4 natural hot springs you must visit
Formed by natural geological forces of the Earth, and sacred to indigenous cultures around the world, geothermal natural springs are associated with myth, pleasure and the quest for health. However, there’s no need to book a flight to Japan. Natural hot springs are also a thing in Australia, ranging from man-made bath houses to naturally occurring hot pools, rivers and streams.
At the forefront of the hot springs industry in Australia is Charles Davidson, co-founder of Peninsula Hot Springs, Victoria’s first commercial natural hot mineral spring bathing facility. Excitingly, he reveals hot springs are about to boom in Australia, hinting at new developments at Phillip Island, Warrnambool, Metung, Perth and more, on the horizon.
“It was March and there was still snow around. I looked up at the mountains and thought, ‘This is just so sensational’ — ... here I was, outside in the cold having an experience that was like the most beautiful summer’s day lying on the beach with friends.
The former food exporter’s crusade to create a hot springs bathing culture in Australia was inspired by a chance visit to a hot spring in Japan in 1992. “It was March and there was still snow around,” Davidson recalls. “I looked up at the mountains and thought, ‘This is just so sensational’ — the feeling of total, blissful relaxation; being part of the environment. Here I was, outside in the cold having an experience that was like the most beautiful summer’s day lying on the beach with friends. I thought that bringing that sensation home to Australia would be such a lovely thing to do with my life.”
Australia’s natural hot spring history
“There used to be a hot springs culture pre-white man,” Davidson says. “When Aboriginal people went on walkabout, they walked from waterhole to waterhole because you need to drink. Quite often the waterholes were warm. There have been hot springs right across Australia; not prolific like in Japan, but there were still quite a lot.”
Over 50 thermal springs, pools and bore baths exist throughout Australia, scattered across all states of the country, according to Steve Lambert, an authority on the subject and author of the book Australia’s Great Thermal Way. In fact, the world’s largest outflow of hot artesian water (water that reaches the surface through natural pressure) occurs at the Dalhousie Springs Complex in South Australia. Surging out at a rate of 17,000 litres a second, “It will fill an Olympic swimming pool in less than a minute,” Davidson says. The 60 or so mound springs at the site, located on the edge of the Simpson Desert in the Witjira Park, are fed by the Great Artesian Basin and are culturally important to the local Aboriginal community.
Modern farming has contributed to the disappearance of many of the original springs. Bores, dug in the thousands by farmers over more than a hundred years, have reduced the pressure of the whole Great Artesian Basin, Davidson explains. “As a result, some old mound springs have dried up because the pressures dropped out. Dalhousie [one of many thermal springs in the park] used to have a flow rate of 24,000 litres per second.” As a program of capping these free-flowing bores continues, he anticipates old natural hot springs will reappear and some new ones might pop up.
Ancient subterranean waters
Defined as places where groundwater is discharged at temperatures significantly above surrounding air temperatures, hot springs occur because the Earth is hot. “If you go to the centre of the Earth it’s about 5500°C,” Davidson says. “On average, anywhere in the world, every 100 metres [down] it rises in temperature by about 2.2°C.” The spring requires a quick route to the surface — a natural vent, fault-line in the Earth’s crust, or man-made bore. Starting out as rainwater, percolating in the Earth and absorbing minerals, hot spring waters can be millions of years old.
This stew of hot water and minerals such as calcium and magnesium can calm the nervous system, alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, musculoskeletal problems and pain issues, and ease some skin conditions. Though less known in modern Australia, balneology — the practice and science of bathing in mineral springs for therapeutic benefits — has a long tradition among human cultures and is particularly popular in Europe.
Peninsula Hot Springs, Victoria
Immersed in hot water to my ribs and looking over coastal native scrub, I’m relaxing in the Hilltop Pool along with 10 or so others. Popular for the 360-degree views to the horizon, bathing here is like stewing in a communal billabong. Around me, light chatter punctuates the casual breeze. People in their swimmers venture through the bush. This is hot spring bathing, Australian style: multicultural, laid-back, outdoorsy and slightly boisterous.
“The goal of our design philosophy is about providing an ‘in nature’ experience where people can relax with each other and the environment,” Davidson explains. Seeking new ways to utilise natural hot springs for health, wellbeing and community creation, he has travelled to 36 countries on hot spring/spa research missions. “Bathing is something that all of humanity shares,” he says. “We want to make sure any person, of any culture of the world, will feel at home in our thermal pools.”
Located on the Mornington Peninsula (about 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne), the 42-acre property includes a Chinese reflexology path, a Moroccan hammam, a European-inspired hydro-jet pool, saunas, steam rooms, hand and foot baths and cold plunge pools. “We’re building a Russian banya, which is a high-heat sauna,” Davidson says. In total, there are more than 30 different bathing experiences here, including the Spa Dreaming Centre, a more exclusive zone. Temperatures range from 35 degrees in the children’s pools to a 42-degree hotpot and cold plunge pools.
