Sydney is surrounded by some of the most beautiful national parks and wilderness areas in the world. Dramatic canyons and serene rivers flow through pristine bush to meet a coastline of white sand and tidal pools. Slip, slop, slap your way to ten of the best water holes, rivers and beaches as curated by the authors of Wild Swimming Sydney.
Whiting Beach, on the South Coast near Jervis Bay
Comparatively few people ever venture to the ocean side of Booderee National Park, but those that make the effort are well rewarded. The water here is at least as stunning a hue as Jervis Bay’s more famous beaches, yet you actually run the chance of having it to yourself! A protected, 350m-long bay full of the most obscenely milky-blue water. You’ll want to swim here. In fact, we challenge you not to!
Walk-in: 70 mins, 3.7km, easy-moderate. Turn left off Wreck Bay Road, Jervis Bay Territory (vehicle entry fees apply and permits are valid for 48 hours – NSW NP annual passes are not valid), onto unsealed Stony Creek Road, and continue for 2km to Steamers Bay car park. The walk starts at the gated fire trail signed Steamers Beach. Ignore turning left after 60m. After 1.3km follow signs to Blacks Waterhole. After 2.6km continue past Blacks Waterhole, where swimming is not permitted. At a T-junction after 3km (just past Blacks Waterhole) turn left to Whiting Beach. After 3.5km arrive at Whiting Headland turn off R. A 200m path leads to a rock ledge at the bay’s edge.
South Booderee National Park
Bushrangers Bay, Illawarra
Bushrangers Bay is a 400m-long gash in the headland, which being only 40m across at times, is incredibly protected. The brilliant jade-coloured water is deep, with remarkable visibility, and you should keep your eyes open because it’s both an aquatic reserve and grey nurse shark habitat. You don’t have to worry about being too alert though, because despite appearances, the massive, jagged-toothed creatures aren’t the bitey kind!
Via end of Bass Point Tourist Rd, Shell Cove. Gates open 6.30am–8pm. Turn R 1.5km from entry gates and park at end. Take path that leads L, 100m to beach. -34.5973, 150.8995
Colo River at Bob Turners Track, Great Blue Mountains North
Bob Turner’s Track is by far the easiest way down into the pristine and rugged Colo Wilderness. While you can easily spend a day happily swimming right here, there’s also the option of exploring smaller pools up and downriver.
Walk-in: 90 mins, 3.5km, moderate
From the service station at Colo Heights, continue N for 700m, then turn L, signed Bob Turners Fire Trail. Continue for another 2.7km to car park (not at the trail head). Take the steps signed Bob Turners Walking Track. This well-made track descends moderately, crossing several small gullies, and leads directly to the river.
Congwong and Little Congwong Beaches, near Bondi Beach
These are two of the most natural beaches in the city, and with sparkling aqua water and fine golden sand, they’re as close to tropical paradise as Sydney gets! While close to the open ocean, the waves at these beaches barely rise above your ankles, and with water so clear and blue, beneath the surface you could think you’re in a vast chlorinated pool!
Around the headland from Congwong is its clothing optional, smaller neighbour. Little Congwong attracts a diverse mix of browning bodies, and the sound of children laughing floats above the splashing of the waves.
Walk-in: 1 min, 60m, easy. From the south end of Anzac Pde, La Perouse, take the path before the toilet block on the left. Little Congwong Beach is a further 300m from the far end of Congwong Beach on a marked track. -33.9891, 151.2348
Gerringong Falls, Illawarra
Hyperbole is wholly justified with this pool – it truly is a spectacular place to swim. A lovely pool, unbelievably just metres from where the falls plummet 180m, down, down, down into Kangaroo Valley below. Perching on the edge, the view is awe-inspiring.
Surrounded by the low heathland of Budderoo National Park, flush with black cockatoos, echidnas and wallabies, the pool is hemmed by partially submerged rock ledges.
Walk-in: 135 mins, 8.6km, easy.
The journey here is both blessing and beast. At over 8km one way, it’s a long slog – although easy work for those with mountain bikes. However, the remoteness increases your chances of having this amazing spot to yourself, and Gerringong counts as one of the least visited of all the waterfalls of this region. Caution must be taken near the head of the falls. The dangerous location makes it unsuitable for children.
From Jamberoo Mountain Rd, 11km S of Robertson / 12km W of Jamberoo, turn onto Budderoo Plateau Fire Trail and drive for 400m to car park. Proceed on foot through the locked gate. The trail winds its way gently through a mosaic of heathland and mature bush. After 5.8km turn R through another locked gate onto Hersey Fire Trail. After 8.2km the trail ends at a turning circle; continue straight on the narrower track. This brings you, after a few hundred metres, to a creek. Turn L, downstream, initially on the creek bed, before picking up a faint path on the bank. There is a decent, long, narrow pool that cuts across the creek. Soon after, you arrive at the main pool with the falls on your L. Cross over the creek to reach an exposed area of rock near the cliff top. -34.6612, 150.6530.
Flint and Steel Beach, Sydney North
This 90m, northeast-facing sweep of sand is backed by a low dune and steep bush. Rocky headlands protect it, and although it receives low waves, the water is generally calm and good for swimming. The outlook is green, with national park also visible across the water.
Just around the far headland is a smaller beach with the same lovely views, and while not as pretty, it’s so little visited that the chances are you’ll have it to yourself.
