From the lush Top End to the fiery Red Centre and the outskirts of Darwin, there’s no shortage of places to swim amongst the wild beauty of the Northern Territory. Here are some of the best and most beautiful swimming spots and watering holes in the state.
Most people think of the Northern Territory as an ancient rust-red land but its giant serpentine rivers and underground springs guarantee visitors adventures of a different and far cooler kind. Scores of swimmable waterholes lure lucky locals, who embrace the warm weather and regularly swim amongst the wild beauty of the landscape.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the best wild swimming can be found in the Territory’s dry Red Centre; four of the region’s finest waterholes are a lazy Sunday drive from the semi-arid outback capital of Alice Springs. These swimming spots are accessible year-round and a large number are highly significant to the Indigenous custodians of this land. To plan ahead, stay sensitive to local wishes, keep up to date with the latest information and ensure you’re visiting safe waterholes, check the Parks and Wildlife website and abide by instructions.
Image credit: Tourism NT
Berry Springs Nature Park1/12
The payoff when you arrive at idyllic Berry Springs Nature Park is reward enough but every aspect of this lush oasis – from the 40-minute drive from Darwin (palatable to even the tiniest of travellers) to the spring-fed paddling creek and shade trees just right for languid picnics – almost make it feel too easy. That’s almost because you’re still in the NT and rangers occasionally close the park if they spot evidence of crocodile activity or harmful bacteria, particularly in the wet season.
Come in March and April, when the park’s native wildflowers bloom in a technicolour carpet, with goatsfoot, scarlet bloodroot and cajeput tree transforming the creek banks. There are toilet facilities, a barbecue area and, from April to October, a kiosk selling essentials such as local Tommo’s meat pies and swimming goggles, rounding out the destination’s family-friendly pedigree. Three kilometres down the road is the icing on the cake: Territory Wildlife Park, where a shuttle train takes visitors past saltwater crocs, ghost bats and olive pythons.
Image credit: Tourism NT/All About Adventure
Redbank Gorge (Yarretyeke), West MacDonnell National Park2/12
Redbank Gorge, nestled at the base of Mount Sonder (Rutjupma), is named for its Dreaming story of a small kangaroo and boasts a collection of small, cold ponds, each a short hop up from the last. In fact, the whole prehistoric assemblage is a series of stepped pools, dividing one cavern from another and creating a climb in soft pinks and red-browns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this unique environment provides a refuge for threatened plant and animal species. Park rangers recommend a flotation device to traverse each waterhole and most ponds are extremely cold so it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Getting there Drive about 150 kilometres west of Alice Springs along Namatjira Drive to the Redbank Gorge turn right, proceeding down five kilometres of unsealed track. You’ll need a high-clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle. Campers should bring fresh water.
Image credit: Tourism NT/Jason Charles Hill
Buley Rockhole, Litchfield National Park3/12
Red and green might sit opposite one another on the colour wheel but they dance a captivating paso doble at Buley Rockhole, with verdant rainforest looming over ancient sandstone beds, ruby-slick under the cascading water. Here, gentle falls create naturally tiered formations, with shallow pools for little feet and some surprisingly deep diving spots as well. From the car park (where you’ll find toilet facilities nearby), a short loop-walk brings you to the series of creeks and rockholes marking the base of the Tabletop Range’s primary plateau. Shade is almost as scarce as parking spots as midday approaches so it’s worth getting up early to enjoy it with the birds and before the day’s heat takes hold
Getting there Less than two hours drive from Darwin and 30 minutes in from the entrance to Litchfield National Park, this freshwater swimming favourite fills up fast.
Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Bitter Springs (Korran), Elsey National Park4/12
The sight is mesmerising: clear water tinted soft turquoise above a pale sandy bed edged by towering Livistona palms and lush grasses. The sounds are something else, too: gentle birdsong pierced by the shrieks of cockatoos. Naturally heated and warm year-round, the strong current travels from the pool’s entrance to an exit around a bend, from where swimmers emerge, walk back and repeat. Look down and you’ll see reeds like bouquets of ribbons slow-dancing in the flow. If this sounds a little too close to nature, nearby Mataranka Thermal Pool is also beautiful but more tame, with easier access to the water via broad stone steps.
Getting there Drive about 420 kilometres south of Darwin to Mataranka then turn left into Martin Road.
Image credit: Tourism NT
Ellery Creek Big Hole (Udepata), West MacDonnell Ranges5/12
With its mammoth quartzite and sandstone bluffs carved by giant floods, Ellery Creek Big Hole is a meeting place for the Arrernte people and a gateway to the desert beyond. The deep waters of Ellery Creek Big Hole are cool – a relief from the slow burn of a Red Centre day – but icy cold and dark below the slightly warmer surface. And the walking is spectacular: pied butcherbirds sing you along the world-renowned Larapinta Trail wilderness trek that winds 223 kilometres from Alice Springs via the West MacDonnell Ranges. Swim through the jaws of the gorge to sun yourself on a rocky outcrop or sliver of beach at the base of a boulder, though you may have to share your perch with a long-nosed dragon lizard. The water is fresh and unsalted; high above, clouds float like cotton balls against the bluest sky imaginable.
