If you follow me on Instagram, you may have been aware that we recently got back from an absolutely epic 16-day trip touring the Northern Territory. We road tripped from Darwin to Katherine, before flying down to Alice Springs and driving to Uluru and Kings Canyon. It was absolutely incredible, and one of the major highlights were the abundance of wild swimming spots. I’ve not really explored many of the wild swimming spots or hiking trails with waterfalls near me in New South Wales, but wild swimming seems to be a way of life in the Northern Territory, especially in the sultry Top End. Whilst we weren’t able to get to as many spots as I would have liked, we had a great time cooling off at these watering holes. I’ve rated the 8 wild swimming spots we visited from best to worst, based on our personal opinions. If you’re looking for advice on wild swimming in the Northern Territory to visit, look no further.
Please note, anyone who is considering outdoor swimming at any of the places listed below, crocodiles are a genuine threat in the Northern Territory. Wild swimming is safe, as long as you are ‘croc-wise’ and follow all advice and signage provided by the National Parks. If in doubt, ask a local before jumping in!
01. Unnamed Plunge Pool near Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park
This unnamed plunge pool near the Katherine Gorge, or Nitmiluk Gorge to use the correct indigenous name, has got to be one of the most special places we’ve ever been. We were staying at the nearby Cicada Lodge inside the Nitmiluk National Park, a quietly stylish, intimate lodge owned by the traditional custodians of this area, the Jawoyn people. We booked a private helicopter with wild swimming tour through Nitmiluk Tours for a total YOLO experience and we were not disappointed. Our pilot flew us over the 13 gorges that make up the Katherine Gorge, which is the best way to appreciate and experience the sheer scale and grandeur of this world-famous natural wonder. Even if you hike the Southern Walks over multiple days you can only reach the 8th gorge at most. The helicopter landed in the middle of wild bushland, and our pilot led us to a completely isolated and otherwise inaccessible natural swimming hole and waterfall. We were a few kms from the Katherine River by this point. Our pilot told us that the traditional custodians had not revealed the name of this specific plunge pool, but that just above the waterfall, out of immediate sight, is an upper pool, a site that’s referred to as ‘dangerous and sacred.’ Indeed, in the hour we spend at this tranquil place, with nothing to disturb us but the sound of running water, it’s not hard to see why it is sacred to the traditional custodians. We felt incredibly privileged to be able to swim here and it was a highlight of our time spent at Nitmiluk Gorge (Katherine Gorge).
02. Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park
Florence Falls was the first wild swimming spot we visited during our time in the Northern Territory and the first stop on our Litchfield National Park daytrip, accessible via a sealed road. As you can’t swim in many places in Darwin (aside from man-made pools) many locals spend their weekends at Litchfield National Park, where there are many locations including Florence Falls were you can enjoy safe wild swimming. The Shady Creek walk to Florence Falls alone is a really enjoyable hike, and one of the best hiking trails with waterfalls in my opinion. It’s not too challenging and only takes about 30 minutes, so it’s suitable for all ages, but it meanders through gorgeous rainforest scenery before you emerge at the foot of the picturesque Florence Falls. We took the Shady Creek walk as the usual route, the gorge rim walk with a 60 step staircase down from the lookout, was closed. Once you reach Florence Falls, there are some metal stairs built into the rock providing easy access into the beautifully clear plunge pool which is suitable for swimming in all year round. The water was a lot deeper than I expected in parts, but there’s a few handy submerged rocks that you can perch on if you get tired of swimming or if you’re not the most confident of swimmers. The current was stronger than I expected as well, but it was still easy enough to swim directly underneath the double falls. It was fairly busy when we visited, but the majority of people were relaxing around the edges of the pool dipping their feet in, or on the stairs, so it was still peaceful enough whilst actually swimming. Unlike Wangi Falls, there weren’t any crocodiles at Florence Falls!
03. Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park
We’d heard whilst in Darwin that the famous Wangi Falls were closed due to a crocodile sighting and for the entire drive from Darwin to Litchfield, I was crossing everything that they’d magically be reopened. After all, this is Crocodile Dundee territory, what’s one croc? Clearly I underestimated the threat of saltwater crocodiles; Wangi Falls were indeed still shut. I am absolutely devastated we didn’t get to swim in these beautiful waterfalls and they would have beaten Florence Falls in ratings hands down if we had. Wangi Falls are easily accessible by sealed road and are a short hike from a nearby camping ground with hot showers. The powerful, thundering falls cascade into a large plunge pool, the water the perfect temperature for cooling off from the sultry Top End heat. We’d left it quite late on in our daytrip to Litchfield National Park to visit Wangi Falls, as Will was less naïve that me and convinced they’d still be shut, so we didn’t have time to enjoy any of the hiking trails nearby. Similarly to the walk to Florence Falls, apparently the 3Km hike up over the falls and back down to the carpark is one of the more popular hiking trails with waterfalls in the park, so I highly recommend this walk if you’re visiting. Another favourite waterfall in Litchfield National Park was Tolmer Falls, which you can’t swim in, but are pretty spectacular to admire from the lookout.
4. Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park
We came across Edith Falls, also known as Leliyn Falls, by accident on the way from Darwin to Katherine. We took a detour on our way to Cicada Lodge off the Stuart Highway and were rewarded with the beautiful idyllic Edith Falls on the western side of the Nitmiluk National Park. After visiting Edith Falls, and our helicopter tour over the Nitmiluk Gorge, I really think that Nitmiluk National Park is my favourite we visited, including both Kakadu and Litchfield! There is a large natural pool at the base of Edith Falls, which is definitely one of the largest pools on this list. It felt like swimming in an actual swimming pool. We swam a few lengths to the falls and back, with Will complaining all the while that he was going to drown, and there were several other groups of people relaxing, some enviably on inflatable unicorns. It’s a perfect picnic area with a grassy campsite, a great spot to relax at before or after dipping your feet in the pool. There are lots of great hiking trails including hiking trails with waterfalls, as you can hike up the steep 2.6km Leliyn Trail to the upper Edith Falls pools. Alternatively, if you fancy a longer hike, you can take the 9km hike to Sweetwater Pool for another peaceful and secluded wild swimming spot, which I’m gutted we didn’t have time for. Edith Falls is also the finishing point of the famous, challenging, multi-day Jatbula Trail, a staggering 62km long. What a location to end such a hike!
05. Katherine Hot Springs, Katherine
The Katherine Hot Springs are one of the most well-known natural hot springs in Australia and I was really excited to check these out, especially as they’d only just opened again for swimming now the wet season was over. I didn’t know what to expect; the other hot springs in Australia I’ve visited where Mornington Peninsula Hot Springs in Victoria, which were lovely and cosy considering how chilly it was outside. When we visited Katherine Hot Springs it was a casual 36 degrees outside and I thought the water may be sweltering and not the most pleasant of ways to cool down from the humidity and heat. Arriving at the springs, which are just outside of town on the Katherine River and well sign posted, we were pleasantly surprised to find the series of turquoise pools to be a thoroughly refreshing 25-30 degrees, and a great place to sit, relax, and appreciate the natural vegetation. Unlike Bitter Springs NT, in the Elsey National Park, which is number 8 on this list, I found that the vegetation and spiders likely lurking didn’t bother me as much as it was still relatively clear overhead whilst swimming. You can float down the springs gently, and climb or jump into the final pool at the bottom. When we were there, we shared this bottom pool with 3 young brothers who were having a fantastic time diving into the plunge pool. If you fancy a stroll after swimming, there’s a trail suitable for walking and cycling that follows the river bed to the Katherine Low level Nature Reserve.
06. Mataranka Thermal Pools, Mataranka
These Thermal Pools, also known as the Mataranka Hot Springs, are located in the small township of Mataranka, about an hour’s drive south of Katherine, in the same location as Bitter Springs. Mataranka is best known as the ‘Capital of the Never Never’ thanks to Jeanie Gunn’s famous book about the harshness of outback station life entitled ‘We of the Never Never.’ On a separate note, this famous novel which has also been turned into a film, is now top of my reading list! The Thermal Pools, or Mataranka Hot Springs, are located at Mataranka Homestead near the Never Never homestead replica, and the water is consistently 34 degrees. These natural hot springs are quite wild, with lush tropical vegetation, but unlike Bitter Springs they’re slightly more man-made which appealed to me – no spiders in sight! The Thermal Pools are also sandy-bottomed unlike some of the others on this list, which does make swimming and putting your feet down less of a gamble. However, I found the actual space for swimming between the metal staircase and where the vegetation encroaches to be a little too narrow, and they were very busy. Still, if you’re in the Katherine Region, it’s certainly worth the trip to Mataranka and to try these Thermal Springs out for yourself.
07. Buley Rockholes, Litchfield National Park
The Buley Rockholes are another famous wild swimming spot in Litchfield National Park, a series of cascading safe pools open for most of the year. The Buley Rockholes are actually fed by the same stream as Florence Falls, with the 2km Florence Creek Walk connecting them. They’re a particular favourite with families likely due to them being calmer and less deep than the plunge pools by Florence or Wangi Falls. The Buley Rockholes are also a popular location for a shaded picnic in the Litchfield National Park. When we arrived it was absolutely heaving so we walked up the hill to try and find a more secluded pool, but unfortunately we weren’t in luck. We did jump in and sit underneath some mini waterfalls, but it wasn’t entirely relaxing due to all the kids screaming and jumping in, so they’re not particularly high on my list. On the plus side, they did feel a little bit like spa pools; sitting underneath the jets from the mini waterfalls was like sitting in a much more natural thalassotherapy pool.
08. Bitter Springs, Elsey National Park
I’d seen plenty of beautiful photos on Instagram tagged‘Bitter Springs NT’, located in the Elsey National Park just outside of Mataranka. I couldn’t wait to have a relaxing dip in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of Bitter Springs, floating downstream with the gentle current. Upon arriving, we were greeted with the most stereotypical Australian image; 5 burly men bathing in the springs, each wearing a battered Akubra, sunglasses and nursing a can of beer. It was perfect and we eagerly plunged straight in. The reality did not live up to expectations. Whilst the sun certainly illuminated the turquoise colour of the thermal pool, it couldn’t mask the slimy, unpleasant algae that immediately coated us. A hitchhiker, Tomez, we’d picked up on the drive from Katherine to Mataranka described Bitter Springs NT as being really ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ which turned out to be code for ‘there are massive spiders dangling right above the water ready to drop on you.’ Whilst no spiders actually dropped on us, I’m not exaggerating. There were gigantic, evil looking arachnids hovering ominously a foot or so above our heads and for me that was a deal breaker. It’s hard to serenely paddle and float, let alone take the perfect Instagram shot, with these menaces eyeing you up. Sadly Bitter Springs NT wasn’t for us.
We ran out of time in the Red Centre to visit any wild swimming spots, which was a real shame according to this list of wild swimming holes in the red centre that you need to jump in. Oh well, we’ll just have to go back!