Fatal end to Lee's overseas adventure

In the early hours of January 11, Jan Meadows was lying in bed. Just after midnight she had sat up, wide awake. Her husband, woken by her stirring, asked what was wrong. ''I don't know,'' she told him. ''I just can't sleep.'' The time on her mobile phone on the bedside table was 4am.

A few minutes later, Meadows' phone rang. The flashing screen told her it was an incoming call from her 26-year-old son, Lee Hudswell, a former University of Wollongong student who was nearing the end of a two-week trip to Thailand and Laos. Meadows' mind was racing. 

''About 50 things were running through my mind: has he lost his wallet? His passport?'' Meadows picked up the phone and asked, ''Lee? What's wrong?'' but it wasn't her son calling.

It was Scott Donaghy, one of two mates Hudswell was travelling with. ''Jan, it's not Lee,'' he said. ''I don't know how to tell you this,'' he kept saying. Meadows sat up in bed. ''What is it, Scott, what's wrong?'' she asked. ''Lee has passed away,'' Donaghy told her.

''When I heard that,'' Meadows says, ''I just started screaming.''

Lee was one of the 1138 Australians who died while overseas in 2011-12, with illness the leading cause. Almost 9 million Australians travel internationally in any given year, the number of Australian tourists under 25 having doubled in the past decade. A 2013 report from independent policy think tank, the Lowy Institute, noted activities more likely to cause injury or death, such as adventure travel or extreme sports, are becoming more common.

Searching for new experiences by travelling internationally has been a rite of passage for many young Australians. But lots of young tourists leave behind parents who, while keen for their child to explore and experience the wonders of the world, are also fearful about the risks.

Lee Hudswell had travelled to Vang Vieng in Laos to have an adventure. The gregarious and talented sportsman with a degree in commerce from the UOW journeyed to the once quiet agricultural town, now packed with young tourists, to float along the Nam Song river on giant tractor tubes (known as ''tubing''). At the time, cheap alcohol was sold by the bucket at bars on the edge of the river, and travellers got their thrills on rope swings, zip-lines, and giant waterslides.

Hudswell had climbed up a bamboo tower to have his second go on a zip-line strung high across the water. As he reached the end of the line he was flung awkwardly into the river. Young tourists on the banks noticed he hadn't surfaced and started calling to each other to look for him. The search became frantic. It took five or six minutes to pull Hudswell to the surface. He was unconscious. Scott Donaghy was one of Hudswell's friends who took him in a local tuk-tuk taxi to a nearby clinic; he died shortly afterwards.

Newspaper reports show Vang Vieng's tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 alone.

''Life is very difficult without Lee,'' says Meadows. ''For the first six months I was in a daze. I drove through red lights, I left the gas stove on, I left the gate open in the paddock and our racehorses got out. It never leaves your mind.''

Determined to save other young lives, Meadows lobbied Laotian authorities to have the zip-lines pulled down, along with the slides and swings along the notorious stretch of river. A few months after Hudswell's death the equipment was dismantled, and dozens of illegal bars were closed. ''It was totally and utterly unregulated tourism,'' Meadows says.

David Beirman, senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology, Sydney, says certain events and activities in some countries encourage travellers to take risks. ''Going with an unlicensed, unregistered operator who may be using faulty equipment can be a bit of a death trap,'' Beirman says. ''I think a lot of younger travellers want to have intense experiences and so there is a tendency to expose themselves to risk a bit more than they would at home.''

Paul Dillon, the director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia says a whole new industry in high-risk tourism has emerged in the past 20 years that encourages young people to push the boundaries. ''The evidence is very clear that young people are aware of the risks and know what the consequences can be, but they think it won't happen to them,'' Dillon says. There is a tendency, Dillon says, that the shorter the trip, the more intense an experience young people will seek.

Melbourne psychologist Sabina Read says part of parents supporting, nurturing and raising an independent child is learning to let go. ''Just having a child travel overseas is quite significant,'' she says. ''It would be extremely unusual for a parent not to feel some sadness, anxiety, concern and a sense of loss of control in that process.'' But, she cautions, living in an anticipatory anxiety mode of what might go wrong is not helpful for parent or child. ''Part of this process is to accept that we can't always protect our children, as much as it's our instinct to do so.''

Exacerbating the difficulties for parents are the practical implications of the loss. ''You have to negotiate a whole other country with their values, infrastructure, government and laws,'' Read says. ''You specifically get on a plane where everyone is laughing and talking about where they are going and which hotel they are staying at, and you are going to identify or collect your child's body. That level of pain, distress and trauma is beyond comprehension.''

In most cases, travel insurance can help families negotiate their way through unfamiliar foreign requirements. ''For many families, their distress at the loss of a loved one is often compounded by the cost and complexity of the procedures in place overseas, for example post-mortem investigations and repatriations,'' says Justin Brown, head of the consular and crisis management division in the Foreign Affairs Department. Up to a third of Australians who travel don't take out travel insurance.

Increased demand for government help for overseas travellers is thought to have recently prompted Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop to flag a ''user-pays'' approach for consular assistance. Government funding may not be forthcoming if people acted in defiance of local laws, travelled without insurance, or ignored travel advice, Bishop warned. Many travel insurers will also refuse to cover travellers for illness, accident or misadventure if they believe that the traveller was inebriated at the time of the incident.

For many parents, trying to piece together the last moments of their child's life and the circumstances of their death can be incredibly distressing. ''Part of the human psyche is wanting to know the details around the death,'' says Sabina Read. ''Not being able to imagine what the landscape was like, or the culture of the people, or how exactly it happened, means that parents are dealing with an extra element of the unknown. ''

Nicole Fitzsimons, was killed in a motorbike accident in Thailand..

After travelling to Thailand to repatriate her daughter's body in October 2012, Julie Fitzsimons says she will never go back. Nicole Fitzsimons, 24, was a talented dancer who was completing a degree in media and communications by correspondence at Griffith University. She was on holiday in Koh Samui and sitting on the back of a motorcycle driven by her partner, Jamie Keith, when a local Thai man on another motorbike hit the couple from behind as they turned into their hotel driveway. With no helmet for protection, Nicole suffered severe head injuries and died before her parents arrived.

''I didn't want to go to Thailand and I didn't want to see it [the place where Nicole died], but I'm glad I went,'' Fitzsimons says.

''We did a Buddhist ceremony and released her spirit. It was traumatic. But I know I'll never go back.''

In the days before Nicole's memorial service, people told Fitzsimons they wanted to donate to a charity that focused on road safety and the dangers of riding motorbikes overseas. Fitzsimons says it was a way of channelling their grief.

Julie Fitzsimons, right, with daughter Kate. Picture: SAHLAN HAYES

Just months after Nicole died, 21-year-old Kate left her corporate job and became the face of the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation. ''I read the statistics of places like Bali where the hospitals there are treating up to 300 traffic victims every day, and I wanted to know why my sister wasn't given the chance to be educated about this before she went overseas,'' says Kate.

Last year Kate Fitzsimons travelled to 40 schools in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory, raising awareness of travel safety overseas.

''This has been the most fulfilling, rewarding 12 months of my life. I never thought that I'd say that so soon after losing my best friend and sister, but I think she's up there opening doors … she's with me every step of the way.''

smh.com.au

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