Though less known in modern Australia, balneology — the practice and science of bathing in mineral springs for therapeutic benefits — has a long tradition among human cultures.
The source of the thermal mineral water is an aquifer 637 metres below the ground along the Selwyn Fault Line, underlying the Peninsula. Extracted via a bore and emerging at 47°C, it’s cooled with cold spring water and rich in chloride, bicarbonate and other minerals.
My favourite is the cave pool, and the massaging bamboo showers. Here, bamboo pipes plummet water onto your body. So good for those sore spots you can’t reach. The hydro-jet pool overlooking a tranquil lake also hits the spot. Focused jets of water blissfully blast your back amid a chorus of Eastern Banjo and other frogs.
As well as creating a relaxing environment for people, Davidson has created habitat for wildlife, comprising native trees including the Moonah (a protected native tree of the area), local stones and man-made lakes. Constantly expanding on his vision, his new developments at Peninsula Hot Springs include Clay Ridge, a spot where visitors can paint themselves with 10 different colours of Australian clay, a watsu (water shiatsu) pool, a wheelchair-accessible pool and seven new amphitheatre pools from which you can lie back and enjoy some relaxing tunes. We can’t wait.
Japanese Mountain Retreat Mineral Springs & Spas, Victoria
A corridor of Arabic lanterns and mammoth doors shipped from the Middle East transport you into a twilit realm wherein lies an exquisite pool of the most seductive, jewel-like blue. Flanked by giant columns and garnished with imported stone, the silent, still expanse is like a temple.
Meet the high end of natural mineral spring bathing. A masterpiece of art, architecture, beauty and relaxation, the Roman Bath House and Spa de Marrakech recreate the tradition of the hammam (Turkish or Arabic bath). Brought to the Middle East by the Romans, hammams had an extensive history in the Mediterranean for hygiene, health, relaxation and socialisation, prior to modern plumbing.
The vision of Deborah Quitt, and operating since 2002 at Montrose in the Dandenong Ranges, the retreat includes equally opulent accommodation and the Japanese Mountain Retreat Mineral Springs.
A unique experience in Australia, the Roman Bath House could be the set of Cleopatra. Or a pool of the gods. After the requisite pre-bathing cleanse with divinely scented lotion in a roomy, double shower, I descend the broad, partly submerged stone steps into the deliciously warm water. Pumped from 80 metres below the ground, the mineral-rich 24°C water is further heated, Quitt reveals. “The whole of the Dandenong Ranges has water underneath it. We’re the first to get it.”
Copies of two famous paintings of classical-era women grace the walls. “I once had a famous actor come here and he said it’s got a feminine essence,” Quitt relates, describing the building as “an expression of femininity”. It’s an experience too good to share with anyone. Fortunately, enjoyment of the bath houses is restricted to one individual or couple at a time.
A corridor of Arabic lanterns and mammoth doors shipped from the Middle East transport you into a twilit realm wherein lies an exquisite pool of the most seductive, jewel-like blue.
After cooling off at the ice fountain, we head to the outdoor Japanese-style hot mineral pool, passing the spa treatment rooms. These are painted with a sandy landscape and starry sky reminiscent of the desert and offer delights such as the Arabian Steam Temple Journey, desert sand scrubs, Moroccan oils and a colour therapy rain shower.
Under the sky, surrounded by foliage, boulders and bamboo walls, the Japanese Bath House offers a more naturalistic setting for bathing. Afterward, we sate our appetites on a four-course Japanese-style lunch, looking out on trees within a stunningly decorated Asian-style restaurant.
Quitt reveals that her love of architecture and creating beauty inspired the retreat. “My idea was to bring something to Australia that didn’t exist. It’s an escape for couples; a place to rejuvenate and connect with each other. People lead such busy lives. They can come here and rediscover what’s important to them.”
Sparadise Japanese Bath House, NSW
Shedding shoes and Western stress, we cross the watery threshold into the dimly lit sanctuary of the bath house. Since major refurbishments in 2016, you enter via a toasty foot pool. The symbolic rite slows and soothes the nervous system.
Part of the wind-down occurs earlier, on the drive in, amid the rolling hills of South Bowenfels in the Blue Mountains (2.5 hours west of Sydney).
Embracing its Japanese identity, Sparadise, the sole Japanese bath house in NSW, is owned by Okuzawa Yasumasa, a well-known ophthalmologist in Japan. Entering through the newly installed gassho building (a Japanese-style farmhouse with steeply pitched, thatched roof), we wander through shoji rice-paper doors, past a genuine Samurai sword, dry rock garden and cafe tables hewn from trees fallen on the property.
