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10 days of waterhole hopping in the Northern Territory

Immerse yourself in the cool natural swimming pools of Australia's Red Centre. 

By Lee Atkinson

What to expect

  • Swim beneath crystal clear waterfalls
  • Cool off in stunning freshwater swimming holes
  • Soak in turquoise natural hot springs

Fast facts

  • Time: 10 days
  • Distance: 1,700 kilometres (1,056 miles)
  • Transport: hire car
  • Nearest major city: Alice Springs and Darwin
  • Price: $$

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, take the plunge and make your way from one natural swimming place to the next on this 10 day waterhole-hopping 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.

Day 1: Alice Springs and surrounds

Simpsons Gap, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

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 (around AUD $40 for a day). 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. 

Day 2: Alice Springs to Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

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 – and 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.

Day 3: Glen Helen Gorge to Alice Springs

Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

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.

Day 4: Alice Springs to Katherine

Mataranka Hot Springs, Mataranka, Northern Territory

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  another spot just like it, an hour south of Katherine, in Mataranka.

Day 5: Katherine and surrounds

Cicada Lodge, Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory

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’s 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. 

Day 6: Katherine to Litchfield National Park

Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory

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 easy access 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. 

Day 7: Litchfield National Park

The Lost City, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory

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 over heated by the sun.

Day 8: Litchfield National Park to Kakadu National Park

Gunlom Plunge Pool, Gunlom Falls, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

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.

Day 9: Kakadu National Park

Motor Car Falls, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

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 an 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.

Day 10: Kakadu National Park

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

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 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 rockhop 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.

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