HOT SPRINGS, COOL POOLS
Warm up, cool down – centre yourself at these top territory destinations, whatever the weather.
Centre yourself, Territory style
Carved with a labyrinth of deep, rocky gorges and harbouring emerald rivers and piping hot springs, the Northern Territory is a surprisingly good place to get wet despite its rather ‘croccy’ reputation.
From Darwin to the Red Centre, a string of natural springs fill translucent pools, some of which simmer away at a winter-warming 34˚C. These stellar swimming destinations not only indulge weary travellers, but are also great places to get walking, enjoy a bush camp and encounter unique Aussie wildlife.
MATARANKA’S TWIN SPRINGS
Shaded beneath the world’s largest stand of Livistona rigida fan palms at the headwaters of the Roper River, Mataranka’s steaming springs top this list. Accessible and idyllic, these translucent pools are protected within Elsey National Park (NP), filled by nearby Rainbow Springs at a rate of 30.5 million litres per day.
Freshwater crocodiles sun themselves downstream of the thermal springs, and Mataranka’s vast colony of little red flying foxes create a stunning sunset spectacle when they depart their daytime roosts in numbers of up to 250,000. The campground at Mataranka Homestead provides a convenient base for daily soaks in the plunge pools (visit matarankahomestead.com.au for more).
Close by, Bitter Springs must be Australia’s most unusual inland snorkeling site: a translucent stream that carries you in its warm, mineral-rich current as you drift and dive through thermal bubble trails rising from the deep. There’s exceptional visibility and on a frosty winter’s morning this spot is sheer heaven. Easy access into and out of Bitter Springs make this an adventure for all ages. Visit at daybreak for the best chance of solitude.
Location: The Mataranka thermal springs turn-off is signposted on the Stuart Highway, 1.5km south of Mataranka. To reach Bitter Springs, head 2km north of town and follow the signs.
Camping: Jalmurark campground in Elsey NP provides hot water showers, toilets, tables, fire pits, gas barbecues and bins. Camping currently costs $6.60/adult (half-price for kids) and $15.40/family. Pricing under review.
THE BUTTERFLY OASIS
Nestled beneath a trickling waterfall, this shady oasis takes its name from the thousands of common crow butterflies that rise in fluttering clouds from the cool, stone walls that surround Butterfly Springs. It’s an immensely picturesque spot and the only safe swimming hole in remote Limmen NP, where estuarine crocodiles are found in large numbers.
After a long hot hike through the dramatic sandstone pillars of Limmen’s Southern Lost City, Butterfly Springs provides delicious relief and is deep enough for a proper swim.
Linger here for the day and make use of the springs’ spacious, shady campground with wheelchair-accessible toilets, tables, fire pits and budget fees of just $3.30 for adults (half-price for kids).
The short walking trail that connects the camp to the water’s edge leads beneath fragrant fern-leafed grevilleas that attract great flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Lazing in the shallows, you might spot azure kingfishers and all kinds of waterbirds that stalk the purple water lilies downstream.
Butterfly Springs is accessible only to selfsufficient travellers with 4WD vehicles.
Other top spots in Limmen NP include the enormous Lomarieum Lagoon behind St Vidgeon Ruins for its incredible birdlife, and Tomato Island (Munbililla) where you can launch a boat and wrangle barramundi on the Roper River.
The best time to visit is May to September.
Location: Turn off the Carpentaria Highway 26km south of Borroloola, travel 50km and turn north into Limmen NP. Camping: Butterfly Springs campground provides wheelchair-accessible toilets, tables and fire pits (no pets). Camping overnight costs $3.30/adult, $1.65/child (aged 5-15 years) and $7.70/family. Contact: nt.gov.au, www.savannahway. com.au and www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport for the latest road conditions.
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.
Buley Rockhole is accessible with a 2WD via sealed roads, but its campsites are best suited to small rigs. Travellers seeking more elbow room can overnight at nearby Wangi Falls campground.
En-route to Litchfield, consider a stop at Berry Springs Nature Park, a lush, tropical swimming and picnic park located 57km south of Darwin along Cox Peninsula Road. This small reserve protects two deep pools, large enough to cope with the crowds that congregate creekside with their picnic baskets and Eskies on hot weekends.
Berry Springs Nature Park is open year round (8am-6.30pm) and provides barbecue facilities and a kiosk. Native plants flower from March to April, and the Monsoon Forest and Woodlands Walk provides an easy walking loop. The best time to visit is April to November
Location: Litchfield NP is found 129km south of Darwin via the town of Batchelor.
Camping: At Buley Rockhole you’ll pay $6.60/ adult, $3.30/child (free for kids less than 5 years) and $15.40/family overnight, no generators or pets permitted.
Contact: nt.gov.au or www.tourismtopend.com.au
Just five minutes from the centre of Katherine, travellers lounge in clear, communal pools and float downstream in the shade of overhanging pandanus palms and towering paperbarks. Kids clamour to swing off a tree rope and just about everyone else gives in to the gloriously tranquillising effect of the 32˚C current flowing through monsoon forest into the Katherine River.
