Humanity has followed and delighted in waterways since we first headed out of Africa. The earliest great civilisations were nourished by rivers, which pointed the way to distant lands and encouraged trade, cultural change and new ideas.
The ancient Chinese and Greeks and Indigenous Americans plunged into hot springs. Later we relished wellness towns and beach resorts. Nearly always in the background of our leisure time, water has bubbled up, flowed past, glittered on coastlines, sloshed onto beaches and delivered pleasure, relaxation and entertainment. It's hard to imagine the tourist world without it.
As the driest inhabited continent on Earth, Australia has a particularly special relationship with water. In the beginning was the Rainbow Serpent, a powerful creation figure for its connections to water, rain and the location of permanent waterholes.
For early European settlers, rivers were vital to opening up inland Australia. And in the 20th century, nothing defined Australia more than its beaches, surf culture and harbour-hugging cities.
Small wonder, then, that water remains integral to our travel experiences. On this continent of brittle rock, water brings us joy. It also has a universal hold over the human imagination as a symbol of wisdom, the soul, freedom, cleansing, healing and rebirth. Perhaps more than ever, we're in need of its nourishment.
Here is Traveller's choice of some of the best waterborne experiences in Australia. Plunge right in when you can or simply pencil our picks in for a hopefully less eventful and disruptive 2022.
THE OUTBACK WATERHOLE
Hamersley Gorge in Karijini National Park, Western Australia. Photo: Dan Avila/ Tourism Western Australia
HAMERSLEY GORGE, WA
IMMERSE YOURSELF One of Karijini National Park's most out-of-the-way gorges is slashed with fantastic colours. Clumps of river gums stand guard over pools of water into which waterfalls hiss and burble. At The Grotto, ferns unexpectedly grow. Float on your back in the cool middle of hot nowhere surrounded by million-year-old rocks and you'll appreciate the bliss of outback swimming.
INSIDER TIP Spa Pool, deep and navy blue against the startling rust-red rock layers of canyons, provides the ultimate Insta-perfect moment. Serious photographers will want to linger, as changing light on rocks in late afternoon is splendid.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
Wineglass Bay and the Hazard ranges. Photo: Tourism Tasmania/ Scott Sporleder
WINEGLASS BAY, TAS
IMMERSE YOURSELF Get beyond the tropical beach cliche and admire Freycinet National Park on Tasmania's east coast, where an elegant curlicue of beach slopes into a limpid emerald bay backed by the ragged Hazard ranges. This is one of Australia's best water views, whether you're on the sand or bushwalking above. Sailing, kayaking and fishing are a joy, though swimming favours the brave.
INSIDER TIP "Don't miss Honeymoon Bay on the other side of the peninsula," says owner-guide Sara Barnes from Experiential Tasmania. "It's tucked down a track lined by she-oaks and delivers stunning views of the Hazards as the sun sets over Great Oyster Bay."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See tasmania.com
Cruising the Kimberley with Coral Expeditions. Photo: Ian Morris
IMMERSE YOURSELF Unless you own a helicopter, an expedition cruise is the only way to see the Kimberley's sapphire seas, ceramic-brown archipelagos and rusty canyons. The power of water is showcased in 10-metre tides, horizontal falls and gorges gushing with waterfalls. Some cruises take in Rowley Shoals and Ashmore Reef, among Australia's best snorkelling destinations. Add terrific rock art and abundant birds for a top-notch wilderness experience.
INSIDER TIP Though less well-known than other waterfalls, King Cascade isn't to be missed, with Zodiacs nosing close enough to catch the refreshing spray, which also nourishes ferns and large fig trees amid the hot sandstone.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See coralexpeditions.com
Australian atoll territory Cocos Keeling Islands. Photo: Rik Soderlund
COCOS KEELING ISLANDS
IMMERSE YOURSELF Pellucid peacock waters, leaning coconut palms and blue lagoons aren't the monopoly of Pacific islands. This Australian atoll territory in the Indian Ocean has 27 gorgeous islands – only two inhabited – draped in necklaces of white-sand beaches and offering outstanding reefs, great kitesurfing and windsurfing, and tropical relaxation without any tourist tat. Just you, the turtles and the sapphire sea.
INSIDER TIP "Take the ferry to Direction Island and spend the day on a postcard-perfect tropical island," advises Cocos-Keeling resident Rik Soderlund. "Pack your mask and snorkel, because the aquatic scenes beneath the surface are just as spectacular as the palm-fringed islands above."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See cocoskeelingislands.com.au
THE COASTAL DRIVE
Canoeing along the Murchison River, Kalbarri National Park. Photo: Tourism Western Australia/ Jarrad Seng
CORAL COAST, WA
IMMERSE YOURSELF We're spoiled with great coastal drives, but few have the variety and watery interactions of this 1200-kilometre route between Perth and Exmouth. Hit four-wheel drive beaches, snorkel, rockfish, admire curious stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, and encounter dolphins at Monkey Mia and whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef. For a contrast with the turquoise ocean, turn inland to the Pinnacles and rust-red gorges of Kalbarri National Park.
