It doesn’t snow, there aren’t any monkeys, and you’ll need to keep your bathers on, but despite these extraordinary conditions, there’s a hot spring culture simmering away within some of the most remote corners of northwest New South Wales.
Head for the windmills
You’ll know you’ve arrived in NSW’s spa country when your I Spy guesses become limited to livestock and windmills. Out here, where the countryside is hot, harsh and hundreds of kilometres beyond the reach of major rivers, the Great Artesian Basin – the biggest, deepest basin in the world – is a lifeline for rural areas first and foremost.
Its water has been tapped to feed animals, irrigate crops and support remote settlements since Europeans sunk the first bore out near Bourke in 1878. Earlier still, the movements of Aboriginal communities through the arid outback were guided by the availability of groundwater bubbling up from naturally occurring mound springs.
The basin lies beneath an area that extends from northern New South Wales and northeast South Australia, into most of Queensland – almost a fifth of Australia’s landmass. At 3000m deep in places, it holds 65,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water, more than five times the volume of the Coral Sea.
Ease into it
Older than time and highly pressurised, the basin’s water can reach temperatures from 30 to 100°C, and is laced with minerals such as sulphur, calcium and magnesium that contribute to its long-fabled healing powers. It’s believed sufferers of arthritis, respiratory conditions and musculoskeletal pain may benefit from soaking in mineral-rich baths, an ancient European practice known as “taking the waters”.
For travellers, there are few things more relaxing than slipping into a hot outdoor spa or steamy lap pool at the end of a long drive day. It relaxes your muscles, soothes your joints, clears your passages and melts stress and anxiety away, while alternating between hot and cool pools will get your circulation flowing. Which is why, if you’re migrating north into Queensland or vice versa, you’d do well to break away from the coastal bustle and point your bullbar inland.
On the thermal pool trail
In northwest New South Wales, the proliferation of public thermal pools and their growing popularity has inspired a touring route which highlights the shires of Narrabri, Walgett and Moree. Called the Great Artesian Drive, it focuses on seven public artesian hotspots that range from rustic open-air baths serviced by rehabilitated 100 year-old bores, to a modern aquatic centre complete with Olympic-size pool and waterslides.
Upping the hot pool count, however, are caravan parks and private properties that offer a soak with your stay, such as the Gwydir Carapark and Thermal Pools in Moree. From here, take a back road detour towards Boomi’s open-air bath if you’ve got time up your sleeve. Then, with one foot on either side of the state border, Mungindi’s petite 5x3m outdoor bath is your last stop for a NSW soak before continuing on the Carnarvon Highway into Queensland.
If you’re taking the Castlereagh Highway, consider hot pool hopping between the historic baths in Pilliga, Burren Junction, Walgett and Lightning Ridge – these rustic oases maintain pleasant water temperatures of between 37.5 and 41.5°C, are rarely closed, and completely free.
But wait, there’s more
Officially, the Great Artesian Drive is a NSW tourism initiative, but these hedonistic hotspots do not stop at the border. Continue your journey of indulgence deep into outback Queensland, where you can dip your toes into the toasty artesian baths of Mitchell, Blackall and the far-flung outpost of Bedourie.
Eulo’s hot mud baths offer something a little different, and up near Cairns, you can witness hot spring water surfacing in the natural setting of Nettle Creek. The water here reaches a not-so-relaxing 87 degrees, so best to gaze at the steam-shrouded creek from afar and save your soaking for the tempered spas of Innot Hot Springs.
But if a warm, wild swim is what you’re after, head for Dalhousie Springs in the far northeast corner of South Australia, a collection of natural oases fed by 38 to 43 degree artesian water. And if you’re up near Katherine, the scenery changes entirely as you breaststroke with the current of the warm, pandanus-fringed (and croc-free) Bitter Springs.
Get out there
As many as 1500 bores had been drilled into the Great Artesian Basin by 1915 (a period of gross groundwater mismanagement, but that’s a topic for another time), so you could spend a lifetime hunting down hot pools across much of central Australia and the eastern states. And with many bores servicing farming properties and hidden in places that aren’t widely promoted, don’t forget to get chatty around town, as a tip-off from the right local could see you enjoying a sunset soak of the hush-hush kind.
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