It is every parent's nightmare – and every young woman's, too. Off goes a daughter on her travels, alone and armed for adventure, only to have it brutally curtailed by the worst imaginable outcome. That has been the case for the family of Grace Millane, the 22-year-old British backpacker murdered in New Zealand last week while on what should have been a year-long quest to see the world.
Smiling photos of graduate Grace, who had reached Auckland just 10 days earlier from Peru, her trip's first destination, take on an harrowing quality as grim details of her death emerge, serving as a reminder that, no matter where, no matter how savvy and smart and cherished by loved ones you might be, you are never truly safe.
Grace's murder calls to mind those of so many other women subjected to a similarly horrific fate thousands of miles from home: of Mia Ayliffe-Chung, the 21-year-old stabbed to death by a tourist in Australia two years ago; of Hannah Witheridge, 23, raped and murdered on a Thai beach in 2014; of Danielle McLaughlin who, last year, was discovered lifeless in a Goan field at the age of just 24.
When these cases come to light, there is always sympathy, certainly, but soon after, questions. What were these young women doing alone, cut off from those who knew and loved them? Did they really expect to be safe?
The answer, in short, is yes – at least, no less safe than they might have been on more familiar turf. This is an age, after all, where travel is the ultimate pursuit of most young people, for whom home-buying and pension pots are far from view; a chance to see the world has become the more tangible, tantalising prospect. And just as reaching distant corners has become simpler, so too has the way in which we interact with others once we arrive there: booking accommodation via apps or meeting fellow passers-through on social media.
If anything, this rise in the ubiquity of our smartphones, through which we may at once be connected to the entire world, make us feel safer, less alone, better equipped to make 'sensible' choices. It is all the more cruel, then, that in leaving a digital footprint connecting us to those we meet, we are no more immune from lurking horrors than we ever were.
I have never gone backpacking, but have found myself alone on a remote beach in southeastern Cuba, on winding roads in Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro, in Gambian villages and Emirati subway carriages. As a city-dweller, a person convinced they have street smarts, who is aware of life's risks and seeks to navigate them appropriately, I know that ultimately, none of this is ever enough to absolve me from danger.
This was made clear to me aged 19 when, two-thirds of the way through a five-week cross-continental rail trip, two middle-aged men began circling a friend and I in the gardens of Istanbul's Blue Mosque. We got up and moved, hoping to excise ourselves from view; they followed. What was the 'sensible' thing to do, we wondered, hot beneath the blazing sun in our 'sensible', covered-up clothes?
We asked to tag along with a fellow tourist family in the hope of strength in numbers, but over the hours we spent there, the men in question watched us still, and with unsettling laser vision. The teenage son of the family we had joined laughed at our concern, but we didn't see the funny side, eventually darting from the mosque to the closest possible cab and urging it to race back to our hostel, watching out of the rear-view window the entire way.
That evening, we considered staying in, to keep ourselves away from any potential harm. Not wanting to have the rest of the trip ruined by our earlier near-miss, we asked a couple of male backpackers sharing our dorm (rooming with strangers was par for the course back then) if they'd mind walking us into the city centre.
As we completed the 10-minute journey – one we had done the previous night without reinforcement – we felt, frankly, silly. Here we were, two adult women, familiar with urban living, weeks into a journey that had seen us cross continents by rail, navigate new neighbourhoods every few days and get by without a grasp of the language, reminded that we were utterly powerless.
This is the quandary young women, travelling or otherwise, are constantly forced to contemplate. 'Taking care' is a given, but risks are everywhere, and kowtowing to the possibility that every single one might eventuate is unliveable. Meeting new people in unknown climes was not remiss of Grace Millane. Her decisions simply prove that she is – was – just like the rest of us: hopeful for a world full of wonders, and devastated when things turn out the other way.