The Red Centre is not where I expected to find one of the country’s best swimming spots.
I barely thought to expect any out there at all.
But about a 90-minute drive down a dusty highway from the outback capital of Alice Springs, there it was: a glorious expanse of refreshing water, ringed by a stretch of golden sand; a true oasis in the middle of the notoriously thirsty desert.
Orimston Gorge is one of many fantastic swimming spots dotted throughout the dramatic Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, outside Alice Springs.
And for crowds of tourists escaping the southern winter for warmer climes up north – especially to the Alice, which is seeing a boom in popularity right now – they may be surprised, as I was, to stumble upon them.
Summer brought more rain than usual to the Northern Territory, where extra rainfall left the famously red desert greener than it’s been in a decade, and the waterholes even deeper than usual.
With my beach towel and a packed lunch in tow – and reassured crocodiles weren’t usually found this far south in the Territory – I headed off with a group from Alice Springs for a day at the beach like no other.
“Some days, this is as packed as Bondi,” our host told us as we pulled off the highway and on to the dirt track that leads to Ormiston Gorge, about 135km, or 90 minutes by car, from Alice Springs.
Not quite Bondi, but it was certainly a popular spot: families stretched out on beach towels on the sand, kids splashed around on giant inflatables in the water.
It was peaceful, though. The giant river gums cast serene shadows on the still, fresh water, as swimmers paddled out, dwarfed by the red sandstone cliffs.
The recent wet weather left the Ormiston waterhole much wider than usual, and it was very deep in some areas – about 14m.
The site is decked out with facilities – a car park, kiosk, barbecues, public toilets, showers and a bustling visitors centre – but it was a different story for us at another popular waterhole, Glen Helen Gorge on the Finke River.
Glen Helen Gorge
The furthest afield of the waterholes we visited, another half-hour out past Ormiston, Glen Helen Gorge was also the quietest: we were the only ones there that day.
Road access to the gorge was closed so we pulled over and walked down the winding, 400m track to the water’s edge. There, we were rewarded with a particularly spectacular view: ancient red rock towering over the clear, cool water below.
As the outback sun bore down, it took us little convincing to dump our stuff on the tiny patch of sand and jump right in.
We calmly swam out between the twin cliff faces, mesmerised, the whole time, by the view. This is also a great place to spot for local wildlife – it’s home to a variety of fish and a crucial stop for migrating waterbirds.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
As we headed back towards Alice Springs, we stopped by one last swimming spot, Ellery Creek Big Hole, about 90km from town. Carved out from thousands of years of floods, the spot is known to the local Arrernte people as Udepata, and is one of many sacred sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
The water felt colder here, and by now we were all swum out: but for those keen to stay dry, it’s a perfect picnic spot, as well as an irresistible photo opportunity.
The Dolomite Circuit walk, a 3km loop, gives incredible insight into the geological history and provides for more breathtaking views.
If walking is your thing, you can flesh out your visit to the West Macs by tackling the mighty Larapinta Trail, which stretches out across almost all of it – Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and another local highlight, Redbank Gorge, are a few of the stops along the way, along with several other swimming spots you might not have expected to find in Australia’s Central Desert.
The writer travelled to the Northern Territory as a guest of Tourism NT.