Australia’s beaches are among the world’s best but nothing compares to our waterholes. Hidden by bush, boulders and billion-year-old cliffs, these jewels of the desert are worth the hunt. Kate Barracosa goes chasing waterfalls.
Ellery Creek Big Hole, NT
￼The temperature in baking-hot Tjoritja (also known as West MacDonnell National Park) nudges 40°C in summer but the water at this striking swimming hole is so crisp that bathers are advised not to stay underwater for too long lest they catch a chill. Named Udepata by the local Arrernte people, Ellery Creek Big Hole is about 80 kilometres west of Alice Springs. It’s the outback waterhole of your imagination, with a halo of still water hugged by sandy shores and ragged red cliffs that part to reveal a slice of the expansive sky above.
Spend the night under the stars. There’s space for tents, trailers and caravans a short walk from the waterhole, with amenities including gas barbecues and bathrooms. Camping fees apply.
Bitter Springs, NT
￼ From the tiny town of Mataranka in the Top End (population 350), turn off the Stuart Highway onto Martin Road and you’ll come to Bitter Springs, a deep-blue waterhole surrounded by palms and pandanus. There are two permitted swimming spots in the 13,800-hectare Elsey National Park: Bitter Springs and, about a 15-minute drive away, Mataranka Thermal Pool. These warm-water pools are created by the 30.5 million litres of water that bubbles up from below the ground each day. Just don’t expect a refreshing dip – the water is a balmy 34°C.
Book a cabin for up to five or pitch a tent at Bitter Springs Cabins & Camping. Guests can hire pool noodles and snorkels to make the most of the springs.
Indarri Falls, QLD
￼There are two ways to access the falls nestled in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, 270 kilometres north-west of Mount Isa. Either set out early in the morning and walk to the base of the waterfalls from Middle Gorge picnic area, a 3.8-kilometre loop, or hire a canoe from the same starting point and spend an hour paddling there. You can swim at any point along Lawn Hill Creek but be sure to reward your efforts with a plunge in the emerald waters near the falls, where the only sounds are those of the cascading water and crimson finches tumbling about in the trees.
Book in advance to secure a spot at the small Lawn Hill Gorge camping area. There’s also Adels Grove Camping Park, 10 kilometres from the gorge, which offers a greater variety of accommodation, including pre-pitched tents and rooms with ensuites.
Jim Jim Falls Beach and Plunge Pools, NT
￼When the Jim Jim Falls cease to flow in the Kakadu dry season (roughly May to October), the deep basin below becomes yours to explore. You’ll have to scramble over some rocks to get to the plunge pool but the chance to do the Australian crawl in the shadow of 220-metre-high, 1.65-billion-year-old sandstone cliffs is worth it. The name Jim Jim comes from andjimdjim, an Aboriginal word for the spiny water pandanus trees that line the banks of the swimming holes. The water gives life to a plethora of plants and animals, including perky pint-sized rainbow pitta birds.
Garnamarr Campground in Kakadu National Park is about 10 kilometres away. It accommodates 200 and has drinking water, bathrooms and showers, plus a gang of red-tailed black cockatoos. It’s only open in the dry season and camping fees apply.
Emma Gorge, WA
￼A 65-metre-high waterfall runs down a rust-coloured, foliage-covered cliff face, filling Emma Gorge in the East Kimberley. It’s one of many idyllic swimming spots – including a thermal spring – on El Questro, a nature reserve at the top end of the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. Emma Gorge is a 1.6-kilometre walk from the resort (you’ll need a visitor’s pass if you’re not a guest).
El Questro Emma Gorge has 60 canvas-topped glamping-style cabins with ensuites, as well as wi-fi, a laundry and restaurant, plus a bar for post-exploration drinks. Note that the resort closes for the wet season (it’s open from 1 May to 29 Sept 2018).
Kilsby Sinkhole, SA
￼This freshwater sinkhole on a sheep farm near Mount Gambier, in the state’s south-east, deserves a place on your swimming bucket list – even if it’s not strictly in the outback. Not only has the clear, cobalt water between the limestone crevice been a mecca for cave divers since the 1950s, it was a weapons-testing site in the ‘70s and now serves as a training zone for police divers. It lies on private property, which has been in the Kilsby family for generations, so if you want to explore the sinkhole you’ll need to organise a visit through an approved operator. To dive deeper than 30 metres requires specialised training. Prefer to just marvel at the cavern? Good news – there are plans to upgrade the viewing platform.
You’re sure to work up an appetite with all that deep-water diving so stay at The Barn, a 10-minute drive away, and have dinner at the hotel’s steakhouse. Tuck into aged meats, paired with local wines from the extensive list.
Top image: Emma Gorge