Outback Australia: how safe is it for young travellers?
Its stunning red sunsets and ochre sands frame some of the most enticingly beautiful landscape on earth, but the Australian outback can also be an alien place that is dangerous, dark and downright deadly – particularly if you are a backpacker, writes Susa
Franzsika and Alke* were bleary-eyed and exhausted. They had begun the day thousands of kilometres to the south in Western Australia. By the time they had reached Alice Springs at 11pm, the young women – one, aged 28, from Germany, the other, 21, from Finland – had reached the limits of their physical and emotional endurance.
Too late for a motel, they parked in a well-lit cul-de-sac, where there were houses nearby, and hunkered down in their four-wheel drive. “I told her she’d be safe here.” The German woman, Franzsika, would be haunted by these words to her friend. After all, this was the heart of Australia, that boisterous, friendly, welcoming place.
In the early hours, they were woken by banging on their four-wheel drive. As they tried to start the car to get away, one of three teenage boys smashed in the window and took the keys. Armed with rifles, their faces covered, and smelling of alcohol, the teenagers demanded the women’s wallets and credit cards. Then one of them went to the passenger side, smashed the window and grabbed Alke’s feet.
Both women were physically and sexually assaulted horrifically for hours at gunpoint. Their trip of a lifetime was over, their lives destroyed.
In September 2013, Norman Kernan and Ginger Green, both 17 at the time of the attack, pleaded guilty to armed robbery and eight counts of sexual intercourse without consent. They were sentenced to 15 years in jail. Bruce Impu, also then 17, was later caught, convicted and sentenced to 18 years.
In her victim impact statement, Franzsika said that her marriage had been destroyed, she couldn’t allow bodily contact, she felt more dead
than alive and was unable to work. Alke spoke of her depression, not being able to eat and feeling hopeless and exhausted.
Alice Springs “is one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. Ninetynine per cent of people [there] aren’t psychopaths, but you have to have your wits about you,” says Greg McLean, a former crime reporter in the outback town.
There is a mystique about the outback, in spite of its dangers.
Every year, thousands of backpackers and tourists head north, moving through the vast expanses. It’s the great adventure, the final frontier, a landscape like no other. Untamed and untameable, it is nature at its most raw. Out there, the elements dominate. It’s another world for visitors from ordered Northern Hemisphere cities.
Most people pass through without incident, returning with a lifetime of memories. Yet for those who get into trouble, who are attacked, raped, kidnapped, killed, their stories are so horrifying they make global headlines.
The outback can also be a magnet for people who don’t fit into society, on the run from something, escaping to indulge an inner darkness. “People go to the Northern Territory to get off the grid,” says Greg. “Anything is possible in the Territory.”
Bradley John Murdoch, who shot British tourist Peter Falconio and terrorised his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, in 2001, was a drug runner who constantly crossed Australia, and a dangerous man who knew how to disappear. “Drug runners do it in the night, when the police aren’t out,” says Neale McShane, who spent 10 years as the sole policeman at Birdsville and published a book, Outback Cop, last year. “They camp off the road during the day. You only have to get off-road for three or four kilometres and no one will find you.”
Foreigners often don’t understand the distances, the isolation, the hostile environment, and set off unprepared.
Neale was constantly rescuing them. “Across the desert is a three-day trip. They’re out of their league,” he says. “A local contractor came across five Danish backpackers in a car in 37°C heat because they didn’t know how to change a tyre. We had a Japanese bloke on a bike and all he had was a litre bottle of water and noodles. If you camp in the outback and someone wants to do you harm, they can see headlights from 50km away. It’s so dark, there are no street lights and hardly any trees. You have to have proper communication, a satellite phone, water, supplies. If you’re going to camp, camp close to others.”
Backpackers are vulnerable, being a long way from home and family protection. They’re in a harsh environment, often without much money, so are unable to afford the safety of hotels. The lack of funds and consequently doing menial, low-paid jobs to keep travelling can lead to dangerous situations. It was an urgent need for money that led Finns Lina and Stephie to work at the Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, a mining town in Western Australia, after they had been robbed in Bali. They found themselves in a hard, unforgiving place, among lonely, booze-addled men, a combustible situation that was the subject of an Australian documentary film, Hotel Coolgardie. It’s the attitude of the local men to these young foreigners that is so revealing and shocking. They see them as “fresh meat” and use
Foreigners often don’t understand the distances, the isolation.
profane language to try and get them into bed. The girls reject their advances only to be abused, insulted and turned against. The underlying menace makes you wonder what might have happened if the camera crew hadn’t been there. “Most girls have a decent time if they adapt,” says the film’s director Pete Gleeson. “These women had different boundaries and these guys didn’t get that you can’t treat women like that. As far as the patrons were concerned, they didn’t meet expectations, didn’t try to fit in.”
Former chef Roman Heinze was just waiting for the opportunity when a young Brazilian woman advertised on an Australian website in February for a travel partner for her and a German woman she had met in Perth. Meeting him when he picked them up was “a bit weird”, the Brazilian told the court at his trial this year – at 60, he was older than most on the site.
Initially “quiet and focused on driving”, they arrived at Salt Creek in South Australia and set up camp near the beach. “I was thinking it was weird to be in the middle of nowhere with people not my friends,” the Brazilian woman later told a court.
After drinking wine, Heinze invited her to see kangaroos in the sand dunes, then made sexual advances. When she refused, he physically and sexually assaulted her. Her screams woke her friend, who came to help and was herself attacked by Heinze. When she ran, he hit her with his four-wheel drive. Both women were badly injured and thought they would die. They were saved when a group of fishermen arrived and the Brazilian woman came running, hysterical, and threw herself into their car.