Outside, two new semi-outdoor natural bathing pools have been added to the existing 41°C hot pool. Indoors, the bathing pool and cold plunge pool look over the blue pocket of Lake Lyell. A herbal steam room offers further purification.
Manager and trained naturopath, Victoria Choo, explains that the property, which has no town water supply, acquires water from 300 metres underground. Emerging at 28°C, the water is heated to 38°C to activate minerals.
Today, mist unfurls on the mountains and pattering rain surrounds us. The sound and sensation of the rain as you steam in hot water is exquisite, melting toxic stress like butter. Choo says bathing in the rain or snow (it occasionally snows here in winter) is a magical experience. “People often ask if we’re shut when it’s raining,” she laughs.
Amazingly, it’s an experience you can enjoy largely alone. “Down here we see more kangaroos than people,” says Choo, who is originally from Kyoto. She reveals that planned developments include a maze garden with private grottos housing marble baths.
Between bathing experiences, we’re treated to an Asian blend massage, fusing Japanese shiatsu pressure points with Thai energy channelling. My partner rates it the best massage he’s ever had. The pampering continues with herbal tea and relaxing on a day-bed.
“This is a special place,” Choo confides. Along with promoting health, their goal is an exchange of cultures: teaching how the Japanese detox and destress. There are no televisions in the accommodation quarters. “I believe nowadays everyone is in a hectic world,” she says. “In the bathing area we don’t like people to talk on the phone. We only accept people over 15. You leave the children at home and come to relax.”
It’s almost agonising to leave such peace.
Hastings Caves & Thermal Springs, Tasmania
To see warm subterranean waters emerging from the Earth in their natural setting, it’s worth a drive out to the Hastings Caves and Thermal Springs site, one of the more accessible places for such an experience. The 1.5-hour drive from Hobart through the Huon Valley into Tasmania’s far south is one of Australia’s most scenic country jaunts. Great tracts of wilderness — giant forest, mountains and wild rivers — coexist here with tamed pockets of civility: bobbing boats, apple-green hills, orchards, vineyards and genteel gardens where roses nod.
Once you’ve arrived, the geological treats are multiple. The 116-hectare Hastings Caves State Reserve features not only a natural thermal pool but a spectacular cave, plus rainforest walks.
According to Beth Russell, the business enterprise manager at Hastings Caves and Thermal Springs, the spring is one of a number of karstic springs on the North Lune Plains that discharge warm water. In 1939, a pool was built over a warm spring at the site, Russell tells. “Hot springs are rare in Tasmania,” she says, explaining this is the only one in the state open to visitors.
Before relaxing in the thermal pool, I drive the five kilometres to Newdegate Cave, the largest cave in the Hastings Caves system. Showcasing hoards of fairytale-like stalactites within expansive chambers, it’s one of the largest open dolomite caves in the Southern Hemisphere.
The sound and sensation of the rain as you steam in hot water are exquisite, melting toxic stress like butter.
After the mysterious underground world, bathing in the natural blue thermal pool beneath the sunlight and open sky feels purifying. Nearby creeks trickle, wind wafts through the trees and musical lyrebird calls enhance the peace of the natural, outdoor setting. With no one here but me to enjoy this slice of Australian heaven, I experience a union with nature.
Unlike most commercial hot mineral spring baths, the temperature of the thermal water comes au naturel and the pool — large enough to swim in — is enjoyed by many swimmers. At 28°C, it’s warm, but not hot, with an earthy scent. According to Russell, the water is rich in minerals, especially calcium, and treated only with hydrogen peroxide for purification purposes. While it might be brisk after exiting the pool — outside air temperatures at the site can range from -3°C to 40°C — hot, roomy showers and a log fire await in the rustic facilities.
Afterwards, I explore the Platypus and Hot Springs Walking Tracks. Along the trails, you pass small, bustling streams where bubbles of carbon dioxide rise to the surface and pop like in a witch’s cauldron; and there’s a resident platypus. Tantalisingly, it’s possible to dip a hand into the convergence of the brown, tannin-rich cold stream and the bluish, warm stream and take the opportunity to marvel at the mysteries of the deep underground.
More natural hot mineral spring experiences
Fancy a heated dip elsewhere? Try one of these other natural mineral springs.
- Dalhousie Springs (SA)
- Bitter Springs (NT)
- Zeberdee Hot Springs (WA)
- Innot Hot Springs (Qld)
- Hepburn Springs (Vic)
- Moree Plains Artesian Pools (NSW)
- Lightning Ridge Bore Baths (NSW)
- Maruia Hot Springs (NZ)
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