“Ugh that hurt,” says a man scrambling out of the water. “It shot right through me.”
The reluctant swimmer has just taken a dive into the scenic Ellery Creek Big Hole in the Northern Territory’s West MacDonnell Ranges. I’ve been exploring the stunning rock formations surrounding the waterhole for about 30 minutes, and despite there being a handful of people here in the sun on a warm winter’s day, the man is the first to have braved the rumoured glacially-cold water hole.
Tjoritja, as the vast West MacDonnell National Park is known in the local Arrernte language, is lush with these waterholes and geological sites of important cultural significance. Ellery Creek Big Hole, or Udepata, is a sacred site for the Central and Western Arrernte people, and a popular place to swim, picnic, walk or camp for locals and visitors alike. Thousands of years of floods are said to have carved out the spectacular gorge and its deep waterhole.
In the peak of summer, when the temperature is pushing past 40 degrees Celcius, taking a dive into this desert pool delivers respite. In the cooler months it’s still hot enough to warrant a splash, but it’s not quite swimming you’ll manage. Rather small doses of brief submersion.
As people collected at the sandy embankment, a few more courageous souls braved the idyllic-seeming water. “The second time, when I stayed in for two to three minutes,” says one woman, “I could feel the pain rising to my chest.”
I was undeterred. I didn’t come all this way to not get in the water.
I took just two steps into the shallows before diving in. The water was so intensely cold I emerged gasping for air, part swimming, part irrationally clutching at the water trying to pull myself out of the deep and onto sand as quickly as possible. It felt like my breath had literally been taken away. Standing somewhat proud back on the embankment, if in shock, one witness helpfully said, “Look how red your skin has gone”.
The slight sensation of needing an inhaler stayed with me for about 30 minutes. But even in the middle of winter, those who jumped in dry off quickly in the sunshine. And then, well, why not go back in? (And perhaps try to rectify that ungraceful first reaction). The experience is strangely addictive and thrilling.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is set 90 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Only the last two kilometres of the road is unsealed and is still easily accessible to two-wheel drives. The short walk from the carpark to the waterhole is along a wheelchair accessible path.
If challenging the limits of your fondness for icy swims isn’t your mid-year desert adventure of choice, there’s also a three-kilometre Dolomite Bush Walk nearby that takes 1.5 hours to complete. The Larapinta Trail passes through this site, so you can stroll a short way in both directions if so desired. Pied butcherbirds, herons, fair wrens, inland thornbills, mistletoebirds and ducks all live here, and you might spot a long-nosed dragon or two sunbaking on a rock. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy while soaking up a view of the red cliffs and abundant native flora.
On your return route to Alice Springs, make sure to stop at Standley Chasm. A one hour drive from Ellery Creek Big Hole, or 45 minutes from Alice Springs, this dramatic geological formation is known as Angkerle Atwatye to the Western Arrernte peoples, meaning “place where water moves between”.
Angkerle Atwatye was formed 2.2 billion years ago by ancient inland seabeds, and its oxidation gives the blue quartzite walls of the chasm its stunning red hue. It’s long been a culturally significant site for Western Arrernte women. Indeed this private flora and fauna reserve falls under the stewardship of its traditional custodians, and their Aboriginal-owned and -operated enterprise offers cultural tours to share insights into the bush foods and medicines present at the site, as well as host traditional art classes and language workshops.
The main walk here meanders for a short 1.2 kilometres following the natural creek bed through a dense forest of gums and shrubs, desert flannel flower, colony wattle and cycad palms. You’ll soon arrive at the impressive 80-metre-tall rock face of the chasm. Pause to soak in all of its dramatic angles, and if you’re lucky enough to be the sole visitor, each footstep on the pebble-like floor will feel tremendously noisy.
Time your visit to arrive at midday and witness the chasm walls glow as direct sunlight enters the gap for just 90 minutes a day, thanks to its north-south orientation. There’s also the nearby Bridle Path 75-minute loop walk, which will let you reach the Larapinta Valley Lookout after a 20-minute climb.
To enter you’ll need a ticket from the kiosk and the path to the chasm is wheelchair accessible with assistance. Pitch a tent in one of the campsites, or utilise the picnic tables and barbeque facilities. The Kiosk Cafe plates up the likes of kangaroo stroganoff and home-baked scones for a post-walk lunch.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with NT Tourism.