Getting there Drive 90 kilometres west of Alice Springs then turn right off Namatjira Drive for an unsealed two-kilometre stretch to the car park. All roads can be impassable after heavy rain.
Image credit: Tourism NT/Lucy Ewing
Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park6/12
If your kids are closer to double-digits and don’t mind a bit of a climb, Florence Falls (located in Litchfield) brings the drama. An easy stroll from the car park will get you to the centre of the action – a lookout platform, where you’ll see two roaring torrents race each other off the gorge and into the plunge pool below. Spring-fed year-round, the real treasure at Florence Falls lies in its cool, clear swimming hole, beckoning from the bottom of a 160-stair descent. Once you’ve floated to your heart’s content, the one-kilometre Shady Creek Walk leads you back around to Florence Creek, where you can spread out the picnic rug for some lunch before returning to the city. Alternatively, extend the adventure at the nearby Florence Falls 2WD-accessible campsite or the old 4WD campgrounds slightly further down.
Getting there Florence Falls is a three-minute walk from the Litchfield National Park car park.
Image credit: Tourism NT/Helen Orr
Edith Falls (Leliyn), Nitmiluk National Park7/12
The Jawoyn people graciously share their country with visitors to Nitmiluk National Park and Edith Falls (Leliyn) is one of its jewels. Opposite the falls, wide shallow steps lead into the lower pool. The water is cool and tinted golden from below; the rock walls are fiery against the blue sky. Looking for more of a challenge? Take the short walk up to the higher pools for a fresh perspective on the dramatic surrounding landscape.
Getting there Drive about 290 kilometres south-east of Darwin then turn left into Leliyn/Edith Falls.
Ormiston Gorge (Kwartatuma), West Macdonnell National Park8/12
A permanent waterhole plunging about 14 metres at its southern end, Ormiston Gorge is shadowed by a spectacular rock gorge in colours straight from an Albert Namatjira painting. If you dare, take a bracing swim then spread a towel under the big white gums atop a sun-drenched beach that dips to the pond’s east bank. Walk the gorge or climb the stone pathways that crisscross its rugged slopes: the 2.5-kilometre return walk to Ghost Gum Lookout and 8.5-kilometre Pound Walk are favourites. A longer swim is possible after floods, downriver from the main pond along a route that meanders past towering cliffs (a rare treat). And watch for black-footed rock wallabies; Ormiston Gorge is considered a fauna refuge since the long-tailed dunnart and rare central rock-rat – once thought extinct – were rediscovered there in 1997.
Getting there Drive 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs, including an eight-kilometre stretch from the Namatjira Drive turn-off. The waterhole is a five-minute walk from the car park.
Image credit: Alamy
Surprise Creek Falls, Litchfield National Park9/12
When you head off-bitumen south of popular Wangi Falls, the morning light paints zebra stripes on the sandy 4WD track and turns the low vegetation into patches of glowing green. About 35 kilometres and a couple of water crossings later, Surprise Creek Falls is the dogged traveller’s reward. Three deep-green pools, stacked in size order and linked by mini waterfalls and puddles burbling their way over enormous red-gold boulders, will delight every kind of swimmer, whether they be paddler or plunger.
Getting there Drive 88 kilometres west and south-west from Batchelor then turn left onto the track. A 4WD vehicle is essential.
Image credit: Tourism NT/Kyle Hunter & Hayley Anderson
Katherine Hot Springs, Katherine10/12
About five kilometres out of Katherine town centre, these warm springs and surroundings are magical. The main pools are a comfortable 30ºC and easy to sink into via stairs or a ladder. Beneath the surface, little fish dart about near the pebbly bottom. After a swim, head for the outdoor Pop Rocket Cafe, where – supplies permitting – you might enjoy fresh local asparagus with your smashed avo. The café and springs are usually open from April to October (depending on water levels, the springs may be sporadically closed during these months).
Getting there Drive about 320 kilometres south of Darwin to Katherine, turn right onto Victoria Highway then turn right into Riverbank Drive.
Image credit: Tourism NT/Backyard Bandits
Walker Creek, Litchfield National Park11/12
If you’re lucky, you might just get a waterhole to yourself at Walker Creek. Eight campsites, some with their own natural plunge pool or waterfall, are strung along this pretty north-west corner of Litchfield National Park, as well as a couple of day-use pools. You’ll need to carry in all your camping gear – but the further you walk, the greater the chance that no-one else will be there. Camping fees apply; and spots must be booked online beforehand.
Getting there Drive 113 kilometres south of Darwin, and veer left onto Walker Creek.
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