Carved with a labyrinth of deep, chilly gorges and harbouring emerald rivers and piping hot springs, Northern Australia is a great place to get wet (despite its rather croccy reputation).
From Cape York to the Kimberley, here’s our pick of the very best outback waterholes and bubbling thermal pools, tropical oases and rainforested spa baths, all guaranteed to bring you invigorating bliss.
1. Bitter Springs, NT
Australia’s most unusual snorkelling experience tops this list: a translucent stream that carries you in its warm, mineral-rich current, drifting and diving through thermal bubble trails that rise from the deep at a delicious 34˚C.
There’s exceptional visibility and on a frosty winter’s morning this spot is sheer heaven!
Traditionally known by its Indigenous name Koran, Bitter Springs was renamed by Overland Telegraph Line worker Steven King in 1871 for the bitter taste of the springs’ lime-rich water.
The site is protected as part of Elsey National Park and easy access into and out of the springs make this an adventure for all ages. It’s free, open year-round and is utterly deserted at daybreak if you fancy snorkelling in solitude.
A few kilometres away, shaded beneath the world’s largest stand of livistona rigida fan palms, Rainbow Springs fills roomier hot pools at Mataranka while freshwater crocodiles sun themselves just downstream.
Mataranka’s vast colony of little red flying-foxes creates a stunning sunset spectacle when they depart their daytime roosts in numbers of up to 250,000.
Watch them at dusk from the campground at Mataranka Homestead (a convenient base for daily soaks in the plunge pools) or from the national park camp at Jalmurark on the Roper River, which provides hot water showers, toilets, picnic tables, firepits and free gas BBQs.
Essentials: Bitter Springs is signposted off the Stuart Highway, 2km north of Mataranka and 420km south of Darwin. Camping at Jalmurark costs $6.60/adult (half-price for kids) or $15.40/family (contact nt.gov.au). Visit from May-September and don’t miss Territory Day (July 1st) for the chance to buy fireworks.
2. Babinda Boulders, FNQ
Nestled against the rainforested slopes of Queensland’s highest mountains, enormous granite boulders divert the flow of Babinda Creek into deep, translucent pools.
Here, according to Aboriginal Yidinydji tribe lore, the beautiful Oolana dwells, calling for her lost lover and beckoning visitors into the creek’s raging wet season flow.
Each year, more than four-and-a-half metres of rain falls on Babinda, making this one of the wettest places in Australia. Rain or not, it’s impossible to stay dry at this refreshing oasis that easily outranks all others in the state’s far north for its sheer beauty and accessibility.
There are short walks and longer rainforest strolls, and a top free campground where bandicoots forage after dark.
Follow Babinda Creek downstream to the Devils Pool Lookout (470m one-way), and discover secluded swimming holes along the Goldfield Track which cuts a path through magnificent Wooroonooran National Park to a campground and riverside waterholes at Goldsborough Valley, 19km away.
The brilliant, electric-blue Ulysses butterfly and Australia’s largest, the Cairns birdwing butterfly both thrive at Babinda Boulders, so keep your gaze skywards.
Essentials: Babinda is located just off the Bruce Highway, 60km south of Cairns. Follow the main street 6km to the Boulders where there’s a free campground with coldwater showers (72 hour limit) and a creekside picnic area with free gas barbecues, picnic shelters, toilets and a kids playground (www.cairns.qld.gov.au).
3. Bell Gorge, WA
At the western end of the Gibb River Road, the rugged King Leopold Ranges elevates off-roaders into a bewitching landscape of pink quartzite escarpments and flat-topped mesas.
Here, travellers gaze wistfully over sweeping valleys bathed golden in exquisite, early morning light as corellas rise in spectacular, snowy swirls and palm trees and pandanus green a vibrant, red rock landscape.
Nestled amongst it all and carved with a dazzling five-tier waterfall is Bell Gorge and one of the best waterholes in the Kimberley.
A moderate, 50-minute walk and rockhop lures you beneath these deep falls where you can peel off your gear and take the plunge, kicking out under its icy flow and resurfacing to toast yourself on sunny, sculptured rock slabs that tilt and dip into the pool.
One of the few places in the Kimberley to have retained its European title, the range is named for King Leopold of Belgium, and the surrounding conservation park known as Woonamur, protects more than 392,000 hectares of river gorges and the Kimberley’s highest peaks – Mt Ord (937m) and Mt Broome (935m).
A short drive from Bell Gorge, Silent Grove campground is popular for the outback comforts it provides: hot showers, flushing loos and drinking water (the most important resource in these parts).
Overnight stays cost $12/person ($2.20 for kids) plus the $12 park entry fee (www.dpaw.wa.gov.au). The closest free camp lies 19km west of the Silent Grove turn-off at March Fly Glen Rest Area (toilets, tables and fire places).