Walk-in: 30 mins, 950m, moderate
Follow West Head Rd, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (vehicle entry fees apply) for 11.5km, then park in signed car park on L. From the car park, the track descends gently before reaching a fork after 270m. Bear R for Flint & Steel Beach. The track descends more steeply before reaching Flint & Steel. To reach the smaller beach, walk 230m around far headland (low tide only). -33.5731, 151.2860
Mermaids Pool, Southern Highlands
The pool is gasp-worthy on first sight, and looks unmistakably Australian. It sits at the base of a colossal amphitheatre with dramatic, sheer walls. It’s a humbling experience to swim in its dark green water, as the cliffs and trees and sky climb on forever around you. The water is unfathomably deep and there’s a rope swing to take you zooming out over the pool.
Walk-in: 60 mins, 2.05km, moderate
Caution must be taken near Mermaids Pool. The dangerous location makes it unsuitable for children.
Via car park at N end of Charlies Point Rd, Bargo, just before junction with Rockford Rd. Take path that leads underneath the bridge and continue downriver. After 900m it’s necessary to leave the river’s edge where there’s an old red engine and climb up above the bank. After 1.15km you can drop back down to See Through Pool, which you will see below. Return to the higher path. After 1.6km drop down to Mermaids Pool. Access to water is dangerous from here; safe access can be found at the far end of the pool. To get there, cross the river and take the path that leads up the cliff on the far side. At top bear R. The path is tricky to follow, but it isn’t close to the cliff top, so keep back. You need to reach some exposed cliff-top rocks about 100m after the far end of the pool, opposite sheer stratified cliffs. Walk down through a chimney in the rocks, and then bear R to the first part of a rock overhang. Descend bearing R, back towards the pool, until just above the riverbed. Continue upriver below the cliff line. There’s a 2m scramble-down just before the pool. -34.2396, 150.6070
Glenbrook Gorge, Great Blue Mountains South
In the equation of reward for effort, this is an absolute winner! In every direction the craggy forms of orange and charcoal cliffs rise up towards the sky, hemming you in. You get to swim among this sensational scenery, and yet the walk in is as easy as mountain walks get!
There are channels of interconnecting rapids to play in, dramatically situated, intimate pools, or larger, deep pools for splashing about with friends. Since the gorge runs roughly east-west, the pools get a lot of sun throughout the day.
Walk-in: 60 mins, 1.7km, moderate
From the Glenbrook NPWS Visitor Centre car park (vehicle entry fees apply), at the S end of Bruce St, Glenbrook, take the road in the bottom-L corner signed Works Depot. After 60m bear R onto Gorge Track. This descends moderately with steps, arriving at a junction close to Glenbrook Creek after 500m. If you turn R here, and then immediately cross the creek over the shrub-covered boulders, on the other side there’s a large rock shelf beside a nice, long pool containing some big boulders. Otherwise, continue L downstream, first along a path and then along rock shelf. After 800m there’s an easy place to cross where the creek is squeezed between two low boulders in the creek bed – this also happens to be at the start of the gorge – where rocky cliffs come down on both sides. Continue downstream on the shelf. After 1.2km there’s a shallow pool nestled among giant boulders. For a while after this pool there’s a jumble of boulders and shrubs – it’s easier to continue walking near the cliff. After 1.5km the rock shelf ends at a cliff. You may have to cross the creek then re-cross back again. 30m further on there’s a long, open pool in spectacular gorge scenery. After 1.7km, there’s a large, deepish pool below the cliff on which the train line runs.
Glenbrook Station 1.3km (from start of walk). -33.7826, 150.6288
Cockatoo Island, Sydney City & Harbour
Australia celebrates its industrial heritage like no other nation. In no other country would an island of such real estate value be given over to its glory and appreciation – and World Heritage-listed Cockatoo Island is a sprawling 18ha testament to this! More exciting is that a swim enclosure has been made from a disused concrete slipway, where navy ships were built until the early 1980s.There really is something compelling about swimming on an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.
Facilities: Toilets, picnic tables, BBQs, campground. Camping fees apply and booking required. See: www.cockatooisland.gov.au
Walk-in: 5 mins, 350m, easy
From Cockatoo Island ferry wharf, walk through the visitor information centre and bear R. In the distance you see a high chimney stack – the enclosure is located below it.
Cockatoo Island Wharf 0m (from start of walk). -33.8474, 151.1698
Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains
If you need to clear out the cobwebs, a swim beneath these awe-inspiring falls will definitely do the trick! As the falls loom from 187m above, you’re immersed in cold water amid a near-deafening rumble; the thrill of it all will leave room for nothing else. The walk down to the bottom of the falls has stupendous views over Jamison Valley, with the cliff-side track providing one of the most spectacular vantage points in all of the Blue Mountains.
Walk-in: 90 mins, 2.3km, hard. Via car park at the end of Falls Roadd, Wentworth Falls. The walk starts from the info sign near Jamison Lookout. Continue left, signed to Walking Tracks. After 270m you arrive at Wentworth Falls Lookout. The walk takes you down into the valley below the falls. Bear right down the steps signed The Falls and National Pass. This descends gently, and after 620m turn right at T-junction. The steps become steeper from here. After 660m arrive at Fletchers Lookout, which has great views. Turn left and then at Y-junction after 690m, continue right to The Falls. Soon after you cross Jamison Creekk with stepping stones, after which the stairs become even steeper. Soon, after 1.2km, you arrive below the first set of falls, then cross back over the creek. The track then winds its way around the edge of the cliff away from the falls. After 1.6km take the steps sharp left to Wentworth Pass / Valley of the Waters via Slacks Stairs. This descends seven sets of metal ladders, before switching back left to the base of the second set of falls, where the pool is. Nearest railway: Wentworth Falls Station 2.4km.
Wild Swimming Sydney Australia by Sally Tertini and Steve Pollard (AUS$32.99, Wild Things Publishing) is available from all good bookshops.