INSIDER TIP "Get your mask and flippers ready to dive Exmouth's Navy Pier. Apart from its diverse marine life akin to a glassless aquarium, it's the world's only operational defence base that permits non-commercial divers," says West Australian travel journalist Julia D'Orazio.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See australiascoralcoast.com
The Mary River National Park wetlands during the wet season. Photo: Tourism NT/ Jarrad Seng
MARY RIVER, NT
IMMERSE YOURSELF More than 200 bird species congregate in huge flocks in these vast floodplains, one of Australia's most significant ecosystems. Set off by boat and you'll likely have it all to yourself. A shallow-bottomed air boat is best, allowing you to mosey into paperbark woodland through carpets of stunning purple water lilies. Expect to see brolgas, sea eagles, cormorants, pelicans, magpie geese, egrets and much more.
INSIDER TIP "Don't just rush through on your way to Kakadu," says Top End tour guide Dean Hoath. "Stay at a local lodge, because late-afternoon boat excursions provide stunning sunsets and moonlight on paperbarks and water."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See northernterritory.com
Canoeing on the Murray River, South Australia. Photo: SATC/ Elliot Grafton
MURRAY RIVER, VIC/NSW/SA
IMMERSE YOURSELF Few holidays are more relaxing than meandering along riverbanks, past towering red gums and wetlands teeming with pelicans and herons. When that river is the mighty Murray, you also get Aboriginal, explorer and settler history for a quintessential Aussie experience. Hire a houseboat or a kayak, throw a line in the water, visit cellar doors and colonial-era towns, and let the days drift away like fat fish.
INSIDER TIP "Gunbower Creek is the perfect kayaking destination. You'll see turtles basking on logs, birds nesting in hollows of standing dead trees, and perhaps a platypus hunting for food at the water's edge," says Murrabit resident Sara McNeil.
THE COASTAL TOWN
IMMERSE YOURSELF Everything you want from a seaside town is here, starting with an old-fashioned family vibe. Then there's a white-sand beach (Glenn Point), 19th-century jetty, consistently good surfing (Surf Beach), decent fishing, bird-filled lakes and lagoons, strings of headlands and islands and, of course, a cape with a lighthouse. Follow Bowman Scenic Drive for great views, stopping to snorkel at Salmon Hole.
INSIDER TIP Beachport is on the Limestone Coast, noted for sinkholes. The best-known is Umpherston Sinkhole, now converted to lush gardens. To get your water fix, head to Kilsby Sinkhole on a sheep farm near Mount Gambier for a snorkel or dive.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See southaustralia.com
THE FISHING SPOT
Fishing with Yknot Fishing Charters in the Tiwi Islands. Photo: Backyard Bandits
TIWI ISLANDS, NT
IMMERSE YOURSELF Darwin itself is one of Australia's best fishing bases, but these islands 80 kilometres north take angling to another level, with fishing lodges devoted to organising your battle with barramundi, whose wiliness and strength is legendary. Tackle blue-water game fish too, including Spanish mackerel, longtail tuna, giant trevally and queen fish. As a bonus, you get Indigenous culture, magnificent wilderness and stunning sunsets.
INSIDER TIP Aim for marlin and sailfish in the areas around the Bathurst Trench to the north-west of Bathurst Island, as well as around Shepparton Shoals to the west and at Afghan Shoals south of Cape Fourcroy.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See northernterritory.com
THE HOT SPRINGS
The Peninsula Hot Springs on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria.
IMMERSE YOURSELF Inspired by Japan's hot-springs culture, this Mornington Peninsula resort has pools fed by geothermal waters, and offers dozens of bathing experiences – even moonlight bathing for night owls. There's also a bath house, Turkish hammam, hydrotherapy pool and day spa. And if that isn't relaxing enough, yoga and meditation classes too. Just the place for a warm water escape in winter.
INSIDER TIP "If you're looking for a quiet, tranquil space then choose the Southern Terrace or Lakeside Pool," suggests Peninsula's founder Charles Davidson. "When lying back in the pools remember to look up, out or around to the surrounding environment."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See peninsulahotsprings.com
THE SWIMMING BATHS
MACCALLUM POOL, SYDNEY NSW
IMMERSE YOURSELF Hard to pick the best in a city of superlative bathing spots: Bondi's foamy lap pool, under-cliff Bronte and heritage-listed Wylie's baths are magnificent. But Maccallum Pool, though small and sometimes murky, has bang-on views of the harbour, Opera House and city skyline, yet remains one of Sydney's least-known baths. The diminutive 1920s architecture is cute, its timber deck a scenic suntrap on winter afternoons.