Essentials: The Gibb River Road stretches for about 650km from Derby to the Wyndham-Kununurra turnoff. Set off between May and September for cool, dry conditions, check the route before setting out (www.mainroads.wa.gov.au) and stock up on food, fuel and other supplies before leaving Broome, Derby or Kununurra.
4. Indarri Falls, Qld
In the state’s rugged northwest, Boodjamulla’s emerald, spring-fed oasis blazes a palm-fringed path towards the Gulf, cascading through ancient sandstone and across the parched spinifex plains.
Reaching this far-flung waterway is no easy feat, but what continues to lure outback adventurers so far off the beaten track is an incredible paddling adventure on Lawn Hill’s crystal-clear creek.
Past pandanus-fringed banks and sheer, blazing red cliffs that shoot skywards, Indarri Falls beckons paddlers with its exhilarating limestone tufa waterfall that sends Lawn Hill Creek cascading over its broad two-metre high drop.
Beneath the surface, Indarri Fall’s tufa wall drops another 30 metres, a delicate construction of calcium carbonate deposited by the lime-rich water.
With a snorkel and mask you can get a good view of the tufa wall through the chilly, clear water and maybe spot barramundi, snapping turtles and archerfish too.
Linger here to float and chill before climbing to a lookout over the falls, or portaging around the tufa dam into Upper Gorge where the creek narrows and disappears into a lush maze of fan palms and water lilies.
Allow two hours to tackle the 6km-long canoe trip into Upper Gorge, and don’t miss an early morning bushwalk along Wild Dog Dreaming to discover Indigenous rock art and a midden of mussel shells and stone artifacts (4.5km/1.5hrs return).
For totally self-sufficient rigs, waterfront national park camps are a bargain at under $6 per person, while nearby Adels Grove tempts with hot showers and restaurant meals.
Essentials: Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is located 100km west of Gregory Downs via the Wills Developmental Road. National Park entry is free and campsites cost $6.15pp (book well in advance at www.nprsr.qld.gov.au). Hire canoes on site or bring your own. Visit from May to September for cool, dry conditions and avoid trips during the wet season or Queensland school holidays.
5. Buley Rockhole, NT
These oh-so-beautiful rock pools might attract a big wintertime crowd of Darwin day-trippers, but if you overnight here, you’ll most likely find Buley Rockhole blissfully deserted at dawn.
Spring-fed and utterly gorgeous, this is one of my favourite NT destinations: easy to access and impossible to leave.
Find a favourite spa pool and slide on in, or spend time exploring upstream, leapfrogging between the palm-fringed pools.
You can get there in a conventional car and there’s a campground for small rigs within easy walking distance of the rock pools.
There’s plenty more to explore in Litchfield year-round, but you won’t want to rush on from Buley Rockhole. When you do, there are plenty more spring-fed creeks to explore, tumbling off Litchfield’s Tabletop Range to fill some of the best croc-free swimming in the territory’s north.
Don’t miss the delicious waterhole above Tjaetaba Falls, the hidden waterfall at the head of Surprise Creek and en route, the rustic outdoors museum at historical Blyth Homestead
Essentials: Litchfield National Park is located 129km south of Darwin via the town of Batchelor. Entry is free but camping at Buley Rockhole costs $6.60 adults (half price for kids, no pets, nt.gov.au). Visit from April to November.
6. Barramundi Falls, NT
In Kakadu National Park’s less-visited southern half, a corrugated track leads 12km off Kakadu Highway, bound for a secluded spot known as Maguk deep within Buladjang or Sickness Country.
Beyond Maguk’s basic bush campground, a gentle foot trail pushes upstream through shady monsoon forest, following the sandy creek that drains from a deep plunge pool beneath magnificent Barramundi Falls.
You could float here for hours, warming up on hot rock slabs in between chilly dips, but for stellar views and a blissful spa experience, gain some altitude by tackling the 10-minute climb to the top of the falls.
Here you can soak in a cluster of body-sized rock spas, filled in succession by Maguk’s clear cascade before it tumbles over the waterfall’s edge.
Paddle across these pools to explore deeper into the gorge, swimming through a narrow rock chasm to more private pools upstream.
The easy walk to the falls takes around 30 minutes at a leisurely pace (2km return), but this special spot is difficult to leave so pack a picnic and plenty of cold drinks. For those who linger, Maguk’s bush camp provides toilets, picnic tables and fire pits (BYO drinking water), and charges fees of $6 adults, $3 kids (5-15 years) and $15 per family payable via an honesty box on site.
Essentials: The track to Maguk is often closed during the wet season and recommended for 4WD vehicles only. Kakadu charges national park entry fees of $25/adult, valid for 2 weeks (free for kids under 16 years and NT residents). Visit from April to September and don’t miss Kakadu’s Mahbilil Festival (September). Contact www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu.