Holiday-goers’ say Queensland trip became a nightmare after altercation

Seeing the breathtaking sites and learning about the history of outback Queensland is a dream trip for many.

But for Jenny Neilson, Mark Hewitt and eight others, it was more like a nightmare when they say the entire group was abandoned, after they claim an altercation broke out between a tour operator and a bus driver.

“I’ve done lots of traveling and I have never had an experience like this that was so brought on by the owner’s guide,” Mr Hewitt told A Current Affair.

Mark Hewitt. (A Current Affair)

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“The planes and the trains were not frequent and there was no accommodation for that night, so we didn’t know where we would be sleeping, or how we’d be able to leave town,” Ms Neilson said.

They’d booked an eight-day adventure with tour company Reef N Beyond through online travel agent TripADeal.

Starting in Mackay, they explored the subtropical rainforest of Eungella, followed by an 11-hour drive to Barcaldine to fossick for opals and gold.

Jenny Neilson. (A Current Affair)

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Next up was two nights in Longreach before a visit to Australia’s dinosaur capital, Winton, then a long trip to Charters Towers and finishing in Townsville.

But from the moment they stepped foot on the bus and met the owner-operator of Reef N Beyond, Charlie Sturgess, the group said they knew they were in for a bumpy ride.

“He talked about himself and his associates and his wealth, but interspersed with his conversation there were sexist comments and racist comments,” Ms Neilson claimed.

The group booked an eight-day adventure with tour company Reef N Beyond through online travel agent TripADeal. (A Current Affair)

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Some said the worst was reserved for the youngest woman of the group.

‘She was traveling with her mother and got on the bus with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and Mickey Mouse was spread over the front of her and Mickey’s hand up round her breast, and he said,’ I want to shake Mickey’s hand ‘. It was the most absolutely offensive comment, “Mr Hewitt claimed.

The group claimed Mr Sturgess’ antics didn’t stop there.

Mr Hewitt claimed he repeatedly hurled abuse at the driver who was not familiar with the route.

The trip started around Mackay, and finished in Townsville. (A Current Affair)

“We would get to a roundabout and he’d say, ‘Oh you were meant to go left here, you stupid fool, don’t you know how to drive this bus’. I have the greatest admiration for how calm the driver was . You could tell he was getting really upset, “Mr Hewitt said.

While the group made the most of the scenery and daily activities, they could not help but feel the growing tension and angst created by Mr Sturgess’ behavior.

On the third night just before dinner at a local restaurant in Longreach, the 70-year-old snapped.

“Several of the travelers who had been there at the time said they had seen him walk up to the driver, punch him in the face, which made the driver fall to the ground and one of the female passengers had to get involved to try and break the owner away, “Ms Neilson said.

Jenny Neilson (left), with some of the others in her tour group. (A Current Affair)

Witnesses claim the driver then pushed Mr Sturgess, causing him to stumble through a nearby window.

Police attended but the drama was far from over.

“We were then told he had canceled everything for the rest of the tour, all accommodation, all activities and that he had left town,” Ms Neilson said.

“This was brought on by the owner-guide, who was on the bus, who had a duty of care to protect his passengers. How was this allowed to happen? Why wasn’t there regulatory controls to control this person and this company? ” Mr Hewitt said.

Jenny Neilson, Mark Hewitt and the others in their tour group. (A Current Affair)

With nowhere to stay and the next train leaving in five days, they called TripADeal to see if they could help.

The company came to the rescue, offering to pay for flights out of there.

In a statement to A Current Affair, TripADeal said it’s “worked with Reef N Beyond since January 2021, with no issue to date.”

“And will reimburse all travelers in full”, with the addition of a $ 500 TripADeal voucher.

To cap off the holiday from hell, several of the passengers spent the following days filing multiple-page reports, with the alleged fight now the subject of a police investigation.

“I just find it hard to believe that such a thing was allowed to happen in Queensland, in Australia, with a group of tourists in 2022, when tourism is a way out of this pandemic,” Mr Hewitt said.

Statement by a TripADeal spokesperson:

What was TripADeal’s reaction to hearing what happened on this tour?

TripADeal takes a great pride in delivering a quality experience for every single one of our travelers, so we were very dismayed to learn about this incident. Our first and foremost concern was for our customers, who we’ve been in touch with since this took place.

How long has TripADeal had a connection with Reef N Beyond for?

TripADeal has had a working partnership with Reef N Beyond since January 2021, with no issue to date.

Have you ever had an issue with Reef N Beyond before this? If so, what was it?

See above.

What has happened with your involvement with Reef N Beyond and owner Charlie Sturgess since this incident?

Since this incident occurred, TripADeal has learned that Mr Sturgess is dealing with mental health issues, with that in mind we are showing sensitivity to him while he manages those issues. We are working with Reef N Beyond to recoup compensation for our impacted tour, however we are in the process of reimbursing all travelers. To date, we have not received any compensation for the impacted tour.

What did TripADeal do to help the group of travelers?

As soon as we learned of this incident, our team immediately made contact with our travelers with the primary intention of establishing that they were ok, but also to identify their whereabouts and if they required assistance with travel back to their hotel. We then confirmed that all accommodation bookings were in place, before proceeding to arrange flights home for those that needed them as well as airport transfers. We’re committed to reimbursing the impacted travelers in full, but also providing them with a $ 500 credit per person.

Does TripADeal feel for the passengers?

Absolutely. We realize this experience was far from what our customers bargained for, which is why it’s been our number one priority to do everything we can to provide fast resolution for them.

Has TripADeal given the passengers a full refund?

TripADeal will reimburse all travelers in full, with refunds starting to be processed on Monday. If a booking was made with cash, this will be refunded, and if it was made with a coupon, the coupon value will be reinstated. As a gesture of goodwill, all impacted travelers will receive a $ 500 TripADeal voucher.

Although flights were not included in this package, we booked and paid for flights for all customers to return home immediately. In addition, we are working with all customers to reimburse them for the cost of their arrival flight. All out of pocket amounts will be sought from Reef N Beyond, however TripADeal is happy to pay forward to our valued customers prior to receiving the funds from Reef and Beyond, due to Mr Strugess dealing with his mental health issues.

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