York backpacker Caroline Stuttle's legacy for young people travelling the world - Christa Ackroyd

When I left school there was no question of having a gap year. They hadn’t even been invented. I like so many others left lessons one day and started full time work a few weeks later.

One of the saddest parts of my late father’s illness was that we never got to go on our planned extensive tour, driving through India. Though who on earth has heard of planning a gap year or even a gap month with your father? But that’s what we had planned and it would have been fun. As it was, I was 18 before I even went abroad and that was a week’s camping in France. It was hardly the great adventure.

Would I have done so had I been born in a different era? Absolutely. Have I made up for it since? Definitely. The world is there to explore. Travel remains a wonderful way to discover things about the world and about ourselves. But it also has its dangers.

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And it is a news story of twenty years ago this very week that reminds us of that, a story I was to play a small part in and a family who remain in touch to this day. A family ripped apart but a family determined to make a difference. And they have.

Caroline Stuttle's family members during a service in her memory on the tenth anniversary of her death.

Caroline Stuttle was on the adventure of a lifetime before starting university to study criminal psychology. The 19-year-old had worked for three years at her local pizza restaurant in York to save up and set off with a backpack and a friend, like so many before and since, to travel around Australia. She was a beautiful, gregarious intelligent girl.

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Only she died. She died having being thrown off a bridge in Bundaberg where her and her friend had gone to earn some money picking tomatoes. And she died because she clung on to the bag hung around her shoulders. It contained 75 pence. And because she refused to give it up to her attacker he threw her to her death.

It was less than two months later when I found myself on an aeroplane to Bundaberg with Caroline’s father, Alan and her brother Richard. Alan sent me a message this week reminding me of the twenty years that has since passed. The pair spoke little on that long journey twenty years ago. All they wanted to do was visit the place where she had died and help the police in the investigation to find her killer.

For a week I witnessed two men numb with shock. Such was the interest in the case, that as we left the plane in Bundaberg they were surrounded by journalists shouting their questions for the major networks. As they answered with good grace, I was once again reminded of the behaviour of those who believe their right to a story is greater than the grief of those involved.

In the early hours of the morning some four days after our arrival we drove to the place Caroline had died. As they lay their flowers under that bridge, I stood a long way away reminded of every family’s need for privacy in their moment of grief. During those few days, they also were guests at a simple and rather beautiful tree planting ceremony that locals had organised in

Caroline’s honour and they met the police who had asked them to appeal for help which they duly did. The man was arrested a few months later.

It was an horrendous few days. But I was honoured they had asked me to be there. One night I asked Alan why. His message stays with me now. I know he is reading this and want him to know what a remarkable man he is.

This is what he told me. “I wanted people to know about Caroline, who she was and of her dreams,” he said. “This trip was part of them. But more importantly I want young people to know she was right in wanting to fly, to spread her wings.

“She was so, so happy in the last phone call and messages we received from her. She was living her life to the full. She was living her dream. And young people must always do that, wherever that dream takes them.”

As I say, remarkable. Alan Stuttle is a better human being than I am. When my daughter wanted to travel some two years later, I railed against her decision because of what had happened to Caroline. She went of course and came back full of stories about her adventures. She had grown in confidence and in stature. Alan was right and I was wrong.

But I was at least able to pass on one piece of advice which remains true then and now, wherever you may travel. “If someone wants to steal your handbag let them”, he said. “No matter what you have in it, don’t struggle, give them it to them. Nothing is as valuable as your life.”

It was lovely just to touch base again with Alan on this sad anniversary. His thoughts this weekend were for his daughter of course, who would have been forty-years-old this year. But also to thank me for being part of his journey. And as a journalist that is humbling.

It was an honour Alan. Just as Caroline is being honoured again during this sad anniversary weekend in Bundaberg, an outback town that never hit the headlines before or since.

Caroline’s mother Marjorie and her brother Richard set up Caroline’s Rainbow Foundation in her memory. Thousands upon thousands of young people embarking on their own adventure have benefitted from the books, the online safety advice, the mobile apps and the talks they offer to make sure young people remain safe as they too follow their dreams.

I left Alan in Australia with his easel and pallet painting the Sydney harbour bridge, one of the last photographs Caroline had taken on her camera. And where she had called him tell him she was having the time of her life. Because of her, others may now do the same, more safely. I just want him and her family to remember that too.