It's fair to say that naturally occurring hot springs take on all sorts of forms when they reach the surface in Australia, and you shouldn't be too surprised to find any particular body of water to be a hot one. There are the artificial baths of Lightening Ridge like concrete sink-holes, there are the deep slow rivers of Mataranka hidden under a rainforest canopy, and the warm waterfalls and ponds formed from the fine dense rock-covering roots of a palm tree forest on the Gibb River Road.
However we were somewhat incredulous to the point of disbelief to spot a large painted sign in Innot claiming that nearby Nettle Creek ran with hot water, and once upon a time people bathed naked all along its route. A hot creek? You're lucky to find water at all in most of Australia's creeks, and hot water creek sounded as likely as finding a kitchen with extra taps for white wine and vegetable stock (which, I must say, would be very handy).
Nettle Creek looked like any other: thin, shallow, meandering, not perceptively moving - and barely a thin trickle making it to the low bridge. The occasional bird was taking a sip from the waters edge, and the bank was flush with vegetation. No steam rose, no bathers frolicked. The creek had obviously been wider and deeper at some point in time, and all that was peculiar about it was the bed: rather than the usual furrowed mud and dust, this creek consisted of tiny smooth stones and large gritty lumps of sand.
We went down, dubious, crunching over the stoney sand. I felt rather silly standing by this tiny flow of water, slipping off a shoe to gently dip my toe into the water - looking for all the world as if I was afraid it might be too cold, or too wet.
My toe was luxiouriously hot! I dipped the whole of my foot in and stood on the bottom, and placed my other foot in alongside. I yelped in surprise as I found the water by my second foot to be absolutely scalding, far hotter than anything we'd come across thus far. Wading around, the creek was usually merely incredibly warm, but it was best to test with a tentative toe instead of just dashing through. Cooler than scalding some parts may have been, but it was all fabulously hot.
As it was getting late we booked into the campsite running alongside the creek. A fairly basic affair as far as camping was concerned (there's a field, find a spot), they had instead set themselves up as a 'Health & Leisure Park' and invested in creating swimming pools and a bath house into which they pumped the scalding hot water from the creek. Each pool in the bath house was allowed to cool to different temperatures, allowing you to pick the perfect temperature or for the refreshing feeling of descending from hot baths to cold, and the claustrophobic sensation of taking each pool hotter in turn until you are perfectly poached and dangerously light headed.
170km from Cairns along the Kennedy Highway, part of the Savannah Way.
Free parking by the Spring - look for the painted sign.
Use of the Hot Spring is free.
Next morning we tackled the natural creek properly, and in those early hours it was steaming magnificently. We got in, having to dig a hollow in the creek bed with our hands to make it deep enough to immerse ourselves completely. The effect was like being in a sauna: pore cleansing, sweating out the impurities to be washed away by the gentle flow of the creek. The water is exhaustingly hot, but out here in the creek you're mostly in the open air, and a cool breeze on your upper body will stop you getting light headed, allowing you to rest your limbs in the soothing water, washing away the aches and pains of the day.
In spots we could see air bubbles rising to the surface as the water either arrived boiling or bought gases from the depths. At any rate those points were quite painful to tread in, being the source itself, which seems to be spread over numerous spots up and down the creek. A little further upstream from the road you'll find the creek is absolutely ice cold - you can practically put one foot in each extreme temperature zone.
Near this area - where Nettle Creek is at it's deepest - you'll spot an inlet pipe which the camp pumps up hot water. The camp uses the hot spring for all of its water needs - indeed their shower block warns you not to waste too much cold water, as once the cooled supply has been exhausted it runs hot! I foolishly decided to shampoo my hair, but the water was hot before I'd begun. It was far too painful to stand under the shower, so I miserably splashed scalding handfuls at my searing scalp until the soap was clear.
All of which seems to explain why the level of the creek is so much lower than depicted in the giant painted sign with the frolicking bathers.