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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Pack up your troubles
By Claire Bates

Every year tens of thousands of young Britons head overseas in search of adventure. What can be done to make sure they come home safely?

There's usually a smiling snapshot of a suntanned face.

Then there are the desperate parents, with tear-stained cheeks and haunted eyes, pleading for information about their missing son or daughter.

The scenario is unpleasantly familiar, the result of a dream backpacking trip which has gone wrong.

Earlier this week it was the parents of 22-year-old Liverpool student Sean Kennedy who had to face the fact their son wasn't coming home, after his body was discovered in Sydney.

Youthful bravado

The body of Mr Kennedy, who had been travelling around Australia with his girlfriend, was found by water police 12 days after he went missing. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances.

John Cummings knows that when such incidents appear on the news, his telephone will probably ring.

John Cummings
John Cummings works with young travellers keen to stay safe

The ex-Army officer is director of Safetrek, a company that offers courses on safety awareness and personal security for young travellers.

Often it is parents who make the first contact; worried about the trip their child is about to take, in many cases alone.

Sometimes it is the young people themselves who ring, many of whom may appear to be full of youthful bravado but don't feel ready to admit to parents or peers that they are concerned about what lies ahead.

"They have often been away on holiday with their parents and act like they are well travelled and streetwise and reckon they know the score, but deep down they have concerns," says Mr Cummings.

Health and hygiene

On a one-day course backpackers are taken through the basic skills they need to make their journey a success.

The very nature of a gap year student who travels is that they are adventurous, so perhaps they will not always be fully aware of the dangers
John Cummings

Nothing is too simple; they are told about what they need to take, how to pack it, how to apply for documentation and what to expect from the customs officers they encounter.

Then there's guidance on etiquette, health and hygiene.

And, should the worst happen and physical danger becomes a threat, there's advice on conflict resolution and how to deal with muggings or sexual attacks.

With the emphasis placed on role-play and discussion, the courses are not dissimilar to those attended by journalists heading on dangerous overseas assignments.

"Youngsters who come to us, have had 13 years of education and they don't simply want to be given advice. They want to be shown how to make decisions for themselves," says Mr Cummings.

"The very nature of a gap year student who travels is that they are adventurous, so perhaps they will not always be fully aware of the dangers."

Backpacker murders

Each year more than 50,000 teenagers take a pre-university gap year, with many more taking a break once they have completed their course. Other backpackers are on a sabbatical from work.

Sean Kennedy
Sean Kennedy was found in Sydney

The stories about those who have run into trouble do not make easy reading for families preparing to wave goodbye to a young traveller.

In Australia, a pre-trial hearing is being held concerning the shooting of Peter Falconio and abduction of girlfriend Joanne Lees near Alice Springs in 2001. Bradley Murdoch is denying the charges made against him.

Another backpacker, Caroline Stuttle, 19, was murdered in Queensland in 2002.

The family of Kirsty Jones, 23, from Tredomen, Wales, are still pressing Thai police to capture whoever murdered her in a hostel 2000.

Other families are simply waiting for news.

Among them are the relatives of Gareth Koch, 24, from Oxfordshire, who has been missing in Nepal since March, and Alex Ratnasothy, from Grays, Essex, vanished in the Asian state in 2003.

Kidnapped

Others have had high-profile brushes with danger, scaring the wits out of their families but emerging more or less unscathed.

After four days lost in the Australian rainforest, 19-year-old Louise Saunders, found her way back to civilisation without the help of the huge police operation launched to find her.

We are not intent on frightening or discouraging youngsters from travelling
Spanner Manley

She had survived on chewing gum and water from a stream.

Last September eight travellers were kidnapped by Colombian rebels. Among them were Matthew Scott, 19, who escaped and Mark Henderson, 32, who was released after 102 days.

Mr Henderson's father, Christopher, says the pair's experience should not deter others from making trips abroad.

He says there is a great deal to be gained from backpacking and adds: "When you think there are only five Britons kidnapped each year all over the world, the chances are very small."

Security information

For the Foreign Office, the safety of travellers has become increasingly important.

Backpacker
Tens of thousands of backpackers head overseas each year

Its "Know Before You Go" scheme offers advice on making sure travellers are properly prepared before they even step on to a plane.

For those that have already set off, it has up-to-date information on security for every country around the world.

Firms frequently used by backpackers also offer advice.

Major guidebooks and their websites have safety tips and Lonely Planet has an online forum, Thorn Tree, in which travellers can exchange advice, including how to get around safely.

Faux pas

Most problems abroad usually involve lost documents or theft, but more serious incidents do, occasionally, happen.

Being a bit streetwise and aware of what's going on around you is vital, says Mr Cummings.

Travel safety tips
Keep in touch with home
Use a guidebook
Avoid unlit streets
Leave valuables in guesthouse
Carry little cash
Never resist violent theft
If you must hitchhike never do so alone
Do not tell strangers where you are staying
The way a rucksack is packed, for example, can minimise the chances of someone slipping something like drugs or a weapon inside at borders, he says.

And knowing in advance the political and cultural aspects of certain countries can help avoid seemingly innocent faux pas that can escalate into serious conflict.

His business partner, Spanner Manley, a former Army jungle warfare instructor, says nobody should be put off their travels.

"We are not intent on frightening or discouraging youngsters from travelling," he says.

"It's just to pass on our experience so that young adults will be better prepared and confident to resolve situations successfully."


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