A guide to Central Australia's swimming holes by Places We Swim

 

A quintessential swimming trip.

The Northern Territory is the Australia that the rest of the world imagines. It may also make up a portion of how we imagine ourselves as a nation, despite our urban reality. Red dirt, road trains, tough old blokes in oil-stained hats, roadhouses with bras hanging from the ceiling. It’s all here. Most of the time, we found it to be far more forgiving and diverse than we ever anticipated. Water pours from the least expected places and life always finds a way to adapt and thrive. The land is filled with ancient, wild electric beauty.

Central Australia is the outback that you see on postcards. It is a proper desert, experiencing both extreme heat and extreme cold. In fact, we spent much of our first trip huddled under blankets; winter temperatures regularly drop below zero in the night-time. Not exactly what we prepared for when we left the East Coast. Once we allowed our preconceptions to fall away, a richer, more complex outback form revealed. We could never have imagined the imposing mountains and green valleys. Huge peaks and ridges that collect and distribute water through broad basins. Cool canyons that shelter year-round swimming holes, and seasonal rivers that open up infinite possibilities.

As we set out on our swimming exploration of Central Australia, we couldn’t help but pick up a copy of Tracks about Robyn Davidson’s famous solo journey across Australia by camel in the 80s. Her story provided a vivid image of some of the gorges that we planned to visit.

Below are our favourite swims in the region.

 

Alice Springs Aquatic Centre 2

Alice Springs Aquatic Centre

1. Alice Springs Aquatic and Leisure Centre

Set against a MacDonnell Ranges backdrop, this legendary outdoor public pool in the heart of Alice Springs is the first place we stopped when we arrived in town. It’s a well-known fact that there is no better way to stretch your limbs after a long car ride than by a kilometre of Australian crawl (freestyle). On the doorstep of some of the most dramatic inland swimming holes and gorges in the country, the dedication to providing the region with a high-quality swimming facility is clear. This is where most of the locals learn to swim, and it’s a true community hub. The pool is surrounded by grass, and during summer it’s a favourite spot for families to spend the day, picnicking and relaxing with friends while finding some respite from the heat.


ellery creek

Udepata / Ellery Creek Big Hole - Kyle Hunter

2. Udepata / Ellery Creek Big Hole

A local favourite and the closest swimming spot to Mparntwe / Alice Springs (just over an hour by car). Ellery Creek Big Hole is an important geological site with deep history, and deep water flowing year-round. The water here made it a special meeting place for the Indigenous Aranda people. Even if you don’t brave a swim, the red gorge is an icon, and well worth a visit. You can camp overnight at Ellery Creek, and walk the 3km Dolomite Circuit Walk through surrounding rock formations. 

 

glen helen

 Yapalpe / Glen Helen Gorge - Mitchell Cox

3. YapalpeGlen Helen Gorge

In a region defined by ephemeral rivers and water holes, Glen Helen Gorge always has water, making it one of the most reliable places to take a dip. Most swimmers congregate around the main pool, at the base of the gorge, which feels like an open amphitheatre with a river running through it. You can see how these settings provided constant inspiration for Albert Namatjira’s painting. It’s no wonder that nearly every single waterhole is a sacred site to the Indigenous people. Make sure to stop into the Glen Helen Homestead for a drink – it’s a bit of an institution and one of the easiest places to use as a basecamp. Discovery Parks is the only accommodation in the West MacDonnell Ranges.

  redbank

 Yarretyeke / Redbank Gorge - Jess Caldwell & Luke Riddle

4. YarretyekeRedbank Gorge

A great place to visit on really hot days because there are very few hours of direct sun in here. It’s a deep, dramatic slot canyon polished by years of wind and water. Yes, the canyon walls are swirls of red, but also contain purple, orange and yellow. Start at the main pool (1.3 kilometres from the carpark) and swim up the narrow gorge as far as your curiosity will allow you. This is the start/end of the 223-kilometre Larapinta Trail, and a visit is well paired with a hike up Mt Sonder.

  ormiston

 Kwartatuma / Ormiston Gorge - Jackson Groves

5. Kwartatuma / Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston is a wide, high-walled canyon that opens up into the expansive Ormiston Pound. Close to the carpark is a deep, cool swimming hole, surrounded by native gum trees with permanent water, an ideal place to cool down at the inland beach in hotter months. The main pool is popular and usually attracts the largest crowds. Continue upstream for more swimming options and some privacy.

 

Things you should know:

  • There are NO crocodiles in Central Australia.
  • The best time to visit the waterholes is between January and May, when the water is warmer and swimming holes are full.
  • Water temperatures in the area are always cold; even in summer. Water flows underground before reaching the swimming holes, insulating it from the hot air. Acclimatise yourself to the temperature before jumping into deep water. Sudden immersion in icy water can cause loss of breath control and complete disorientation.

 

Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon are the authors of Places We Swim Australia and Places We Swim Sydney. Follow their adventures @placesweswim. Buy their books at placesweswim.com.

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