Finalist: 2016 NT Literary Awards, Best Travel Writing
Leave urban pools for dust and open your doors to the world of wild swimming – Top End style. All you need is confidence, four wheels and a hearty dash of wanderlust.
Australian Traveller, February 2016
I’m breaststroking through blue emerald bliss when the sun clips something ahead of me in the water. Glistening in the late afternoon light, the object looks lumpy, green and as long as a school ruler. Is it moving? It’s moving. I move. Croc. Head. My blood pressure punches skywards as I rocket over to dry land like a mechanical puffer fish. “Paaaaaul!”
But there’s no one around to witness this riot of anxiety – least of all Paul. He’s holding our five-month-old baby, waiting for me at the other end of this stream’s loop. His words to me as I set off on my swim were these: “It’ll go against every instinct you have, but keep swimming the whole way around until you get to the footbridge.” ‘Every instinct’ refers to the decidedly croc-ish vibe of a winding waterhole so beautiful it could well rob heaven of its title should the two places do battle.
Bitter Springs, 420km south of Darwin, lies tucked inside the frond-filled Elsey National Park. If ever there were a ‘wild swim’, this one fits the bill. Remote. Check. Adventurous. Check. An added hint of danger. Yikes, yes, check. This dip forms the first stop on our quest to plunge inside a handful of the Northern Territory’s prettiest remote waterholes – an idea inspired by a growing swimming movement of which I’ve recently caught wind.
Wild Swimming, as it’s been dubbed, emerged in the United Kingdom about a decade ago with the formation of the Outdoor Swimming Society. Lamenting a rise in indoor pool culture and a decline in “swimming under an open sky”, proponents believe that chlorinated, fenced-in swimming robs the activity of its spiritual qualities. These include swimming’s capacity to connect us with wilderness, induce joy, help us to lose track of time and dream in sync with water’s breaths, currents and tides. After all, swimming finds its roots in the exploration of rivers, oceans, waterfalls and beyond, wild swimmers say – not in concrete-lined urban pools.
As the Society’s Robert MacFarlane puts it: “To enter wild water is to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink – and you break the surface of the water itself. In doing so, you move from one realm into another: a realm of freedom, adventure, magic, and occasionally of danger.”
In more recent times, the movement has backstroked across oceans and found a foothold in Australia. Our nation is arguably a more suitable hot bed for wild swimming than is the UK, owing to the heat, our varied landscapes and the greater proliferation of waterfalls. The first local book on the topic landed on shelves in late 2015 and simultaneously, websites sprung up to help Aussies locate wild swims the map over.
Bitter Springs is listed on new site Wild Swimming Australia, yet at the time of writing, the location’s entry remains unpenned. Perhaps it should read ‘croc-infested’. Or should it? That lump hasn’t moved, and soon enough I’m convinced the object in question is more logodile than crocodile.
I dive back into the springs and meander through the remaining loop. Here, the stream thins to a tight corridor. A wall of tall, luminescent green reeds lines one side of the bank, while bursts of pandanus stretch crooked limbs over the water’s surface from the other side. Two finches, the size of shot glasses, take turns dipping into the stream ahead of me. They flutter their wings in the springs, making a staccato sound akin to a mini propeller. My mind switches to rancho relaxo mode, and as the 34-degree waters flick at my feet, any residual croc fear dissolves.
With the birds now behind me, I spot Paul on the footbridge in the distance. I freestyle the final stretch and unleash a babble of excited gibberish upon exiting the water. He reassures me that all NT public waterholes are vigilantly monitored for crocs by parks staff. Armed with that knowledge, wild brumbies can’t keep me from dashing past palm trees to swim the loop again – on repeat until sunset.
After a night bedding down in the village of Mataranka, we amble north up the Stuart Highway to Katherine. Spotting a colourful sign, which we’ll later found out is designed by artist Ben Quilty, we’re lured into the Finch Café for some spiced lentil, roasted cauliflower, yoghurt and hazelnut salad, plus a pot of locally made bush tea. As we hail from Darwin, we’re well accustomed with NT friendliness, but Katherine takes our city to the cleaners in this regard. The café’s owner Phoebe cheerily asks where we’re headed today and invites us back that evening when the Finch dusts off its heels and morphs into the Gouldian Bar. Regrettably, we decline. We’ve got our next wild swim to conquer, after all.
Nitmiluk National Park is a whistling kite’s flight from Katherine – a 30km putt up the road. Here, our water-borne adventure starts at the first of a series of thirteen gorges and ends at the expansive eighth gorge.
We amble into the visitor’s centre and enquire about the walking trail that’ll lead us there. “Watch out for buffalos and wild pigs,” warns Parks Officer Megan. “They’ve been spotted hanging around.” My hair shoots from my scalp like a nest of frightened snakes. “They usually avoid people, but just keep an eye out, stick to the trail and stay still if you spot any of the animals milling about,” she says.
I gulp as we later step over dark blobs scattered among the dried-out creek bed leading down to the eighth gorge. Wild pig dung. I freeze and scan for predators. None in sight. Yet I remain on high alert as we arc our way over rock shelves and tumble through a run of lush rainforest before reaching our home for the night.
While our campground is set high on a sandy embankment, a nearby lookout ledge reveals a stunning sight. “Quick! Come check this out!” hollers Paul. I bolt over to witness the view. It doesn’t disappoint.
Imagine an Australian Game of Thrones set. Cliffs, around 40 metres high, blush in tones of pink, bronze and rose. Between them ebbs a rippling, glassy stretch of indigo water. Sandy banks rise on the gorge’s opposite side. And a swim-out spot directly below features low-bending trees that hang a canopy over a shallow, crystal clear pool. We feel as though we’ve stumbled on some sort of dreamland – a water world unto itself.
For the rest of the day, we swim to neighbouring gorges; fall asleep inside shadows when the sun burns its brightest; and momentary, we follow the prettiest-grasshopper-that-ever-was as it leaps over black boulders near the water’s edge. Its multi-toned blue wings flash technicolour as it flits out of view. We note its bright pink legs and purple feet. Yet later, we can’t locate the insect in any Top End fauna guide. Perhaps this gorge really is an alternate universe, more delightfully unpredictable that any hotel suite or designer pool we’re likely to encounter.
True to the Outdoor Swimming Society’s manifesto, our two wilderness swims have connected us with the untamed, cranked open our imaginations and immersed us fully in the present. Final stop: the gentle Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park, 140km north of Nitmiluk.
“This’ll be like a ‘nightcap’ wild swim – something to ease us back into civilisation,” I suggest to Paul, who nods in agreement from the driver’s seat. With croc, buffalo and pig danger now artfully dodged, this nature park makes for a gentle wind down.
On the short walk from the parking area to the gorge, eucalyptus leaves hang from tree branches like Christmas decorations. The nearby stream reflects its surrounds with photographic clarity.
Finally, our party of three rounds the path’s final bend. In the same vein as the eighth gorge had done, Umbrawrra Gorge reveals itself like a mini kingdom. There’s a beach, a run of sand, towering cliffs and jade-toned, rippling water. The latter beckons, stat.
We’re alone. And as Paul takes our son to explore the gorge’s outer nooks, I’m alone again, too. I’m edging two feet into the cool when a rainbow bee-eater bird flits past. It dips its tail and breaks the water’s surface before returning to the sky. In the same breath, I feel everywhere and nowhere. I’m floating. I’m had. I’m wild swimming seduced.