Immerse yourself in the cool, natural swimming pools of Australia's Red Centre.
By Lee Atkinson
Ten days allows you any number of ways to get wet in the wild. From serene pools deep inside ancient canyons to thermal springs in shady groves and deep pools beneath waterfalls, there are so many reasons for you to take the plunge. Make your way from one natural swimming place to the next on this 10-day trip from Alice Springs in the Red Centre to the tropical city of Darwin, via Kakadu. It’s the perfect way to beat the heat.
What to expect
Surrounded by desert in all directions, Australia’s Red Centre might be one of the country’s driest landscapes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get wet – the rugged West MacDonnell Ranges (the West Macs to locals) that stretch almost all the way from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon hide several sensational wild swimming pools in the gorges that bite into the ancient rocky ranges. The waterhole in Simpsons Gap is an easy 17-kilometre (10.5-mile) bicycle ride from Alice Springs along a sealed cycle path – hire a bicycle from Outback Cycling. Standley Chasm, deep inside a rocky canyon with walls 80 metres (262 feet) high, is another top spot to cool off: it’s 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Alice Springs and most day tours include both swimming spots on their itineraries.
If yesterday’s serene swimming spots in the West Macs have whetted your appetite for more, hire a car – or join a tour with Alice Wanderer. Head west from Alice Springs on Larapinta Road beyond Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm to Ellery Creek Big Hole and Redbank Gorge, two more picture-perfect plunge pools encircled by towering walls of red rock. Spend the night in the resort at Glen Helen Gorge beside the Finke River – it’s believed to be one of the oldest rivers in the world following its original course, and for the traditional Aboriginal owners - who believe the swimming spot is home to a powerful rainbow serpent - one of the most scared. Glen Helen is around a two-hour drive from Alice Springs.
Lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail at Ormiston Gorge on your way back to Alice Springs. The river pool here is one of the deepest in the desert, thought to be 14 metres (46 feet) deep at the southern end, and rarely runs dry. While you can stroll to the water’s edge from the visitor centre in around 10 minutes, the four-hour walk up and over the range into Ormiston Pound and through the gorge is spectacular, and one of the best half-day walks in the Red Centre. Ormiston Gorge is 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) from Glen Helen.
There’s nothing better than relaxing in a natural spa, and they don’t come much better – or cheaper – than the free hot springs in the town of Katherine. Crystal clear and luke warm rather than hot, and surrounded by lush pandanus and monsoon forest, the six pools are a favourite cooling off spot for locals and travellers. You can fly to Katherine from Alice Springs or travel by bus or train, but if you drive you can experience two other spectacular swimming spots an hour south of Katherine, in Elsey National Park. Mataranka Thermal Pool and Bitter Springs are not to be missed.
There are dozens of way you can explore the natural wonderland of Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine Gorge) where the Katherine River carves its way through red sandstone cliffs to form a chain of 13 scenic gorges, found just 20 minutes from the town of Katherine. Hire a canoe and paddle your own way, follow one of the many hiking trails – Leliyn (Edith Falls) in the west of the park is worth the walk just to swim in the lower and upper pools – see it from above on a scenic flight or take one of several cruises run by Nitmiluk Tours – there are sunrise and sunset trips, cultural tours and dinner cruises. One of the most exciting ways to experience Nitmiluk is the helicopter swimming tour that combines a flight over the gorge with a visit to a remote rock pool beneath a waterfall, where you are guaranteed to be the only ones there. Spend the night at stylish Cicada Lodge or in one of the safari tents or chalets in the national park.
When it comes to swimming in the wild, it doesn’t get much better than the pools of Litchfield National Park, around a three-hour drive north of Katherine on the way to the city of Darwin. Home to several sublime waterfalls, it’s one of the Northern Territory's best swimming spots. The most popular place to get wet is Wangi Falls, where there is an accessible ramp into the large natural swimming pool surrounded by rainforest, a kiosk and large grassy picnic area. The twin waterfalls that feed into a deep plunge pool beneath Florence Falls are just as special, and families love Buley Rockhole, a chain of spa-like shallow pools linked by small cascades. You can camp at both Wangi and Florence Falls, or stay in one of the cabins at nearby Litchfield Tourist Park, where there’s also a bar and café.
If you’ve got a 4WD, head out to Tjaynera Falls (Sandy Creek Falls), a deep waterhole every bit as gorgeous as Wangi Falls but with fewer bathers, and Surprise Falls, another of Litchfield’s hidden gems where three pools tumble into each other over rock walls. Getting there is half the fun as you wind your way through the Lost City – a forest of sandstone towers formed by thousands of years of wind and rain erosion – and past hundreds of gigantic magnetic termite mounds, all facing north so the inside of the mound doesn’t get overheated by the sun.
Kakadu, Australia’s largest national park, is famous for its wild saltwater crocodiles (and its rock art galleries, birdlife, wetlands and buffalo), but don’t let that scare you off. There are lots of places where you can safely swim (but always check the safety signs before going near the water). Gunlom plunge pool at the top of Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park is worth every second of the steep, 45-minute hike to get there. If you’re travelling in a campervan, it’s a top spot to camp, or stay in the lodge at nearby Cooinda.
If you like your wild pools crowd-free, you’ll love Motor Car Falls, a magical swimming spot only accessible by foot. It’s one of the Yurmikmik Walks in the southern region of Kakadu National Park, a two-hour hike through woodlands along a historic vehicle track, but once you’re there, chances are it will just be you and the resident turtles that float about in the shady pool. If you’d prefer a shorter hike, head to Maguk Gorge (also known as Barramundi Gorge). The next best thing to being in the water is being on the water, so head back to Cooinda in time to join a sunset cruise on Yellow Water Billabong, the best time of day to see birds, buffalo and crocodiles.
You can’t leave Kakadu without seeing its most famous cascades, Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls. It’s a rough and rugged 4WD track to get there – if you don’t fancy tackling the track you can join a tour from Cooinda – but the drive is worth it. The falls really thunder in the wet season between November and May when the only way you can see them is on a scenic flight, but during the dry season (June to October) you can rock-hop your way across super-sized boulders to the plunge pool at the base of the falls. Drive onwards to Darwin, roughly three hours away, where you can look through all your amazing pictures from the comfort of a hotel room.