Australia's Best Inland Waterholes

Kath Heiman — 16 December 2019
For those crossing the country this summer, Camper unveils a selection of the best spots throughout our interior where you can find your dose of H20.

While on the road, have you ever had one of your passengers announce suddenly that they can see the ocean — or smell the salt-air — with a look of such exuberance that you’d think it was their birthday? Or seen the excitement in your young child’s eyes when you say, “who wants to go swimming”?  

Our emotional responses to water are hard-wired.

There’s a lot written about the physical and psychological benefits of being on and around water. Scientific studies indicate that proximity to water can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety and increase success.

PICTURE CREDIT FOR LAST IMAGE: Rowan Bestmann

Apparently if you present someone with a photograph, the more water it shows the happier they feel (we can only assume that doesn’t include photos of torrential downpours!). 

And, in some psychology circles, it can be reasonable to ask someone, “What’s your water?”, meaning: where’s the waterside place you go to feed your inner mojo? (For more, see W J Nichols, Blue Mind). 


A BEACH-BOUND NATION

Australia is a country of beach-goers. Ninety per cent of our population live within 100 kilometres of the eastern seaboard. When the holiday seasons hit, the populations of coastal communities swell beyond capacity, as thousands of land-lubbers head to the beach to seek their little patch of Paradise. 

And with a coastline long enough to apportion approximately one metre of it to every man, woman and child in the country, everyone probably stands a good chance of finding their own personal nirvana among the sand dunes and rock pools.  

For some of us, it’s as simple as scrunching our toes in the sand; for others, swimming, diving and fishing; and for others again, turning our rigs into dune buggies for the day. 

If we all stood side by side along the country’s perimeter, the collective smile we’d generate would probably be bright enough to light up half of the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe it’s no coincidence that our brains and hearts comprise over 70 per cent water — while the surface of the earth is made up of 70 per cent ocean. Perhaps the secret to human happiness can be summed up in the phrase: ‘just add water’.  

But let’s not kid ourselves that we can simply hit the beach and let our hair down whenever we feel like it. Whether it’s the threat of crocodiles and irukandji in the north, sheer cliff faces in the south, or the Roaring Forties in the south-west, sometimes sections of our coastal fringes can be a bit less appealing than the tourist brochures let on.

And, besides, Australia has so much more to offer than stunning coastlines. For those of us who head inland, the opportunities for adventure take on a different tone. Replace blindingly white sands and sea-blue horizons with ochre tones, desert landscapes and tropical terrain. Inland, we have World Heritage areas to enjoy, tracts of unpopulated land bigger than some European countries, and the opportunity to get back to basics, far from the Madding Crowd.  

Trouble is: there ain’t a lot of water around once we leave the coastal fringe. Indeed, Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world. So, where can we go for a ‘fix’ of H2O when our travels lead us away from the ocean?  

The answers are as diverse as our travel itineraries will allow.


WATERFALLS

Australia is teeming with significant waterfalls, with the most spectacular drops occurring along the east coast (thanks to the 3500km long Great Dividing Range). Our large escarpments elsewhere have also created a variety of falls, from wide cascades to steep drops. Many of them offer a great opportunity to explore and to connect with our inner mermaid. 

A prime destination to incorporate into a north-south trek of this ancient land is Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in the Gulf Country. The main gorge and surrounding range was once the floor of an ancient shallow sea. Over millions of years, the creeks and streams have eroded along natural fissures to generate gorges and striking cascades, begging to be swum in or explored by canoe. 

If you’ve ever doubted the psychological ‘pull factor’ of water, think again. Having seen the site featured on a nature documentary before our departure to retrace Burke and Wills’ route from Melbourne to the Gulf, the prospect of visiting these falls sustained our six year old daughter across over 2,500 kilometres of arid country. Not a single complaint. Just a daily query: “Are we there yet?” The so-called ‘mermaid lagoon’ that she found on our arrival made the wait well and truly worthwhile.

While Australian drop waterfalls don’t make the Big League by international standards, we have some undeniably fantastic spots to explore. Wallaman Falls in Queensland, near Ingham, takes out the title of Australia’s tallest waterfall — with Wollomombi Falls in NSW, between Armidale and Ebor, coming in second. 

Beyond these, heaps of fun can be had among the smaller falls that pepper the country, in particular those where you can swim, hike or laze around the waterholes at their base.

