge.

Wildlife of Mataranka Hot Springs

We arrived at Mataranka hot springs camping grounds late at night, put up the tent in the dark and went for a quick exploration walk to see what local wildlife was around. The air was laden with moisture – the trademark of the tropical climate and I was hoping to find some new frogs.


And frogs I found. They were everywhere around the camp site. Within 10 meters of our tent I found huge Northern Green Tree frogs (Litoria caerulea), Rocket frogs (Litoria nasuta), Roth’s tree frogs (Litoria rothii), Ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum)  and the inevitable Cane toads (Bufo marinus) that are steadily making their way across Australia wiping out native wildlife.

Wildlife of Mataranka - Roth's tree frog
Roth’s tree frog
Wildlife of Mataranka - Rocket frog
Rocket frog
Wildlife of Mataranka - Ornate burrowing frog
Ornate burrowing frog
Juvenile Cane toad
Juvenile Cane toad

The showers were occupied by Top End dtella (Gehyra australis) – a small gecko with almost translucent skin and bright-red painted toenails.

Wildlife of Mataranka - Top End dtella
Top End dtella

Agile Wallabies and Little Red Flying Foxes

Apart from frogs and reptiles there were two new mammals clearly dominating the landscape: Agile wallaby on the ground and Little red flying fox making a racket up in the canopy.

The Agile wallaby is perhaps the most common mammal in Australia’s Top End. They can be seen virtually anywhere: at camping grounds, out in the bush, in the paddocks and along the roads at night. The Little red flying fox is also quite common in the Top End. The population at Mataranka may count up to 200,000 individuals in some years.

In the morning the camp site was overrun by the wallabies. They were completely relaxed and for the most part, ignored us, humans.

Wildlife of Mataranka - Agile wallaby
Agile wallaby
Agile wallaby
Agile wallaby

Wildlife at Bitter Springs

The hot spring at Mataranka wasn’t particularly inspiring, so we packed up and went to Bitter Springs for something different. Bitter Springs are also located within Elsey National Park but tend to receive fewer visitors and offer somewhat less disturbed surroundings.

The water at the Springs is amazingly warm, clear and inviting – the perfect opportunity to escape the humid heat of the day. The wild inhabitants of the area must be thinking the same thing.

At one point I could hear something move on the opposite side of the pond. But as hard as I peered at the pile of dry palm leaves I could not see any shapes that looked out of place. Only when I looked through my 400 mm lens, did I see a large monitor that was practically the same colour as the leaf litter behind it. It was a very impressive Merten’s Monitor (Varanus mertensi) chewing on a crab.

Merten's monitor
Merten’s monitor

A short walk along the stream turned up a White-bellied cuckoo-shrike, White-gaped Honeyeater and a beautiful Red-backed fairy-wren .

Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park

From Bitter Springs we headed out to Katherine Gorge, locally known by its Aboriginal name – Nitmiluk. The landscape has changed from burnt out decimated grazing lands of the Arid centre to greener woodlands dotted with giant termite mounds of various shapes and sizes.

Flying Foxes

Katherine is an uninviting little town with not much to look at. The only reason we stopped in town was to check out the colony of Little red flying foxes roosting in the tall eucalypts in the court house front yard.

Unlike the Grey-headed flying foxes in Sydney, that hang off the tree branches like motionless sentinels, these bats had to continuously fan themselves with their membranous wings in order to stay relatively cool.

Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Little red flying foxes
Little red flying foxes
Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Black flying fox
Black red flying fox

Birds at Katherine Gorge

On the approach road to Nitmiluk, we came across a spot of high bird activity. There were Red-winged Parrots and a young Collared sparrowhawk perched on the tree and a few Black and Whistling kites soaring above.

Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Red-winged parrot
Red-winged parrot
Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Collared sparrowhawk
Collared sparrowhawk

Camp site at Nitmiluk has much better facilities than the one at Mataranka. There is also a decent visitor center.

Typically, the main reason for visiting Nitmiluk is to take a cruise through the stunning scenery of Katherine Gorge, but in April the water still runs too fast and the flooding of the rainy season has not sufficiently subsided. So we explored the area on foot.

Plenty of birds could be found right at the campsite: Bar-shouldered dove, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Great bowerbird, Australasian yellow orioleRed-winged parrot and Blue-faced honeyeater.

Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Red-winged parrot (female)
Red-winged parrot (female)
Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Silver-crowned friarbird
Silver-crowned friarbird

The walk along the river turned up: Agile wallabies, Forest kingfisher, Collared lorikeet and an elusive Oriental cuckoo .

Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Forest kingfisher
Forest kingfisher
Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Collared Lorikeet
Collared Lorikeet
Wildlife of Katherine Gorge - Oriental cuckoo
Oriental cuckoo

Night walk 

The night walk produced Rocket frogs, an exquisite Brown tree snake and a few Bush Stone-curlews, which are more often heard than seen – their chilling wailing cry unmistakable in the night.

The mornings at the campsite were announced by the calls of Blue-winged kookaburras .

As much as I wanted to see some crocs, there were none to be found. Though there was no reason to be upset, as our next destination was Kakadu National Park – Australia’s crocodile capital!

Visiting Mataranka and Katherine Gorge

Getting to Mataranka

Mataranka is located 106km south of Katherine. From the Stuart Highway take Martin Road to go to Bitter Springs, Homestead Road to visit the Mataranka Thermal Pools or John Hauser Drive, off Homestead Road, for all other sites in the park

Staying at Mataranka

There is no accommodation at Mataranka apart from the campsite with all the necessary facilities. 

Getting to Katherine Gorge

Katherine Gorge, located in Nitmiluk National Park lies 30km east of Katherine along the sealed Gorge Road.

Staying at Katherine Gorge

Nitmiluk Tours offer a range of accommodation options from Luxury lodge to tents. They also run a number of tours in the Gorge.

Wildlife of Mataranka and Katherine Gorge in Australia's Top End #AustralianWildlife #wildlifetravel #wildlifeexperience #NorthernAustralia

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