INSIDER TIP "This place is no-frills; the only facility is an outdoor shower," says local resident Rosemary Martorano. "Bring a picnic, because the grassy perches of adjacent Cremorne Point walk have glorious harbour outlooks."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See sydney.com
THE DIVE REEF
Heron Island, Queensland. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland/ Mark Fitz
HERON ISLAND, QLD
IMMERSE YOURSELF Much of the Barrier Reef has superb diving, but Heron Island off Rockhampton takes the crown with 20 nearby dive sites. You'll find more than half of Barrier Reef fish species here, and almost three-quarters of coral species. Shallow waters make it easy for snorkellers or novice divers. Two threatened turtle species hatch on the beaches between January and May.
INSIDER TIP "My favourite site to show guests is the famous dive and snorkel site Heron Bommie via the semi-submersible boat," says reef guide Rachael Jones. The site has large coral heads regularly visited by manta and eagle rays, wobbegongs and reef sharks.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See heronisland.com
THE WATER PARK
ADVENTURE PARK GEELONG, VIC
IMMERSE YOURSELF Queensland's water parks get all the attention but the Victorians know how to do waterslides and action rides, too. Adventure Park combines options for the little ones (such as water jets and a lazy river) with thrills like the mega-plunge Tornado. Tsunami, the newest ride, is more than seven storeys high and features swirling water, tunnels and three stomach-lurching drops.
INSIDER TIP "On the Tornado, swing into the corners so you get maximum banking up the sides. Grab the handles and hunker down into the tube for greater speed," suggests ride attendant Daniel Milanovic. "Keep your eyes closed for that extra thrill."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See adventurepark.com.au
THE SURF BREAK
The Gold Coast from above. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland/ Rian Cope
GOLD COAST, QLD
IMMERSE YOURSELF Predictable? Yes, but for good reason, since the Goldie's 60-kilometre strip of beaches has world-class waves to suit all levels of prowess, from Snapper Rocks and the more advanced Kirra, with its great right-hander, to Currumbin, learner-friendly Surfers Paradise and South Stradbroke. And yes, you can still get off the beaten wave at places such as Tugun and Burleigh Heads.
INSIDER TIP "The Spit is my favourite surf break; the conditions created by the Seaway Wall and the sand-pumping jetty make for some awesome waves. It's the perfect break for beginners and intermediates," says Kerri Jekyll from Get Wet Surf School.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See queensland.com
THE HARBOUR WALK
MANLY SCENIC WALKWAY, NSW
IMMERSE YOURSELF This 10-kilometre hike from Spit Bridge to Manly is as rugged and harbour-hugging as you'll get in any urban setting, yet surprisingly uncrowded despite its easy access. The track wiggles along mangrove-clawed bays, fern-draped gullies and headlands with dazzling harbour views before finishing on a pretty suburban foreshore. Parts traverse national park. Bring your cossies; secluded pockets of beach make for a refreshing dip.
INSIDER TIP "You face the best scenery if you start at Spit Bridge," says local resident Kelvin Li. "Budget three hours walking time, though you won't want to hurry. You'll find cafés at Clontarf Reserve and North Harbour Reserve."
MAKE IT HAPPEN See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
WATER WORLD: FIVE OF THE BEST OVERSEAS EXPERIENCES
THE WETLANDS: OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
One of the world's largest inland deltas covers 20,000 square kilometres of the Kalahari. Its wet-season lagoons and waterways provide sustenance to elephants, hippos, rhinos, big cats, zebras and hundreds of bird species, making this an outstanding safari and eco-tourism destination. See botswanatourism.co.bw
THE RIVER-SCAPE: GUILIN, CHINA
As the Li River runs south from Guilin to Yangshuo, it twists through a lush, peculiar landscape straight from a scroll painting: karst mountains squashed up like camels' humps, shimmering emerald fields and feathery stands of giant bamboo. Pagodas teeter on some summits. See visitguilin.org
THE CRUISE: NORWAY
Of all cruise destinations, Norway connects you most intimately to the water as you sail its convoluted coastline, endless islands and waterfall-splattered fiords. Ports such as Molde and Tromso hunker in deep inlets of intense blue-green surrounded by snow peaks, making for majestic arrivals. See vikingcruises.com.au
THE WATERFALL: IGUAZU, ARGENTINA/BRAZIL
Higher, bigger and wilder than Niagara, the 300-odd waterfalls of Iguazú (Iguacu to the Brazilians) plunge off a fissured plateau with a mighty rumble and clouds of spray that support the surrounding rainforest. Boat rides are stupendous; so are walking tracks and viewing platforms. See iguazuargentina.com
THE JET-BOAT RIDE: QUEENSTOWN, NZ
Of all the many places to jet-boat, adrenaline-charged Queenstown is best thanks to rivers with glacial beauty, scarily shallow water, and a tilting scenery of canyons and mountains. On the Dart River, you can penetrate national park to admire waterfalls and ancient beech forest. See queenstownnz.co.nz