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

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

Ho­tel Cool­gar­die.

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.

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