No, you’re not hallucinating a mirage, waterholes can exist in the desert, and The Red Centre has them scattered across the region in all directions. 

You might’ve heard of the classics; Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek, Glen Helen Gorge. All phenomenal, but all pretty well known and accessible, making them popular spots for a dip when the mercury begins to soar. 

Read more: 4 Swimming Holes in The Red Centre (That You’ve Got to Jump In)

We’ve scoped out five of the lesser-known waterholes around The Red Centre, quieter and calmer spaces that still bring the magic of life-giving water amongst the dusty red dirt.

The Red Centre has been wetter than usual over the last two years, filling the waterholes right up, so now is the prime time to visit!

Let’s dive in (no, not literally).

 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Countries on which these adventures take place who have occupied and cared for these lands and waters for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

1. John Hayes Rock Hole

Location: Trephina Gorge Nature Park
Access: 4WD needed and 100m walk
Time from Alice: 55 mins
Swimming: Yes

John Hayes Rock Hole is the East MacDonnell Ranges response to Ellery Creek Big Hole. Humbly tucked away in Trephina Gorge Nature Park, this swimming hole sits perfectly at the end of an unreal gorge, so is surrounded on both sides by craggy cliff. 

Although you’ll need a 4WD to get the last few kilometres down the road to John Hayes car park, from here the waterhole is super accessible, just a 100m flat walk towards the gorge.

The water welcomes you in with a lovely, sandy entrance and there are rocks nearby to lay your towel down. When we visited we were the only people for miiiiles. So if you manage to make a visit, especially mid-week, you’ll be lapping up this goodness all by yourself. 

Nearby you’ll find the tranquil John Hayes campground, so if you’re delighted by your little secluded swimming hole, why not stick some pegs in and stay a little longer?

Read more: Staying Safe Around Swimming Holes

2. Redbank Gorge

Location: Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges
Access: 4WD recommended and 2km return hike
Time from Alice: 50 mins
Swimming: Yes

Of the four major waterholes of Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges, Rwetyepme / Redbank Gorge is the least well known and arguably the trickiest to access.

But what makes Rwetyepme / Redbank Gorge truly special is the fact that you’ll find it nuzzled into the base of the NT’s fourth highest peak – Mt Sonder.

The gorge itself narrows in the middle far more than any other waterhole along Namatjira Drive, making for a unique (and damn fun) experience as you float your way between the soaring gorge walls and pop out the other side – you brought something to float on right?

You’ll need a 4WD to access the car park, but from there it’s a 1km walk to Rwetyepme / Redbank Gorge and the swimming hole, mostly along a sandy creekbed which can make for a bit of a tough walk.

Back by the car park, you’ll also find two campgrounds – Ridgetop and Woodland – both with picnic tables, toilets, and fire pits available. Time to settle in!

Read more: How To 4WD For Beginners

 

Redbank Gorge | Photo thanks to Tourism NT/Jess Caldwell & Luke Riddle

3. Chain of Ponds

Location: Trephina Gorge Nature Park
Access: 4WD needed and 2.5km hike
Time from Alice: 55 mins to start of hike
Swimming: After rain

The Chain of Ponds is a series of waterholes in the East MacDonnell Ranges formed by John Hayes Creek, as it trickles down through a bold, red gorge, ending with the most permanent waterhole, John Hayes Rock Hole. Unlike John Hayes, to reach most of the ponds, you’ll need to take a bit of a longer hike up through the gorge itself.

Whether the ponds are flowing or not, the Chain of Ponds hike is simply unmissable. The gorge is astounding, and if you’re lucky to be visiting after a decent helping of rain, the waterholes that form along the final kilometre of the hike will be brimming.

Take your pick carefully, as some waterholes are deeper and more accessible than others. My pick is the pond with a lazy Ghost gum branching out across the middle that you’ll find shortly after a bit of maneuvering and scrambling down a natural set of stairs and down a small drop off.

Lurrrrvely.

 

Swimming hole on Chain of Ponds hike, Trephina Gorge Nature Park

4. Mutijulu Waterhole

Location: Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
Access: 1km return walk
Time from Alice: 4 hours 50 mins
Swimming: No

A waterhole? At Uluru? Say whaaaaat!

You might not believe it until you see it, but there’s actually a waterhole right at the base of Uluṟu (sometimes more after heavy rain!). 

Mutijulu Waterhole is the most reliable water source around Uluṟu and is responsible for helping sustain the abundance of life you can find around the monolith. 

Although swimming isn’t allowed at this waterhole, plus it’s often too shallow to dunk under anyway, the space you find yourself in when you stumble upon it is incredibly special and one of the key spots to visit around Uluṟu. The peace and quiet found at Mutijulu Waterhole is almost meditative. 

As you wander further towards Mutijulu waterhole, the rock starts to wrap around you on both sides, birds dart through the trees as they provide some welcomed shade, and you begin to see how life could endure here, even in the desert.

If you’re taking the Base Walk around Uluṟu, you’ll pass by the short detour to the waterhole around ¾ of the way around. But there’s also a car park super close by, and Mutijulu Waterhole is only a short 1km return stroll from there. 

Hot tip! The sun hits Mutitjulu Waterhole directly around lunchtime. Bring a wide-angle lens to capture the full beauty of this peaceful place.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!

5. Kathleen Springs

Location: Watarrka National Park
Access: 2.6km return walk
Time from Alice: 3.5 hours
Swimming: No

Kathleen Springs is a permanent waterhole in Watarrka National Park, not far from Kings Canyon, that has provided life-giving sustenance to the Matutjara people. 

Not only was it thirst-quenching, it also attracted animals such as emus and kangaroos into the gorge where they could easily be hunted. Combined with the abundance of edible plants around the waterhole and Kathleen Gorge itself, this one water source has allowed life to flourish in this part of the desert.

The 1.5 hour return walk to the spring-fed waterhole can be done by anyone and is along a sealed path making it wheelchair accessible! Although the walk is short, it’s best done early in the morning before the sun reaches its piping hot peak.

As Kathleen Springs is so sacred to the Matutjara people, swimming is not permitted here, but the short walk is well-worth it to visit such a special site amongst the rusty, rocky landscape. 

 

On the hike to Kathleen Springs | Photo thanks to Tourism Central Aus

 

There you have it – The Red Centre – come for the desert, stay for the waterholes! 

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