Waterholes in Northern Australia

By: Ali Millar, Photography by: Glenn Wardle


There’s nothing like a cooling swim on a hot day and there’s nowhere that does a pristine waterfall spilling into a deep, cool waterhole like northern Australia. Here’s our pick of top spots to cool off on your next northern adventure.

JARRANGBARNMI KOOLPIN GORGE, KAKADU, NT

Koolpin -Gorge -Kakadu -NT

Imagine floating in a crystal-clear waterhole, the sun beaming down from the brilliant blue sky, the red rocks of the gorge walls towering above you, the sound of water trickling over the rocks filling you ears. Next consider the privilege – the perfect serenity – of having this place all to yourself.

Jarrangbarnmi makes it onto our list not only because it is stunningly beautiful, but also because access is limited because a permit is required for camping, bushwalking and day use, meaning visitor numbers are heavily restricted. This means you can find secluded pockets among the rocks to relax beside your own private slice of freshwater swimming heaven.

Blackpool -waterfall -in -Koolpin -Gorge -Kakadu -NT

Located in the Mary River section of Kakadu, Jarrangbarnmi is geographically close to popular Gunlom, but it feels a world away. This is Buladjang country, sacred to the Jawoyn people and there are sacred sites that you’re asked not to enter. Do some reading before heading in and factor in a way to observe and respect the wishes of the Jawoyn. With solid knowledge on how to pay respect to the area's first people, you'll lessen the chances of inadvertently ignoring spiritual significance.

From the campground, a walking track criss-crosses Koolpin Creek, allowing you to stretch out and explore the series of stunning waterfalls and plunge pools, clambering over the rocks and stopping for dips at your leisure. There’s no marked end to this walk, you can cruise along the creek as far as you wish, but be sure to keep it in sight – as well as ensuring you don’t get lost, you won’t inadvertently stumble into a sacred site.

Jarrangbarnmi Campground has basic facilities, including drop toilets and fire pits, and the flat, open campground is perfect for camper trailers. Campers must be self-sufficient and have an offroad-ready rig to get in here.

THE ESSENTIALS:

You need a special permit to visit Jarrangbarnmi and access is limited to 40 people at any time. Advance booking is required, contact the permit officer at Kakadu to organise you stay.

Camping at Jarrangbarnmi costs $6 per person, per night. You’ll also need a Kakadu entry permit. www.parksaustralia.gov.au/Kakadu

MAGUK, KAKADU, NT

Waterfall -in -Maguk -Kakadu -NT

Continue your Kakadu adventures with a trip to spectacular Maguk, also in the Mary River region of the park. Fringed with pandanus, Maguk’s pool is cool, deep and perfectly clear, with a small waterfall pouring down from the rocky shelf above and fish darting across the shallows.

To reach the waterfall, follow the short walking track through lush vegetation to the edge of Barramundi Creek’s rocky bed. From here, cross the creek then follow the path alongside it to the waterhole. You can also opt to continue along the left bank, where the track winds its way up the side of the gorge, taking you behind the waterfall to a series of smaller pools in the rocks above.

Maguk -Kakadu -NT

This is a beautiful spot, with views down into the pool below and several deep, round swimming holes carved into the rocks. It’s a particularly lovely place to visit late in the day, when the rock walls glow red in the afternoon sun and most people have already headed back to camp.

Base yourself nearby at the excellent Maguk bush camp, a short distance down the road from the walking track trailhead. The shady sites here are the perfect spot to kick back at the end of a day of swimming and walking. Basic facilities include drop toilets, picnic tables and fire pits.

THE ESSENTIALS:

The walking track carpark is around 14km off the Kakadu Highway. The dirt entry road can be rough and corrugated and a 4WD is recommended.  

Camping at Maguk costs $6 per adult, per night. Fees are payable on site (self-serve, honesty box). A Kakadu entry permit is also required. www.parksaustralia.gov.au/Kakadu

LEYLINEDITH FALLS, NITMILUK, NT

Downstream -at -Leylinedith -Falls -Nitmiluk -National -Park -NT

No northern swimming escapade is complete without a sojourn at Leylin – a series of cascading falls and delightful swimming holes on the Edith River, in the western side of Nitmiluk NP, around 60km north of Katherine.

The adjacent campground is well manicured, with plenty of shaded sites for a range of rigs. While Leylin is in Nitmiluk NP, the campground on site is commercially run. Facilities are first-rate with showers, toilets, barbecues, drinking water, a large grassy picnic area and a kiosk on site with tasty food, smoothies and ice creams, among other things.

