In a country bound by world-famous beaches, there is something incredibly calming about a swim at a waterhole – no waves, no swell, no sand! They are often quiet and elusive. Finding an inland swimming hole is a journey to a point on a map, a road trip through an unknown landscape, a walk in and (maybe) a big reveal.
As coastal dwellers, it wasn’t until we drove through central Australia that we got a sense of the dramatic and magical nature of inland swimming.
Landscapes of imposing mountains and green valleys reveal huge peaks and ridges that collect and distribute water through broad basins. Cool canyons shelter year-round swimming holes and seasonal rivers open up infinitely more possibilities.
Australia’s diversity of landscapes means that even if you are hundreds of kilometres from the coast, you are probably not far from pristine freshwater gorges, remote waterfalls in temperate rainforests or hot springs in the desert.
Here is a collection of our favourites. Mostly, they require a mission and are subject to seasonal conditions, but for those who make the effort, they will be rewarded mightily.
Emma Gorge, the Kimberley
The dramatic Emma Gorge in the Kimberley pours over a 65-metre-high cliff into a large plunge pool, punctuating the end of a 1.6km hike. The track begins at Emma Gorge Resort and winds past the deep Turquoise Pool (also a great spot to swim) before arriving at the falls. The water is refreshingly cool, as it’s shaded by the looming cliffs for most of the day. Tourists dribble in and out, dropping piles of clothes on the rocks as they stare up at the falls in awe before shocking their hot, sweaty bodies with the water’s cool, pristine touch.
Josephine Falls, Queensland
There are lots of good swims to flirt with in the Atherton tablelands, at risk of waterfall fatigue. But when we arrived at Josephine Falls, a series of tiered granite rock pools and waterfalls just south of Cairns in Wooroonooran national park, we knew we’d found something special. Josephine Falls sits at the base of Queensland’s highest mountain, Mount Bartle Frere, and the constant flow from streams that cascade down the peak create some of the cleanest waterways in the world.
Lawn Hill Gorge, Queensland
Before we arrived in Queensland, we asked other travellers around the country about their most memorable swims. More often than not they mentioned Lawn Hill Gorge in Boodjamulla national park. Located in the remote north-west corner of Queensland, near the Northern Territory border, Lawn Hill is a dusty trek from anywhere. Hike up rocky, red plateaus through palm-fringed gorges to lookout points (Indarri and Duwadarri) and gaze down on to the spring-fed, emerald-green water below, which bubbles up from the Georgina basin. Then make your way back down to the water to cool off. This is a true oasis.
Maguk Gorge, Kakadu
Like pulling back a veil, scrubby brush and spiral pandanus abruptly end at the water’s edge to reveal the dramatic Maguk Gorge. High canyon walls tower above to form a natural amphitheatre with a deep pool at its heart. It’s easy to see why this place is considered sacred to the Bininj/Mungguy people. The water’s edge is shallow at first but quickly drops into a dark abyss. People perch on the rocky ledges that fringe the pool, soaking up the morning sunlight that bathes the western cliff face. Others float on the surface around the gorge, some diving deep in search of the bottom.
Bitter Springs, Northern Territory
After days of never-ending horizons and flat, dry desert dotted with termite mounts, the Never Never – a name for the vast, remote area of outback Australia – never felt more apt. Mataranka in central NT is home to some oasis-like swimming spots, in particular this natural, palm-fringed artesian hot spring, which sits at a luxuriant 33C year-round. Immersed in a setting of mossy green banks and river pandanus, the pool has a swamp-like feel (in a good way). Tall palms rise above the sun-flecked water as swimmers of all ages enjoy the warm temperature.
Dalhousie Springs, South Australia
Located in Witjira national park on the western fringe of the Simpson Desert, Dalhousie Springs is probably one of the most remote places that any of us will ever swim (or drive to). Water at this location has probably travelled thousands of kilometres, over something like a million years, to reach the surface, which certainly puts any road trip into perspective. The main pool is a large, thermal spring and the only designated swimming hole in the area. Surrounded by dense, wetland vegetation, it can be easily accessed via stairs on the water’s edge. The temperature sits at a reliable 38C year-round, making it hospitable for all and a welcome respite from days driving through hot, dry desert.
Leliyn Falls, Northern Territory
Leliyn is a series of cascading waterfalls and deep pristine pools along the Edith River, just north of Katherine on the west side of Nitmiluk national park. It is also the final destination of the Jatbula Trail, a 62km hike along ancient songline country, through an ever-changing landscape of sandy beaches, monsoon forests, rapid rivers and rocky canyons. The top pools are the feature, accessed via a steep, 1.2km walk up the escarpment through long grass. You’ll be relieved to find the water when you do. The pools couldn’t be more refreshing in the heat of a NT winter (still over 30C most days), which is the best time to visit.