There are pursuits in life that work better in the abstract. I’m thinking here of things like “sleeping under the stars” and “IKEA hacks.” The things that seem like a great idea until you try them.
Hold that thought while I tell you that I am easily taken by the notion of a good swimming hole. There’s a primal satisfaction to be derived from best ones—full as they are of cool freshwater in places more typically full of heat and saltwater. We may or may not believe in Eden, but either way when we hear the word, the swimming hole is what we think of, the place that, were you lost on an island, you’d need to find in order to survive.
Most swimming holes I have been to don’t quite live up to that potential, with their concrete walkways and crowds and restrooms—in other words, with their markers of civilization. I want truly remote when I go to a swimming hole. I want the thrill of discovery, or to be in on a secret that the locals hold dear. I don’t want signs telling me where I can and can’t swim.
I’m not saying that even those well-trodden swimming holes fall into the category of things better left undone–they can still inspire awe, even through the crowds, and a dip in them can still be the most refreshing thing you’ll do an an entire trip. But I am saying that in my life, I have been to exactly two swimming holes that fit my starry-eyed ideal of them.
The first came years ago, at the end of a three-hour hike along the utterly untrodden northern coast of Trinidad. I remember that hike well for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that I conducted it in a brand new pair of Nike water shoes that I’d never worn before but which presented complete comfort, zero blisters in six total hours of hiking. Miracles on Earth do happen.
We took off from the guesthouse we were staying in mid-morning. I was wearing, in addition to my new Nike water shoes, a grey tank top that I still have today and a pair of checkered shorts that I don’t. The hike began with a hanging bridge spanning a small river. From there, the difficulty came not from any steep ascent, but from scrambles in and out of water and from a poorly cleared path.
At some point, we converged with what I believe was the only other party having embarked on the hike on this particular day. One of these people had a machete, and outside of Romancing the Stone it was the first time I’d seen a machete used to clear one’s way in the jungle.
Periodically the path emerged out of the jungle and onto a spectacular beach, where we’d take photos and gaze longingly at the coconuts up in the palms beyond our reach and then soldier on.
The innkeeper had told us to keep hiking more or less parallel to the shoreline until we came to a particularly impressive beach in a long, shallow bay. Each time we saw the ocean, we worried that this might be that beach, but when we finally did come to it, we knew right away. We sat on this beach for a bit, noticed that a red shack stood at the far end of it, with a couple of people milling about. A couple of fishing boats passed at the edge of the bay.
Another 45 minutes up and in from the coast brought us to the swimming hole, fed by an impressive waterfall, which also ensured ice-cold water. We ate the lunch we’d brought sitting at the water’s edge. We swam. It was glorious. Three hours later, at the tail end of the return hike, we’d earned the feast we had for dinner that night.
The second time I plunged into a perfect swimming hole came this fall, on the island of Nias off the western coast of Sumatra, in Indonesia.
We’d been staying at what I believe to be the nicest of the guesthouses overlooking Lagundri Bay, where one of the best surf waves in the world breaks. Ours was the place where the 50-year-old surfers with real jobs stay, and also couples on their honeymoons. We had air conditioning and hot water in a charming bungalow with a thatched roof. On a relative scale, this was the height of luxury.
The only tourists that show up on Nias are either surfers themselves or romantically involved with one. Falling into the latter category, I used the time that my fella was out on his board planning the things we could do when he wasn’t. We’d been told about a waterfall we could hike to, but we’d also been told we’d never find it on our own. The trick, in a place with so little tourism infrastructure, was to find a local who could get us there.
For our last night, our current bungalow had already been booked and we had to move accommodation. We chose a place directly in front of the surf break, one of the few other rooms on the beach with air conditioning. We checked in around noon and found that on this last day on Nias, the waves weren’t cooperating. All the surfers were sitting around talking about surfing, mostly, and waiting for the conditions to change.
When we arranged with Elvira, the daughter of the guesthouse’s owner, to go see one of the local villages, a surfer couple decided they may as well join us. We headed out in a sturdy vehicle and made a day of it.
After the local village, Elvira offered to take us all to the waterfall. We drove for a bit on a barely-road, and then came to a stop in front of a school. To get on the path to the swimming hole, it was necessary to walk through the grounds of the school, which was in session. The kids came to greet us and to practice their English, and then waved to us when we headed down the path as though we were setting off on the Titanic.
The other couple was from Brazil but lived in Australia. The guy spoke English like a Brazilian, but also like an Australian—Braustralian, a highlight of the trip. This pair of people was so utterly lacking in body fat, you look at them and you think they can’t possibly have a Netflix subscription, or else both their nights and their physiques would more closely resemble ours.
The hike, though less than half an hour in duration, was difficult, mostly a steep downhill on muddy terrain. The other couple, despite having worn flimsy flip flops as opposed to me, almost six years later still in those Nike water shoes, shot ahead of us and we, not exactly accustomed to being the out-of-shape members of a group, were mostly entertained by this fact.
Any difficulty and fitness shame was, of course, worth it when we came to the shock of aqua pools cascading through the jungle. We swam from one pool to the next. We climbed from the impossibly cool water to perches on rocks. We watched as the local kids (or were they from Bali, I never did get it straight) and the super fit couple climbed some 30 feet of vertical terrain and then jumped into one of the pools.
“I almost lost my silicone!” our new fit friend yelled when she emerged from beneath the water after one such jump.
That’s how good this swimming hole was.
Do you know of a best-ever swimming hole? We’d love to know about it in the comments…