From the campground, it’s a short stroll across the grassy picnic grounds to the lower plunge pool. As far as plunge pools go, Leylin’s lower pool is one of the bigger ones I’ve come across and you can get a good swim in by setting out across to the waterfall, where you can perch on the rocky ledge and let the cascading water massage your head and shoulders.

Sweetwater -pool -at -Leylinedith -Falls -Nitmiluk -National -Park -NT

Don’t just stop there though. Leylin has an abundance of fantastic swimming spots worthy of exploring. You can take the 2.6km Leylin Trail circuit to the upper pools, or if you’re up early and willing to brave the heat, take the approximately 9km (return) walk to Sweetwater Pool, further upstream – you won’t regret it. The walking track follows the river so there’s numerous spots to stop and cool off along the way and you’re quite likely to have many of them all to yourself.

THE ESSENTIALS:

Camping at Leylin/Edith Falls is on a first-in, first-served basis. This is a popular campground and often fills up during peak season. It’s best to arrive early in the day to secure a site. National park entry is free.

The road in is sealed and is 2WD accessible, suitable for a range of RVs and campers.  

www.nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/nitmiluk-national-park

EL QUESTRO, GORGE EAST, KIMBERLEY, WA

El -Questro -Gorge -Kimberley -WA

Located in the stunning East Kimberley, El Questro Station covers more than 700,000 acres and is a popular destination for campers traversing the Gibb River Road. The station is home to some ripper waterholes and waterfalls but, without a doubt, our favourite is the superb El Questro Gorge.

The walk in is part of what makes El Questro Gorge stand apart. The track meanders along the narrow, spring-fed creek, tall palms provide shade and ferns sprout from the rocks in the dappled light.

Halfway along the track you arrive at an inviting, shallow pool. You could finish your walk here, but I highly encourage you to continue. The second half of the track is harder and you’ll need to wade through the water then clamber up over the large boulders to get above the pool. But the reward at the end, where the gorge narrows almost to a point and a waterfall cascades into a pristine pool, is well worth it.

El -Questro -Gorge -waterfall -Kimberley -WA

The small pool at the base of the falls is a deep green and the water crystal-clear and refreshingly cool. The narrow gorge walls mean little sunlight makes its way in and the cool dampness is a stark contrast to the Kimberley’s dry heat.

The station campground on the Pentecost River can accommodate a variety of rigs and has everything you could want in the way of facilities, as well as the option of a limited selection of more private, riverside campsites.

While you’re at El Questro, take the time to explore  – there’s numerous walks, plenty of swimming holes, the magnificent Zebedee Hot Springs, and some epic lookouts. You’ll need a 4WD to visit the station.

THE ESSENTIALS:

Campsites at the station’s Black Cockatoo campground start at $20 per adult, per night for an unpowered site. Powered sites are also available. Private riverside bush camping starts at $28 per person, per night. Prices change depending on the season.

There’s an entry fee for visiting El Questro’s sites.

www.elquestro.com.au

BELL GORGE, KING LEOPOLD, RANGE CONSERVATION PARK, WA

Swimming -in -Bell -Gorge -Falls -infinity -pool

Beautiful Bell Gorge is on the lips of Gibb River Road adventurers everywhere. It’s no secret that this is a top spot and during peak season it can be particularly busy. But the hot tip is you can escape the crowds and enjoy this place in relative peace if you travel in the shoulder season.

Bell Gorge is accessed via a turn off west of Imintji Roadhouse, on the Gibb River Road. You can camp at community-run Imintji or use the Silent Grove Campground in King Leopold Range Conservation Park as your base for exploring the gorge.

Waterfall -in -Bell -Gorge -King -Leopold -Range -Conservation -Park -WA

Silent Grove is the closer of the two and is a basic bush camp with plenty of flat sites, big fire pits, picnic tables, showers and toilets, about 11km down the road from the Bell Gorge car park.

THE ESSENTIALS:

Silent Grove Campground costs $13 per adult, per night. Camping operates on a first-in, first-served basis and payment is via an honesty box, although a ranger is on site during peak period. Park entry fees also apply.

Imintji Campground is newly refurbished and charges $19 per adult, per night. Bookings are recommended.

You’ll need a 4WD to access Bell Gorge.

www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/king-leopold-ranges

Check out the full feature in issue #124 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.