Travel

Dip Your Toes in the Best Swimming Holes in the Northern Territory

From plunge pools to cascading waterfalls, finding a place to swim in the NT is easy.

best watering holes northern territory
Photo: @jasonsrhoj

There’s no shortage of places to swim in the Northern Territory. From the lush oasis in the Top End to the dry, arid Red Centre, travellers can find some of the most beautiful watering holes in the country.

Most watering holes are well-known and easy to access, but some are secret, and others can be hard to access—but that’s part of the adventure. It’s always a good idea to check accessibility on the Parks and Wildlife website and any rules and regulations for visiting the watering hole. Some might be highly significant to the Indigenous custodians of the land.

Watering holes vary in depth, so one tip, if you want optimum relaxation, bring a pool noodle. Here are the best watering holes in the Northern Territory.

best watering holes northern territory
Photo: @takeus_withyou

Florence Falls

Litchfield National Park
The spectacular Florence Falls cascade into a plunge pool, set in a pocket of monsoon forest. It’s a short three-minute walk from the car park to the scenic viewing platform, then another one kilometre down the Gorge Rim Walk to the falls, along the moderate-grade Shady Creek walk. There are campgrounds nearby the falls.

best watering holes northern territory

Buley Rockhole

Litchfield National Park
This popular swimming spot is great for winding down and relaxing. There’s a series of cascading waterfalls and rock shelves to sit on or plunge into the deeper pool below. This watering hole is near Florence Falls, so you can park in the same place and hit both swimming spots in one day.

best watering holes northern territory
Photo: @jaxonfoale

Maguk

Kakadu National Park
Getting to Maguk is a bit of a hike, but it’s well worth it to swim and sit around all day on the edges of the natural pool. Located an hour’s drive south of Cooinda, Maguk is accessed from a 14km four-wheel drive track off the Kakadu Highway and a one-kilometre walk across a riverbed.

best watering holes northern territory

Ellery Creek Big Hole

West MacDonnell Ranges
Ellery Creek Big Hole is popular for camping, swimming, and picnicking in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Surrounded by tall red cliffs, enjoy a dip in the watering hole or spend the day exploring the Dolomite walk to see surrounding formations.

Photo: @drossphoto

Redbank Gorge

West MacDonnell Ranges
Nestled at the base of Mt Sonder, Redbank Gorge is a popular stop for travellers following the Red Centre Way. It’s a 1.5-hour walk to the gorge, which is perfectly safe for swimming in the cold, deep water, and the towering cliffs are impressive. Nearby, enjoy basic camping facilities.

Photo: @tash__lucas

Bitter Springs

Katherine Region
The Bitter Springs was once a best-kept secret, and while it still remains off the mainstream, it’s more widely known—for a good reason. The Bitter Springs are set amongst palms and tropical woodlands, but the crystalline waters of the natural thermal pool draw travellers. There is a short 500-metre loop walk to the springs.

Photo: @backpackerdeals

Ormiston Gorge

West MacDonnell Ranges
This near-permanent waterhole is packed with travellers during summer. It’s located near 500 metres from the visitor centre, making it easy to access, and is around 14 metres deep at the southern end. There is also a four-hour circuit to explore, which takes hikers across rocky slopes to the gorge.

best watering holes northern territory
Photo: @gowellpix

Edith Falls

Nitmiluk National Park
The sparkling waterfalls are the perfect backdrop to this watering hole. A lush, grassy campsite nearby and a bushwalking track, Leilyn Trail, offer a challenging hike across a steep, rocky loop. The watering hole is closed between November and April, but other than that, it’s a great spot to take a dip.

best waterinbest watering holes northern territoryg holes northern territory

Crystal Falls

Nitmiluk National Park
This mass of rock pools, rapids, and small cascades can only be reached by trekking the iconic Jatbula Trail. It’s a 62km one-way trail, and Crystal Falls is the second stop. Here, cool off in the deep, crystal clear pools, and take in the striking Top End sunsets.

MORE: 18 of the Best Nature and Wildlife Experiences in the Northern Territory

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Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

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