Leave urban pools behind and open your mind to the brave new world of ‘wild swimming’ at Bitter Springs, south of Darwin.

All you need is confidence, four wheels and a hearty dash of wanderlust.


Elsey National Park northern territory darwin

Wild swimming in the Top End is best from May to August. Elsey National Park (photo: Jennifer Pinkerton).


As I breaststroke through blue-and-emerald bliss, 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.

A croc? 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.


Elsey National Park northern territory darwin

Is it a croc or a log? a heart-pounding dip in Elsey National Park (photo: Jennifer Pinkerton).


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.”

But putting the unknown element of my current situation aside, the winding waterhole is so beautiful it could well rob Heaven of its title should the two places do battle.

Bitter Springs, a 420-kilometre drive from Darwin, lies tucked inside the frond-filled Elsey National Park. If ever there were a ‘wild swim’, this would be it. Remote?Check. Adventurous? Check.


Elsey National Park northern territory darwin

This NT waterhole is regularly patrolled for crocodiles by the rangers. (photo: Jennifer Pinkerton).


This paddle forms the first stop on our quest to plunge into two 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, gathered momentum in the UK 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 conditions rob the activity of its spiritual qualities.


Elsey National Park northern territory darwin

Bitter Springs is surrounded by green foliage. NT (photo: Jennifer Pinkerton).


These include swimming’s capacity to connect us with wilderness, induce joy, help us to lose track of time and allow us to dream in sync with water’s breaths, currents and tides. After all, wild swimmers say swimming has its roots in the exploration of rivers, oceans, waterfalls and beyond – 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.”

Bitter Springs is listed on the new site Wild Swimming Australia, yet, at the time of writing, the location’s entry remains unpenned.

That lump hasn’t gone anywhere, 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.


Elsey National Park northern territory darwin

Bitter Springs is one of the Northern Territory’s prettiest remote waterholes (photo: Jennifer Pinkerton).


A wall of tall, luminescent green reeds lines one 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 I flick my feet in the 34ºC waters, 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. I feel safer in that knowledge, so wild brumbies can’t keep me from dashing past palm trees to swim the loop again – on repeat until sunset.

Here, in the dying light, I feel everywhere and nowhere. I’m floating. I’m had. I’m wild swimming seduced.

Playing there

Wild swimming in the Top End is at its best and most accessible during the early dry-season months from May to August.

Getting there

From Darwin, drive 420 kilometres south along the Stuart Highway to reach Elsey National Park.

Staying there

Bed down at the retro-style Mataranka Homestead, a pub-cum-motel stay located a kite’s flight from Bitter Springs. matarankahomestead.com.au