Murder victim's mother issues gap-year warning

Students who go abroad before college often fail to take even the most basic safety precautions say backpacker's family
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The Independent Online

The mother of the murdered gap-year student Caroline Stuttle is to make a national appeal to urge sixth-form and college students to take basic precautions before travelling abroad. Marjorie Marks-Stuttle, whose daughter died back-packing in Australia, says that thousands of young travellers set off for exotic locations every year without the simplest preparations, such as taking out insurance.

The mother of the murdered gap-year student Caroline Stuttle is to make a national appeal to urge sixth-form and college students to take basic precautions before travelling abroad. Marjorie Marks-Stuttle, whose daughter died back-packing in Australia, says that thousands of young travellers set off for exotic locations every year without the simplest preparations, such as taking out insurance.

Next week, the 56-year-old will address a specially convened summit on gap-year safety for schools and parents, the Foreign Office and the travel industry at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). It follows a series of high-profile deaths and injuries among young British travellers.

Schools will be urged to give their sixth formers safety advice before they travel and warned that male students are often more at risk than girls because many are over-confident and disorganised.

Nineteen-year-old Caroline, from York, died in April 2002 in Bundaberg, Queensland, after falling 30ft from the Burnett River Bridge. An Australian man, Ian Previte, 32, is currently on trial for murder after allegedly confessing to the crime in jail. Last week the jury heard him laughing as he described killing her on tape.

It has become standard for students and school leavers to take a year out from their studies, and many are now in the process of embarking on their travels after a summer spent working to raise money. There are no official figures on how many take part, but at least 26,000 school-leavers defer their university studies for a year while they go off in search of adventure.

A recent survey by the STA travel group suggested that 60 per cent of students have either done a year of travelling, or intend to. While the vast majority return unharmed, many find themselves exposed to danger, whether from bad roads, disease or crime, and there are around 15 deaths a year.

In July, two British gap-year students were shot and injured by bandits while on a diving expedition in Tanzania. Last month another two British backbackers in their early 20s were shot dead in the Thai resort town of Kanchanaburi.

The popularity of exotic locations is making serious illness a growing risk. Last summer a 21-year-old student from Newcastle under Lyme in Staffordshire, Jim Garner, collapsed and died from cerebral malaria after spending nine months backpacking through Australia and Thailand.

Following her daughter's death, Mrs Marks-Stuttle set up Caroline's Rainbow Foundation to help young people travel abroad more safely. She will use the conference to launch a new safety video, which will be distributed to every school sixth form in the country.

"The important thing is that the youngsters follow their dreams, but do their research and be safe," said Mrs Marks-Stuttle, who appears on the video. "There are things like learning to walk away from a fight, rather than sticking up for their rights. It's easy for youngsters to feel over-confident.

"We have just found out that quite a big percentage of young people travelling don't even have insurance," she said. Mrs Marks-Stuttle has decided not to attend the Bundaberg trial.

The foundation is sponsoring a series of "safe" houses for travellers in Australia and is also working on a new alarm bracelet for gap-year travellers. The conference at the RGS's London headquarters will be attended by advisers from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and Objective Team, an organisation that specialises in safety training for travellers abroad.

According to Charlie McGrath, a director of Objective Team, many teenagers display an alarming level of ignorance. "It's amazing that many of them don't even know that you can use the sun to navigate," he said.

"The key thing is to teach them how to think safe, particularly boys. Eighteen-year-olds out of school may be fine in a Guildford nightclub, but the same behaviour in Bolivia doesn't go down so well. Girls are less at risk because they're more sensible, and they know they're vulnerable."

Shane Winser, head of the RGS Expedition Advisory Centre, said: "It's a very worrying time for parents when their children decide to go off, but our experience is that the benefits far outweigh the risks and the vast majority have a life-changing experience. My advice is be aware of local differences and behave appropriately."

TRAVEL FEVER

Trapped by revolution

Charles Elton, 19, from East Sussex

Country: Bolivia

Cost: £2,000

La Paz was very different to anything I had seen. The indigenous population is huge and the poverty stares you in the face. I was harassed by shoe shiners who don't take no for an answer. I was there during the October revolution. There was all sorts of street violence. They wanted the President out because they thought he was selling them out. It was absolute mayhem. We were told to stay clear of it but it wasn't easy. Some of my friends were unlucky and got tear-gassed. The nigh the President went, the place just erupted. It was like a street carnival.

Held up by guerrillas

Kirsty Thomas, 20, from Cornwall

Country: Nepal

Cost: £3,000

When we were trekking in the Himalayas Maoists approached us and asked for money. They were diplomatic, apart from the automatic rifles. They asked for 1,000 rupees but we bargained them down to 600 - about £6. It was so polite. Afterwards, they wanted to shake our hands but I wasn't going to do that.

We were never really in any danger. The situation was starting to heat up when we were there, but GAP, the organisation I went with, were really good.

The Nepali opinion of Westerners comes from the media. They've got quite a false image of us - especially women. They get everything from MTV. I got a few marriage proposals and on the bus everyone swarmed towards me.

Caught malaria

Cathy Mussert, 25, from Milford-on-sea, Hampshire

Country: Tanzania

Cost: £3,000

We had gone hiking, but after doing 20 miles on the first day I started aching. The following day I was sweating, had headaches and was feeling sick. It just got progressively worse. I'd taken the right precautions, I was just unlucky.

I collapsed at the side of the road and we flagged down a car that took us to the nearest hospital at the next village. We couldn't find a doctor. In the end, we found a nurse who told us that the doctor had gone home and no one was on call.

We eventually found a hospital in Tanga. The staff were absolutely brilliant and looked after me well. The company I went with also looked after me well. After a week or so I was fine, and on the up side, I lost a stone and a half.

Caught the travel bug

Antoinette Fischer, 19, from Maidstone, Kent

Country: Bahamas

Cost: £2,500

I went with a conservation organisation. They train you to dive and then you work for them collecting data on a series of dives. It's fantastic but hard work.

Being back in Maidstone is dull. I'm already itching to get away again.

I always wanted a career in advertising or the media. Now I'm really keen on doing a sailing course in Sydney, I've just got to save the money to do it. It's £12,000 for a five-month training course. I do love the media but I quite fancy travelling for a lot longer.

Steve Bloomfield

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