In May this year, Heinze was sentenced to 22 years on six charges, including indecent assault, aggravated kidnapping and endangering life.
Despite the shocking, headlinegrabbing crimes such as Heinze’s, outback towns are far from the lawless places depicted in horror films such as Wolf Creek. Local people are watching over the travellers passing through.
Neale McShane says the locals notice someone acting strangely in small towns. “If someone really dodgy comes in, they’ll keep an eye on them. The local garage people, the council people are quick to let police know.
I’d talk to them, let them know the police have got the rego of their car.”
Beverley Page was at work in a service station in Mitchell, Queensland, when a 22-year-old British woman pumped petrol into a car. Crying, she told Beverley that her ex-boyfriend had her wallet and wouldn’t give it to her, before she drove off without paying. Beverley noticed that she was disoriented, distressed and had black eyes and marks on her throat. Unable to get through to the police, Beverley followed in her own car until she came across the police in town. When the police stopped the four-wheel drive, a man was hiding in the back. The two had met at a party in Far North Queensland and started a relationship, but when it soured, she had been held against her will, raped, assaulted and strangled as they drove for weeks across Queensland.
Acting Inspector Duane Frank, who worked on the case, says “that’s a very isolated incident. It was just down to the goodwill and behaviour of a local member of the community that the girl was located.”
When her daughter, Mia, arrived in Australia, back in the UK Rosie Ayliffe was relieved. She thought she was in a safe place. The only child of a single mother, Mia, 20, was Rosie’s world. She had dreamed of travelling and saved hard, and they had planned the trip together with Mia’s safety in mind. She had a job in a nightclub
Yet a young girl was sent to live in his house.
on the Gold Coast, was making friends and having a great time.
She decided to stay in Australia for another year. To extend her visa, Mia had to complete three months’ work on a farm under a federal government scheme. Backpackers pay a two-week deposit to hostels, which work with the farmers to provide them with jobs.
Dreading it, but wanting to get it over, Mia arrived at the Shelley’s Backpackers hostel in Home Hill, Queensland, last August. She was sharing a dormitory with Smail Ayad, 29, from Marseille, who developed romantic feelings for her. Ayad had been there for more than a month, but was unhappy, smoking cannabis, locking himself in his room. Rosie Ayliffe claims that Ayad said he was on a dangerous path and needed to go home to France, but he needed to give three days’ notice before leaving.
Mia was frightened of Ayad. On the night of August 23, 2016, he killed Mia in a stabbing frenzy. Her friend, fellow Brit Tom Jackson, tried to save her, but later died from stab wounds.
Since Mia’s death, her devastated mother has uncovered the exploitation of backpackers in the agricultural industry, to which they provide a quarter of the workforce in Australia. Often when they arrive, there’s no work, but they still have to pay the hostel around $200 a week to sleep in a dormitory bed. “Some of the hostels are disgusting,” says Rosie. They get into debt to the hostel, but are unable to leave, waiting for weeks. The farmer has to sign off for their visas and some will demand sex from young women before they’ll do it.
Since she started a campaign to change the visa requirements, Rosie says, “I’m contacted at least every day by someone who’s come out of a situation or is in the middle of one.”
Recently, a 25-year-old Dutch woman contacted her. She had been living in the homestead on a 15,000-hectare property, looking after horses and dogs, and cutting fence posts. There was no phone reception. The farmer was becoming abusive and making sexual comments. When she complained about his cruelty to the animals, she got a torrent of abuse.
She left the next morning and went to the police because she needed her belongings, visa paperwork and pay. She hadn’t been paid in the five weeks she had been there. When police went to the farm, they were armed and wore bulletproof vests. Even though the farmer wasn’t there, they were anxious not to be there when he returned.
Rosie discovered the farmer was known in the district to be mentally unstable. “And yet a young girl was sent to live in his house,” she says.
Marie France* has been helping backpackers for 10 years, ever since she found 25 young people living in a two-bedroom flat on the Sunshine Coast. “They were hungry, cold. They were paying $170 a week and didn’t even have a bed, sleeping on dirty floors, with rats and cockroaches.”
She took the farm owner to court and shut him down.
When she saw a group of Asians in a paddock sharing a slice of bread, she discovered they were hungry because they hadn’t been paid. She and her husband got donations and delivered them vegies, sausages and bread. “You can’t work with no food,” says Marie.
She has fought for the workers’ rights and taken them into her own home. “When they have no money, my husband and I house and feed them until they’re on their feet,” she says. “One year, we had 136 come through our home.”
Rosie Ayliffe says of backpackers in Australia, “Probably a third of them have a really good experience, a third of them experience problems and a third of them are in really exploitative or even dangerous situations.” She will keep campaigning until there’s a safer and fairer deal for backpackers there. She dreams Mia is alive and well – then she wakes up and the sad reality hits.
On backpacker websites, young men and women still look to catch a lift across the country, wanting someone to hitchhike with, putting their trust in strangers, chasing the dream. *Names have been changed.
Former police officer Neale McShane on his vast desert beat. BELOW LEFT: Finnish backpacker Stephie at the bar in the film
RIGHT: British travellers Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees’ trip turned to terror when they were attacked by Bradley John Murdoch.
ABOVE: Rosie Ayliffe with her daughter, Mia, who was stabbed to death at a hostel. INSET: A front-page story about the horrific attack by Roman Heinze. LEFT: CCTV footage of a British woman assaulted and held against her will in Queensland.