Police in the Northern Territory were last night still hunting for a man who handcuffed two German women to trees after robbing them at gunpoint, in a case which has further damaged Australia's battered image as a tourist destination.
The German woman, 50, and her daughter, 16, both from Nuremberg, were deeply traumatised and plan to fly back to Europe in the next few days, police said.
They were approached by the man on Saturday night at a popular waterfall in Litchfield National Park, 100km south of Darwin. He marched them into the bush, demanded money and fired at least one shot from a handgun before binding them to separate trees.
The pair struggled free and after stumbling in the dark through the bush, flagged down a motorist, more than 12 hours after their ordeal began. Neither was sexually assaulted.
Police yesterday set up roadblocks and warned tourists to travel in groups and not to stray from busy areas of the national park, which is renowned for its waterfalls and swimming holes.
They said the attacker, described as blonde and in his 30s, was driving a blue Toyota Landcruiser station wagon which may have been stolen.
They appealed for information from the public and warned that the gunman could strike again.
The attack has revived safety fears for thousands of backpackers and other tourists who travel to remote parts of the Outback each year.
Yesterday, one Australian newspaper dubbed the Stuart Highway, which connects Darwin with Alice Springs and Adelaide, 'the highway of no return'.
The Daily Telegraph quoted the Northern Territory's police minister as saying that 'a lot of weird and crazy people' lived in the region known to Australians as 'the Top End'.
In 1987, German tourist Josef Schwab went on a killing spree, murdering five tourists in remote parts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia before being shot dead by police.
Detectives last night insisted there was no link between the national park robbery and last year's abduction and suspected murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio, who is believed to have been shot dead after he and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, were attacked by an unidentified gunmen on the Stuart Highway.
Detectives admitted there were similarities in the two attacks - both assailants were armed, and both used a similar type of plastic restraining cuff to tie the hands of their victims.
But Bert Hofer, a senior police officer in the Northern Territory, said there was no reason to suspect further links.