For most women, travelling to far-flung destinations can be a hugely rewarding and positive experience. Backpacking, for instance, is often a rite of passage, the first exciting steps to making one’s own way in the world.
But, as the latest story on a British female backpacker’s ordeal in Australia proves, while such cases are rare, there exists a darker side to backpacking.
I know this from experience. A few years ago, I was almost kidnapped in Vietnam. My friend Lilian and I had just landed in Hanoi. We were hungry and tired and desperate to get to our hotel.
At Nội Bài International Airport, around a dozen young Vietnamese men in black suits approached us and offered taxis. We chose one that looked benign and professional. He quoted us $10. Outside, he waved down a car and got in the passenger seat. My friend and I exchanged looks. Was he not the driver?
A muscular man stepped out of the cab and carried our luggage to the boot. We were confused but exhausted and just got in the car. As we approached the city border, the muscular man turned around and said: "You have to pay $50 each for the toll fee". I protested.
Unsure of the situation, I said I’d speak to the woman at the information desk, little more than a hut located nearby. I asked her in English if we were really meant to pay a fee. She shrugged. She didn’t speak English, nor I Vietnamese. I went back to the car and insisted we were not paying and we drove on through the tollgate. I noted no exchange of money was made. I felt relieved – we were on our way.
But then we pulled into a petrol station. The two men looked back at us and the man beside the driver said: "We did a favour for you; we paid for the tollgate fee. Now you do us a favour and pay for the petrol."
It was dark, no stars that night. Stray dogs barked nearby. We were in the middle of nowhere
I was aghast. Frustrated by our refusal to pay for the fuel, both men stomped out of the car. My friend and I tried to get out of the vehicle but the doors were locked from inside. Instinctively, I jumped onto the passenger seat from the back seat and tried to pry open the door. It too was locked.
I moved over to the driver seat and noted that the window was half-way open. In desperation, I forced it down and opened the door from outside. I jumped out and let Lilian out too, pulling the boot lever to take our luggage out. The two men looked alarmed – as if they had just been found out.
As soon as we had pulled our luggage out of the boot, they rushed back into the car and drove off. The scene looked like something from a Western, dust trailing behind the car. We stood their with our luggage, dumbfounded, and not a little freaked out. The petrol staff were sat on stools, munching on cucumbers. I looked up at the sky. It was dark, no stars that night. Stray dogs barked nearby. We were in the middle of nowhere.
Two hours later, we managed to flag down an empty taxi which had stopped momentarily at the station. We finally arrived at our hotel flustered, but unharmed.
I was lucky. For most, backpacking is an entirely safe and liberating adventure. An independent survey commissioned by Telegraph Travel published last October at the Travel Convention held by Abta - The Travel Association -reveals that 90 per cent of respondents have travelled solo before, and would be interested in doing so again.
But, as today’s story proves, some female solo travellers have found themselves exposed to real danger, especially when travelling in unfamiliar destinations. So what safety precautions can you take when travelling unaccompanied? How do you cope with situations when they turn dire, or worse?
Explorer Belinda Kirk, who has travelled on her own in places such as East Africa, Egypt and the Amazon, said that the three best safety precautions for anyone travelling on their own are: “To be aware of your surroundings. Notice what is going on around you and stay alert. Secondly, appear confident outwardly. Even if you are confused or scared, bluff it. Thirdly make a habit of checking-in with friends or family regularly and let them know where you are going.”
Adventurer Karen Darke, MBE said of her experience travelling in Kyrgyztan. “I was hitch-hiking with a group of three other friends. It became apparent that the driver had been drinking heavily and was off his head.
"I knew we had to get out. So I feigned being sick and said I needed to go out and vomit. He made a pitstop and my friends and I jumped out the car.” She advised not to put yourself in a potentially vulnerable position and to tune in to your intuition to gauge a situation.
Kirk said: “For women in particular you can do things like wear a wedding ring, adhere to a modest dress code and take self defense classes before you go. But, staying alert will always be your best form of defence.”
“My heart goes out to the woman who has undergone this ordeal. It is extremely sad and I wish the best for her recovery. When something this tragic happens we should pay attention - and our respects - but we shouldn't let it limit what we do. We can't let predators make us live in fear.”