One of the more accessible of our larger drop falls is Ellenborough Falls west of Taree in NSW. With a 200 metre plunge off the Bulga Plateau, this is the third longest single-drop waterfall in Australia and one of the longest in the Southern Hemisphere. Fed by numerous creeks on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, this area was a seasonal gathering place for the local Biripi People and was a refuge for many tribes retreating from white settlement during the 1800s. 

Today, getting to the falls involves negotiating 641 timber steps from the car park down into the valley floor. Depending on conditions, you can take a dip in the pool at the base (beware of the slippery rocks), or simply enjoy the water spray. On Fridays and weekends, the car park kiosk offers local food to recharge your batteries. 

Smaller waterfalls, that promise a swim for you and the kids, are everywhere once you start to look. We enjoy: Scout’s Falls in Sherwood Nature Reserve near Glenreagh; Whian Whian Falls outside the town of Dunoon in the Northern Rivers; and Carrington Falls on the NSW Southern Highlands.  

So look around. There’s probably a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall somewhere along your next travel route. Chances are that a dip in it could be the highlight of your day — and maybe even the highlight of your whole trip.  


HOT SPRINGS

Hot Springs are one of Mother Nature’s wonders. Water channelled from the deep recesses of the earth emerges, pre-warmed, and ready to ease our aches and pains. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to wallow in hot baths at Day Spas, whereas we overlanders can enjoy them for a fraction of the cost — or for no cost at all — if we know where to look.

One of our favourites is Coward Springs, along the Oodnadatta Track, which formed when a bore was sunk at the site in the late 1800s. Subsequently, in the 1990s, the site was rehabilitated and 70 hectares of surrounding wetland were put on the Heritage register. The campsite directly adjacent to the Springs is a great place to rest up. Just watch out for sand flies that might crash your pool party if you’re unlucky (there are more than 200 types of midges in Australia and not all of them are at the beach!).  

Less well-known than Coward Springs is the hot spring in the small township of Bedourie, 190km north of Birdsville. In the last couple of years, the township has done great work to spruce up the town’s aquatic centre, which has both a 25 metre pool and a 22 person hot spa fed by Bedourie’s artesian bore. The council campsite right out the back is well maintained and is also just a short walk from the historic Royal Hotel Bedourie. Brilliant!

If you’re travelling south beyond Southport in Tasmania, make sure you leave time to visit Hasting Caves and Thermal Pool. The hot spring at Hastings Caves is easy to access, and is located in a great setting with lawned areas and seating, perfect for picnics. If you’ve spent time camping or walking near Australia’s southernmost tip, a dip in this pool to ease your weary body will be memorable for all the right reasons.

Unlike the quick stroll to the hot spring at Hastings Caves, the walk down to the thermal pool at Yarrangobilly Caves, in the Snowy Mountains, takes about 15 to 20 minutes on foot and is a Grade 4 walk. Fed by a natural spring around one kilometre below the surface, this pool stays at 27 degrees all year. So channel your inner Scandinavian by taking to the pool in the middle of winter while the snow is on the ground, or enjoy it in summer as a respite from a hot day’s walking or fishing in the National Park. This area of high country has been affected by bushfires recently, so it is worth confirming it's open before heading this way.


PUBLIC SWIMMING POOLS

Some of the best swimming pools that we’ve encountered on our travels have been located in arid or semi-arid regional centres. Where the temperatures soar into the mid 40s in summer, some local councils are making real efforts to ensure that locals keep cool and that the young kids of inland Australia learn water safety.

For overlanders, a good local pool or water park can offer an oasis from the dust, dirt and rudimentary wash routines that lots of us experience while we’re on the road. With many offering change rooms with hot showers on town water pressure, and with all of them promising a swim without unpredictable currents or submerged obstacles, the opportunity to relax and recharge is a real drawcard.      

Of course, the quality of facilities differs depending on where you are. 

Some local councils struggle to keep their pools open as budgets tighten and facilities age. But others are going gangbusters, providing facilities with features that are guaranteed to attract customers from miles around. 

An inland pool that really turned our heads was the Broken Hill Regional Aquatic Centre with its 25m inside pool, 50m outside pool and water park. 

And then there’s the Mildura Waves Aquatic Facilities, which offers exactly what the name says: Waves. Nearly 400 kilometres from the nearest ocean! 

Then there are stellar water parks at places like Griffith in the north-west of the Riverina and Karumba in the Gulf.

These are but a few of the opportunities for making a splash in Australia’s vast interior. Wherever you’re planning to head this summer, stay cool!

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waterhole swimming kayaking water river tourism destination travel