Handrails and stone steps provide easy access to the Katherine Hot Springs, and you can picnic on the stream’s grassy banks in between steamy dips. Travellers with bikes on board can explore the cycle and walking trail that links Knotts Crossing on the Katherine River’s southern side to the hot springs and
Low Level Nature Reserve, looping back on the river’s northern bank to reach High Level Bridge.
Location: Head west on the Victoria Highway towards Kununurra and follow the signs to the river. Camping: Riverview Tourist Park provides the closest campsites (www.riverviewtouristvillage.com.au), while 40km north of Katherine, the national park camp at Leliyn Falls has excellent facilities (gas barbecues, picnic tables, toilets, hot showers and a kiosk).
FLOAT THE RED CENTRE
At the darkened entrance to Redbank Gorge, cathedral-high walls tower above a chilly pool that disappears into a narrow, twisting chasm of marbled red quartzite. High above, miniature cypress pines and ghost gums cling to the cliffs, and noisy crows swoop through the gorge, daring visitors to brave the icy waters.
At first light the rising sun ignites Redbank’s rosy rock faces, but during winter, you might want to wait for the midday warmth before braving the water. Follow the easy walking trail from camp armed with water toys and noodles (1km/20mins) and enjoy a delicious float, gazing upwards at Redbank’s narrowing rock walls. For solitude and stars, Woodland camping area is my pick of Redbank Gorge’s two great bush campgrounds, with spacious sites tucked into the scrub.
Location: Access is via a sealed section of Namatjira Drive, 25km west of the turn-off to Glen Helen Gorge.
Camping: Woodland camping area provides free gas barbecues, fire pits, picnic tables and toilets. Overnight camping fees cost $3.30/ adult, $1.65/child and $7.70/family. Contact: nt.gov.au and www.discovercentralaustralia.com
TJUWALIYN’S HOT SPOT
The big, popular camp at Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs
To reach Tjuwaliyn (Douglas) Hot Springs, you pass through a pretty lonely stretch of scrub, so it comes as a surprise to discover the vast wintertime congregation of travellers that converge on this big, free-range camp.
What lure the crowds are the steaming underground springs that bubble to the surface at a red-hot 60˚C! Some of the sandy pools along the Douglas River are literally boiling, so test the temperature carefully before taking the plunge and keep children within reach.
This site remains an important ceremonial place for Indigenous Wagiman women to teach girls about adult life and rituals continue today, occasionally closing the park.
At all other times, it’s travellers who gather here, but with such a spacious, free-range camp, it feels convivial rather than crowded. There are two areas to accommodate those with generators and those without, and the riverside sites even offer a little shade.
The park is accessible to conventional rigs and opens during the dry season (April to November).
Location: Turn off the Stuart Highway 6km north of Hayes Creek and follow Dorat then Oolloo Roads for 31km.
Camping: Fees are $6.60/adult and $3.30/ child; toilets, barbecues, firewood, water and picnic tables provided.
TAKE THE PLUNGE
In Kakadu’s deep south, a corrugated track leads to a secluded croc-free waterhole within Buladjang or Sickness Country. Nestled beneath a steep rockface on Waterfall Creek, Gunlom Plunge Pool is a reliable, year-round swimming hole: deep, icy and easy to reach (no sweaty hike required).
A great way to kick-start the day if you’re overnighting in Gunlom’s nearby campground is to climb the kilometre-long track that leads to a scenic viewpoint high above the falls, then scramble back down and throw yourself into the pool to cool off.
Picnic and camping facilities at Gunlom include hot showers, toilets, a kiosk, grassy campsites, and there’s an area reserved for travellers relying on their generators, too. The best time to visit is April to September and don’t miss Kakadu’s Mahbilil Festival in September.
Location: From Kakadu’s southern boundary head 11km north and another 37km on the groomed, unsealed road to Gunlom. Kakadu NP entry fees are $25/adult, valid for two weeks (free for kids under 16 years and NT residents).
Camping: $15/adult, $7.50/child, $38/ family (hot showers, toilets, kiosk, generators permitted, BYO drinking water).
CloCkwise top left: Bitter Springs is a unique place to snorkel; The Butterfly Oasis is the only safe waterhole in Limmen NP; Hello mum! Catherine enjoys a quiet moment with her beautiful baby at Mataranka’s Twin Springs ahead of the crowds.
CloCkwise top left: Although Berry Springs Nature Park is close to Darwin, its two pools are large enough to cope the crowds; Cooling off upstream at Berry Springs; Iconic pandanus palms at Katherine Hot Springs; Camping downstream from Leliyn Falls; Buley Rockhole is accessible with a 2WD.
CloCkwise top left: The icy waters at Redbank Gorge are best enjoyed at noon;
The sandy pools at Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs. Some can reach up to 60ºC, so test first; The large, popular campground at Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs; The Redbank Gorge is an easy 1km walk from camp.
This page: Gunlom Plunge Pool offers reliable year-round swimming, with no sweaty hike required!