Alone in the outback: how attacks on backpackers in Australia play on deep-seated fears

While millions of tourists make their way safely across Australia, some shocking exceptions highlight the need for caution in the wilderness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 4:07pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 9:34pm

Recent cases of abduction, murder and rapes in outback Australia have once again turned the spotlight on the potential for a dream trip to turn into a nightmare for vulnerable young tourists in isolated surroundings.

Among the millions of backpackers and tourists who have safely made their way across Australia, there are horror stories.

They resonate not because of their likelihood – the number of travellers who fall victim to violent crimes is infinitesimal beside the wave of overseas visitors every year – but because they tap into a primal fear. This is the fear of being vulnerable in an unfamiliar place where one’s assailant or predator is very much at home.

The situation of young travellers coming to grave harm in disturbing circumstances has been at the centre of a series of rare but high-profile cases in Australia over the past 25 years.

From 1992 to 1993, the bodies of five British and German backpackers were among seven found in the Belanglo state forest in New South Wales.

Ivan Milat, serial killer and weapons enthusiast, is serving a life sentence for the murders of Britons Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, and Gabor Neugebauer, Anja Habschied and Simone Schmidl from Germany, as well as an Australian couple.

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In 1997 Japanese tourist Michiko Okuyama, 22, drowned in her own blood inside a soundproof vault at a disused Cairns warehouse.

A 16-year-old boy had held her captive and repeatedly slammed her head against a wall, before carting her body through city streets in a “wheelie bin” and dumping it near a school.

In July 2001, British backpacker Peter Falconio was murdered by truck driver Bradley John Murdoch on a remote stretch of highway in the Northern Territory. His partner Joanne Lees narrowly escaped.

In 2014 French student Sophie Collombet, while walking home to her apartment, was raped and murdered at riverside parkland, also in the centre of Brisbane. Benjamin James Milward was jailed for life for the murder in October.

Of all these real-life horror stories that have befallen tourists in Australia, it is perhaps those involving the killers Milat and Murdoch that have attracted the most attention.

Their crimes jointly formed the basis for a 2005 horror film, Wolf Creek, about a gun-loving, outback psychopath who terrorises three backpackers.

John Jarratt, the actor who played the homicidal antagonist Mick Taylor, said the film, which had come to occupy its own place in popular culture, tapped into a fear of a situation he likened to anxiety about shark attacks.

“Like Wolf Creek, like Jaws, it’s everybody’s nightmare and that’s why the movies were so effective.”

Former police officer Neale McShane, who retired in 2015 after a decade policing a remote beat the size of the UK , said he could recall cases where the isolation of the outback carried inherent danger.

Several of them involved figures akin to Milat or Murdoch, McShane said, including one who forced another car off the road while toting a gun near the South Australia-Queensland border.

In another case, a pig hunter with dried bloodstains across his car pulled in front of a traveller after trying to run his companions off the road, dragged him out of the car window, and demanded he pay money for a windscreen that was already damaged.

Fortunately the man’s companions caught up to them and “the guy backed off”, and was charged with demanding money with menace, assault and dangerous driving.

“Australia is a friendly country with friendly people and that’s true,” he said.

“But there’s opportunistic criminals getting around like there is in every part of the world.”

In the most recent case a British female backpacker was sexually assaulted and held captive for weeks in the Australian Outback before being rescued by police who pulled over the car she was driving. Her 22-year-old captor was found hiding in an alcove in the back of the vehicle.

That incident prompted Rosie Ayliffe, whose daughter Mia Ayliffe-Chung was stabbed to death at a hostel in Home Hill, a small north Queensland town, to call on the Australian government to do more to guarantee the safety of visiting backpackers.

She called for a safety website for backpackers, and for the government to run more safety checks and stringent regulation of accommodation for visitors who work on farms in a programme to extend their visas.

The chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Council, Daniel Gschwind, said recent attacks had been “horrendous beyond belief”.

The last tourism industry survey showed 644,726 backpackers who came to Australia in the year to last June, almost half of them staying for at least a year.

“Nobody anywhere in the world can guarantee that nothing can go wrong,” Gschwind said.

“But what we can promise is that if something goes wrong here, we have legal systems, judicial systems, a police force and most importantly we have a community that actually cares.”

McShane doesn’t hesitate when asked what advice on personal safety he would give to backpackers or their families who were contemplating treks across Australia.

Don’t camp alone; camp near others, he said, adding that in the outback, a car’s headlights can be spotted up to 50km away. Keep up your communications with loved ones – much of outback Australia has no mobile phone coverage.

“Tell someone who cares about you where you are and where you’re heading to and check in when you get there.”