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Lucky To Be Alive

A searcher in one of the many canyons in the area where the man went missing / Supplied: NZ Police

The man departed from the Hokitika Gorge area for an overnight tramp on Saturday and was reported missing when he didn’t return home the following day. He was relatively new to the West Coast with limited tramping experience and had left no details about where he was headed.

Working with limited information and staring down the barrel of some serious weather conditions, getting a team ready to go first thing in the morning was vital to having the best chance of locating the man in time.

Senior Constable Don Abbey and Constable Luken Bisley, from West Coast Police SAR, immediately got to work prepping to get search teams into the area the following morning and planning the search area.

While the West Coast is no stranger to wet weather, the nature of the terrain - with an Orange Rain Warning in place - was a major concern for the team.

The area the man had headed into is rugged and steep with a series of canyons and gorges running throughout. Prone to flash flooding, many of the rivers and tributaries are known to become uncrossable in heavy rain.

Picking up the reins the next morning from Don and Luken, Incident Controller Senior Constable Sarah Cook described the area the man was in as ‘dynamic’.

“Even in moderate conditions you need a decent amount of experience and knowledge to navigate this area.

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"There are active slips and tracks can get inundated with water quickly and easily lost, several spots require a riverbed crossing which, in the conditions we were dealing with, is treacherous at best.”

After a briefing at Hokitika Police Station, where the Incident Management Team was established, two LandSAR teams were deployed on Monday morning.

A system of huts would be a likely overnight destination for the man, but which one was anyone’s guess and that meant search teams on foot would have a lot of ground between them.

The first team was tasked with searching from the vehicle’s location and on a track thought to be the most likely to be taken. The other team was dropped by helicopter to Frew Hut to start working the other end, while the heli team continued to other huts to check logbooks for any sign of the man’s intentions.

Supplied: NZ Police

On locating a logbook entry in two of the huts, a team was transferred into that area with the aim of tracking back to the car he’d left at the Hokitika Gorge.

Monday evening descended with no sign of the man and the team increasingly worried about his ability to survive his second unplanned night out in the conditions. A fourth team was deployed to bolster the search.

“We had teams overnighting at three of the huts and plans to search the remainder of what we thought was the intended route on Tuesday.

"We were also turning our attention to the next phase of the search and what specialist teams and resources we would need, especially if the search turned to recovery.”

Thankfully that need never arose. At midday on Tuesday the teams’ efforts finally paid off with a search team locating the man in the Omatane Canyon below the Serpentine Hut.

He was alive but on the opposite riverbank to the track. With the search team unable to cross the river to get to him, he was extracted via helicopter.

Cold, wet, battered and bruised, the man later explained that he’d spent the first night at Frew Hut but the following day lost the track after crossing a bridge.

He then crossed the Hokitika River, dangerously navigating through the Frisco Canyon, before spending a wet night under some rocks.

The man said he’d taken a substantial swim in the river at one stage after slipping while traversing the base of a bluff. It wouldn't be the only time he ended up in the water.

Sarah says the man was fortunate the team got to him when they did. While the rain had stopped, the temperature was due to plunge overnight, and the man was in no way prepared to weather another night out in the elements.

He was also well off the track and a far cry from his starting point at the Hokitika Gorge car park.

“This is a textbook example of what not to do. He’s underestimated the terrain, had left no clear intention on where he was going, was poorly clothed and equipped - including carrying no PLB. He was very lucky to be found alive.”

From a search and rescue perspective, luck certainly played its part for the man but local knowledge and expertise ultimately enabled the rescue.

Sarah attributes that to the local input of the teams working the job, including LandSAR teams from Hokitika, Westport and Reefton and the team at Precision Helicopters.

“Without the local knowledge and expertise of the LandSAR teams we would never have gone where we needed to, and without the helis we could have never got there in time. These two factors were instrumental in finding and rescuing the man.”

Supplied: NZ Police

The team were also grateful to be supported in other ways, with members of the public preparing hot food and transport for the searchers returning from the field. A hot pie delivery to the searchers in the field from Matt Newton from Precision Helicopters was also gratefully received.

West Coast Area Commander Inspector Jacqui Corner acknowledged the West Coast Police SAR team and the extensive experience of LandSAR volunteers in the search.

“I am very fortunate to have such dedicated and experienced teams on the West Coast," says Jacqui. "They put themselves out there every day to make sure we get lost people home.

"It's also a reminder that a small fall in the bush could have catastrophic consequences. Every tramper, no matter how experienced, needs to carry a PLB to ensure they're found as quickly as possible."

Great work from West Coast Police Search and Rescue, LandSAR teams from Westport, Reefton, and Hokitika – particularly the expertise and assistance from Ben and Steph Nielsen from Hokitika SAR, and Precision Helicopters.

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