Camper Tragedies

Sunday, February 1, 2004

Winter is a time to reflect on the end of things. The pace of life slows and the sun barely rises, bringing an air of melancholy. It’s in this frame of mind that I was struck by some tragic stories featuring VW campervans. Sure, you hear about vans going up in flames on the first day after a major re-spray due to neglected fuel-lines, but the tragedies I’m talking about are of a more heart wrenching type.

Peruvian tragedy

Andean disaster

The first tragedy that caught my attention was in March of 2002. Bridget and Rupert Riedl were traveling the length of North and South America in a 1972 VW camper with their three children. It was a journey of a lifetime and a trip one of the family would not survive. They never reached the intended destination at the tip of South America.
The full story of their trip is on their website. I’d visited it before, but returned to when I saw the accident reported on the news and in the papers. The family had made it from the U.S./Canadian border, down the west coast of North America and through Central America to Peru. It was while rafting in an Andean river that their dream trip went wrong. They were flipped over by an eddy and the family spilled into the cold river water. It took Rupert five minutes to get his children to shore but Bridget was nowhere to be seen. Neither adult was wearing a lifejacket (BBC News). A search was started but it was a month later when a local fisherman saw Bridget’s body being washed down stream.

Up in flames

Unknown Victims

Not every campervan tragedy has a website at which to contemplate the flimsiness of life, or feature writers to relate their sorry story. Some disasters are relegated to a throw away line in the brief news section of a paper. Like this one…

Burnt to death
A motorist was burnt to death yesterday after his camper van crashed and burst into flames in Stanwell, Surrey.”

I searched for more information but could find nothing. Who was she/he? Where were they going when their life was cut short in their camper?

And what was the story behind this camper-van hostage showdown on the M3 motorway?

Death in the outback

The Barrow Creek Incident

The most high profile recent tragedy featuring a VW camper was the murder of Peter Falconio in the Australian outback. The tragedy began on the remote desert highway 175 miles north of Alice Springs. It was on the night of Saturday 14 June that Peter and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, were flashed to pull over near Barrow Creek by a four-wheel drive vehicle. They parked and Peter went to the back of the van to see what the problem was. What exactly happened next is unclear, but that was the last time Peter was seen. Joanne was apparently bound up and placed in the assailants vehicle. She managed to escape and hid out in the bush before being picked up by at 2am the following day.

The case was whipped up in the media. They openly questioned Joanne’s account of the attack. Some tabloids suggested perhaps she’d done it and the attack was just a story she’d dreamt up to cover her tracks.

On Friday November 14, 2003 a 45 year-old mechanic, Bradley John Murdoch, was charged with the murder of Peter Falconio. The case has yet to come to trial.


Perhaps it’s the contrast with our own happy traveling that draws me to these awful stories. Like drivers passing a motorway pile-up and slowing to look. Inexorably drawn to stare at the mangled and gory aftermath. Or like viewers of Eastenders who enjoy seeing the fact that their lives aren’t as twisted and messed up as those of the characters on screen. But like the motorway rubber-neckers, we should be careful. Stare for a moment too long and you might just run into trouble of your own…

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