Take your chances, but take them wisely

Nothing written here or elsewhere can mitigate the pain suffered by the families and friends of the backpackers who died in the fire in Queensland last week. The lives of dozens of those close to the victims will never fully recover from the pain of the loss; of bright, enthusiastic young people who were in the middle of a great adventure. Many of the independent travellers I have met in the past week while hitch-hiking through western Canada were plainly stunned by the news. Each seemed to have the same unspoken thought: there, but for fortune, go I.

Nothing written here or elsewhere can mitigate the pain suffered by the families and friends of the backpackers who died in the fire in Queensland last week. The lives of dozens of those close to the victims will never fully recover from the pain of the loss; of bright, enthusiastic young people who were in the middle of a great adventure. Many of the independent travellers I have met in the past week while hitch-hiking through western Canada were plainly stunned by the news. Each seemed to have the same unspoken thought: there, but for fortune, go I.

Independent travel involves a lot of trust, and luck. Just as it is difficult to comfort those who have lost loved ones, it is easy to empathise with the families of global backpackers over the extra anxiety they must now feel.

Yet there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed. Inevitably, Australia will be erased from the wish-lists of some travellers. This latest tragedy has reawakened the memory of the horrific "backpacker murders" of hitch-hikers by a serial killer in New South Wales. Independent travel in Australia, it is tempting to conclude, equals risk.

In one sense, there is a good statistical case for being fearful about Australia: the traffic-accident record is dreadful, with a rate of road deaths more than twice as bad as Britain's. (In New Zealand, the figures are even worse.) Road accidents will continue to be the leading cause of death for British travellers abroad, likely to number more than 150 this year. Drownings and other accidents at sea will account for a further 100 deaths.

Each of these comprises an individual tragedy with awful repercussions, and perhaps constitutes one more reason to stay at home: is it really wise to place your trust, and life, in the hands of others, thousands of miles from home? We live at a time when the average British person can travel almost wherever they wish. But that doesn't mean travelling is, in itself, always a good thing.

This summer, plenty of us will be exporting ourselves and our culture to a part of the world where the weather is better and the beer cheaper: Benidorm, the Dordogne, or - where I am writing from - the YWCA Backpackers' Hostel in Vancouver, which boasts internet access and Euro 2000 live.

You can make a strong case for the absurdity of taking on extra risks, from plane crashes to falling from a hotel balcony (each claiming about 20 British victims annually), just to go abroad. But almost any journey that puts you in contact with different places and people is likely to challenge you, broaden your horizons and increase your understanding of the world. And even if travel doesn't do for you any of those things, at least you will bring some economic benefit to the community you visit.

The deeper you explore, the more you avoid the well-beaten tourist trail, the higher the rewards - and the risks. There are plenty of steps you can take to reduce the perils from small to minuscule, such as flying rather than driving within Australia, and becoming obsessive about avoiding mosquito bites in the tropics. But you can never eliminate danger altogether.

Today, several thousand Gap Year travellers will set off from Britain, with considerable trepidation, on their personal journeys of a lifetime. They owe it to themselves, to their friends and their families, to take their chances, but to take them wisely.

***

THERE ARE many advantages to boarding a Ukraine International Airways flight at Gatwick. Only a churl would begin the list with the fact that you are leaving Gatwick. The first proper benefit is the prospect of flying to Kyiv, the majestic capital of a beautiful country. Next, the prospect of generous helpings of Armenian brandy after your meal. Third, the pleasures of Panorama, the inflight magazine.

Panorama would be sure to win the prize for honesty in airline publications. It confronts the post-Chernobyl worries head-on: "Radiation levels in Kyiv and most of Ukraine are considered to be safe by the Ukrainian government, and, " it adds with a note of triumph, "the US Embassy." Note that clause "most of Ukraine" - from which it is tempting to infer that parts of the country are still suffering the effects of the catastrophe.

While other inflight magazines counsel caution about how to get around a strange city, UIA's journal suggests a relaxed definition of the term "taxi" when on the streets of Kyiv: "Generally, it is easier to hail a private car in the street, as owners often act as taxi drivers. It is not advisable to get in a private car with more than one person already in it. Set the price before getting in. Rides are usually equivalent to about $2 in the city centre, and up to $5 to Kyiv's suburbs."

When visiting Ukrainians in their home, Panorama advises that it is customary to bring a gift. "Flowers or champagne should suffice," it adds helpfully. Given the average hard-bitten local businessman's likely reaction to being offered a bunch of carnations, I'd suggest the champagne every time.

***

THE CURRENT edition of Panorama curiously includes "Some tips on how to prepare" for April Fool's day. The author, Branco Stanits, says "the reward to a joker is a timely and triumphant yell of 'Fools' Day!' when you see that your scheming has worked," and suggests that for maximum effect you should "explore the world's treasury of practical jokes and pick one well in advance". Life round at Branco's house must be full of fun.

And just in case you have some spare time, you may wish to take a side-trip to Odessa, 300 miles south, which has an unusual property: "Wherever you look, at all times and under any circumstances, Odessa has been full of beautiful women," claims the magazine. Male visitors with nobler aspirations should take the "drive down the French Boulevard along the seafront to Lanzheron, or maybe even as far as the Sparkling Wine Factory". If you neglected to stock up on champagne at Gatwick, this could be your chance to really impress those business associates.

***

The official carrier for the 2004 Olympiad is, appropriately, Olympic Airways. But will the the Greek national airline still be flying by the time the Games in Athens take place? The chronically loss-making carrier has repeatedly had its corporate knuckles rapped by the EU for the state subsidies that helped keep it afloat. In a recent interview for Airlines International, the boss of Olympic said: "I don't think there's anybody in the airline that doesn't realise this is the last-chance saloon..."

Since then, Rod Lynch has thrown in the towel as CEO of Olympic. He has returned to his old employer, British Airways, and a new boss, Rod Eddington. It is whispered that one of the first acts of Rod II, when he surveyed the mess he was brought in to clean up, was to ask why BA was getting so involved with one of Europe's poorest airlines. He cancelled the plan for BA to buy one-fifth of Olympic, and recalled the team of consultants that Rod I had led. Perhaps a comment by Rod I will prove the most accurate: "This airline is going to surprise the whole industry."

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