He won't need the mattresses anymore. Earlier this month, after park rangers failed to find a crocodile they'd spotted in the area last year, swimming in the pool was permanently banned. Kakadu's 15-member management board, which includes 10 traditional owners, says swimming at Twin Falls is too risky. "There is a lot of responsibility on Aboriginal people about all this," says Jessie Alderson, a traditional owner from the Murumburr clan. But the ban has been attacked by some tour operators and local politicians, who see it as an opportunistic attempt to lock up Kakadu. With moves due to hand 30 Territory parks back to traditional owners, the Twin Falls issue has touched a nerve.
In the past two weeks, says Bardia Bodaghi, who runs a backpackers' lodge in Darwin, at least 10 foreign tourists have asked him if Kakadu is closed. The rumor is sending shudders through an industry that each year serves 80,000 backpackers, who spend about $A19 million in Kakadu alone. The Territory Labor government has promised $A500,000 for an international advertising campaign to soothe such concerns. But Bodaghi, president of the N.T. Backpacker Association, doesn't believe the federal government's Parks Australia North, which co-manages Kakadu with traditional owners representing an indigenous population of around 600, takes tourism seriously: "This is the beginning of them trying to restrict us more and more."
Jessie Alderson says Aboriginal people welcome tourism: "We like tourists coming here because they bring a lot of money into the park." But Jeffrey Lee, a traditional owner from the Djok clan, says, "We are still really sad about the death of that German tourist and we want to make sure people are safe." Isabel von Jordan was killed by a crocodile in a Kakadu billabong in 2002; her group's tour guide had told them they could ignore warning signs. "If that attack" - the first fatal one in the park in 15 years - "hadn't happened, we'd still be swimming at Twin Falls," safari operator Bowman says. With saltwater crocodile numbers booming in the Top End, "salties" are now appearing in Kakadu rivers up to 280 km from the coast. Last year a 2-m specimen was found in a camping ground. Peter Whitehead, the park board's conservation representative and director of N.T. University's Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management, says the species' revival is good for tourism but increased competition for food is making them bolder.
Calls for a cull don't fit with stewardship of a World Heritage Area, Whitehead says: "It's the fundamental tension. Kakadu's an area where natural values have to be maintained, but recreation is also supposed to be supported." Despite baiting and spotlighting attempts by rangers at Twin Falls, critics say Parks Australia, which last week was unwilling to comment, is not doing enough to keep the area safe. Kakadu, said N.T. Country Liberal Party Senator Nigel Scullion, "is not their personal fiefdom." It's unclear whether the Twin Falls saltie's capture would prompt a reconsideration of the ban. Nets were already in place, says Alderson, "and this croc still got in."
Some operators doubt that a crocodile still lurks in the area. Claims last week by park board chairman Jonathon Nadji that the area was a sacred site and that some tour guides are irresponsible have made them angrier: "It's tempting to see a conspiracy of trying to close Twin Falls at all costs," says Bodaghi. But Lee says he's never swum at Twin Falls because of its significance as a resting place for the mythical Rainbow Serpent: "We have known that since we were little kids, and we have to respect that country." He says his people don't mind non-Aborigines swimming. "It's all right for them because any swimming place is the same to them. But it is sacred to us."
There are plans to reopen Twin Falls in June for the dry season, with an Aboriginal-run boat providing cultural talks. That will open up the gorge, which tourists once had to swim down, to more people, says Whitehead: "I can't think of a better solution." Traditional owners say they're baffled by the furor. "I don't know what they're all whingeing about," says Alderson. "We want people to come here," says Lee, "to learn about this country and this culture."