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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

In the Wake of the Fire
Paul Otteson

On June 23rd, a disastrous fire gutted the Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Australia, killing 15 hostellers—six from Britain, four from Australia, two from the Netherlands and one each from Ireland, South Korea and Japan. Ten others were injured. The 70 survivors reported hearing no alarms of any kind in the historic wooden building. The fire was apparently set deliberately by an angry and unstable man with a criminal record who had been kicked out of the hostel for not paying. Several stories on the event are available at cnn.com, bbc.co.uk, and elsewhere, including this one.

As a longtime hosteller myself, it's all to easy to envision what those minutes of hell must have been like. I can remember more than a few hostels with barred-window bunkrooms, old wood-frame buildings, and lax attention to safety. I won't dwell on it, but my heart goes out to the families and friends of those who died, as do those of all the others here at Hostels.com.

How can or should hostellers respond to such an event? Some key points come to mind:


Lightning struck. The rare and terrible happened, and it will happen again, and again, and again. Plane crashes, bus wrecks, terrorist killings, capsizing ferries, backpacking falls, catastrophic illness, etc.—all kill and maim travelers every year. A few give in to the fear, seeing the world as a minefield, securing themselves by staying home in a padded cell of familiarity. But most will transcend the moment and see this tragedy for what it is: a very bad episode in very big and wonderful world. Keep your perspective and accept your mortality. Travel on.


Fire codes, business permit requirements, and building inspections vary from city to city and nation to nation. The fire reminds me to pay more attention to fire exits and dangers in hostels away from these civilized centers. I know how strict the standards are in the US and imagine that most developed nations are similarly strict. The Australian government has announced new steps to insure the safety of backpack travelers. But even in the well-regulated nations I might now spend an extra few seconds attending to fire safety and exit routes. "Fearless" and "foolish" are not the same thing.


This fire won't discourage me one bit from continuing to travel and hostel, but it adds a purpose to my list. While Hostels.com is an independent site, unaffiliated with any hostels or hostelling organization, we are in touch with many hostel owners and managers. We're going to make a point of encouraging all those in range to look hard at fire safety for their facilities, and to make improvements wherever necessary (though, to be honest, I think hostel managers around the globe see this fire as a wake-up call). I'll do the same thing as an individual traveler, asking questions and pointing out concerns. If we each are a bit more aware and speak out on occasion, maybe the next strike of this particular type of lightning can be delayed indefinitely.

Travel well,

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com