Visitors told to stay away from Aussie swimming spot after disturbing discovery

Advice to "take only photos, leave only footprints" has been guiding responsible traveller behaviour since at least the 1950s, but a truly disgusting find in a NSW river indicates some people are ignoring it.

Faecal residue has infested a popular swimming spot on the Mid North Coast, leading council to warn tourists to stay away. They're hoping social media influencers and travel bloggers will promote other areas instead.

Located within the picturesque Promised Land region, water at the Arthur Keough Reserve was found to be “very poor” in early January. Concerned by high levels of enterococcus bacteria, council erected warning signs around the “problematic location” and alerted state authorities.

People stand in the distance on rocks, looking at the Never Never River. There are trees in the background.
Water testing revealed high levels of faecal matter in the Never Never River at the Arthur Keough Reserve. Source: Bellingen Shire Council

Increased numbers of humans and pets visiting the site over the summer break are the likely source of the problem, Bellingen Shire Council suspects.

It warned “there’s always a risk of visitors and locals loving our natural water places too much” and encouraged travellers to visit the wider region instead.

Because of the area’s sensitivity, council is actively working to “manage tourism and disperse visitors” from the area, but that hasn’t stopped a flood of visitors seeking out the area which travellers posting to social media describe as “a little gem”.

Mayor Steve Allan told Yahoo News Australia tourists visiting the area are "not getting the experience that the social media influencers are promoting - getting away into the wilderness and swimming in beautiful clear water." "All they're experiencing when they get is are multitudes of people who leave their rubbish behind and worse things," he said.

Councillor Allan said because the swimming spot is in a state forest there is no infrastructure. "Even if you were to put in toilets, there's regular flooding so they could potentially add to the pollution of the river," he said. "We are recommending that people stop promoting it as a destination."

Water improving but area remains 'fragile'

Mayor Steve Allan said he believed the contamination was an “isolated issue” and that tests conducted three days later revealed conditions had improved to “fair”. “The water quality has recovered, however it is a good reminder of the fragility of the area, which we all need to be mindful of when enjoying the beauty of the area,” he said in a statement.

Inset - enterococcus bacteria growing in dishes. Background - river water splashing.
Enterococcus bacteria is not harmful but it indicates the presence of sewage in water. Source: DPE/Getty

The NSW government advises that enterococci bacteria itself does not cause illness, but it does indicate the presence of sewage which can contain pathogens. “Studies have shown a strong relationship between elevated levels of enterococci and illness rates in swimmers,” it warns.

Tourist behaviour called out by local authorities across Australia

Bellingen Shire Council isn’t the only local government to steer summer visitors away from popular holiday spots. In December, MidCoast Council told tourists to avoid Seal Rocks because they were causing “traffic and emergency access hazards”.

Traveller behaviour has also been called out by state authorities. After a string of emergency incidents at Josephine Falls near Cairns, rangers issued a reminder not to climb over safety barriers.

Wildlife has also been put at risk by dog owners travelling to Bicheno in Tasmania. BirdLife Tasmania was left dismayed after a number of dead penguins were found at one of the region’s popular beaches.

“We’re post Covid, back to normal, business as usual, and unfortunately that also means business as usual as far as dog attacks on penguins are concerned,” a spokesperson said.

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