From the lush Top End to the fiery Red Centre, 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 loll about, taking in the bright, cloudless skies overhead or perhaps the last rays of the setting sun as it paints the surrounding treetops a warm rose-gold. Some waterholes are well known and easily accessible, which means they can be crowded. Others are semi-secret spots that are shared only between friends. And, 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. Many of the swimming pockets can be visited year-round and a large number are highly significant to the Indigenous custodians of this land but beware: danger may be lurking. The Northern Territory is home to saltwater crocodiles and a place of punishing temperatures, both high and low, along with other weather extremes. Flooding can occur, cutting road access, even in the Centre. So heed the experts and follow the rules: plan ahead, check the Parks and Wildlife website and abide by instructions on signs. The best time to visit? The Top End is ideal in the dry season, from May to October, while the Centre is great in autumn and spring to avoid summer’s heat and winter’s chilly evenings. One final tip: for optimum relaxation, bring a pool noodle.
Korran (Bitter Springs)
The sight is mesmerising: clear water tinted soft turquoise above a pale sandy bed edged by towering Livistona palms and lush grasses (pictured top). The sounds are something else, too: gentle birdsong pierced by the shrieks of cockatoos. Naturally heated to about 32ºC, the strong current travels from the pool’s entrance to an exit around a bend, from where swimmers emerge, walk back and repeat. Look up and you might spy the odd harmless plump spider suspended across the spring. 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.
Top image credit: Tourism NT/Jason Van Miert
Katherine Hot Springs
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.
Leliyn (Edith Falls)
The Jawoyn people graciously share their country with visitors to Nitmiluk National Park and 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 landscape.
Getting there Drive about 290 kilometres south-east of Darwin then turn left into Edith Falls.
Surprise Creek Falls
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.
If you have stamina and luck, you might just get a waterhole to yourself at Walker Creek. Eight camp sites, 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 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; book using the chalkboard and pay via the honesty box at the car park.
Getting there Drive 83 kilometres west, south-west and north-west from Batchelor.
Yarretyeke (Redbank Gorge)
Yarretyeke, nestled at the base of Rwetyepme (Mount Sonder), is named for its Dreaming story of a small kangaroo and boasts a collection of little, 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 156 kilometres west of Alice Springs along Namatjira Drive to the Redbank Gorge turn-off then along five kilometres of unsealed track. You’ll need a high-clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle. Campers should bring fresh water.
Udepata (Ellery Creek Big Hole)
Image credit: Tourism NT/Shaun Jeffers.
With its mammoth quartzite and sandstone bluffs carved by giant floods, Udepata 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 tremendous relief from the slow burn of a Red Centre day – but icy at depth. 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 off Namatjira Drive for an unsealed two-kilometre stretch to the car park. All roads can be impassable after heavy rain.
Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge)
A near-permanent waterhole plunging 14 metres at its southern end, Kwartatuma 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 45-minute return walk to Ghost Gum Lookout and three-to-four-hour 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; Kwartatuma 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 credits: Michaela Mazurkova, Steve Swayne, Kerry Whitworth, Matt Cherubino, Lola Hubner