LATEST: In Ronnie Fong’s mind there was never any doubt he would survive.
Lost in dense and unrelenting bush in Auckland’s Hunua Ranges for three nights in below-freezing temperatures, lashed by rain and wind as the hopes of searchers waned, Fong just kept going.
He tumbled down waterfalls, rolled down hills, traversed frigid waters in a makeshift raft and even crushed his "family jewels" on a log - but barely paused to rest.
“When I was walking I knew that everyone, I knew my family were thinking ‘Oh look he’s gone’ but I knew that no one knew that I was still alive walking in the forest and I was going to get out. In my mind I said I’m going to get out and that’s it,” he said.
“When I saw a mountain I just thought ‘I’ll bust through that mountain and just keep going and going'. I never felt tired I just kept walking and walking. I never thought that I would die in the forest.”
Fong's man versus wild experience began when he started out on what was supposed to be a 12km mountain run from Piggots Campground along the Mangatangi Ridge Track at around 11.15am on Saturday.
At the top of a hill the yellow markers he was following stopped and his path ahead became uncertain.
Fong saw blue ribbons he thought must’ve been left by previous trampers, but turned out to be bait trails known to often confuse trampers and which searchers believed may have caused the 39-year-old to get lost.
At 3pm on Saturday he texted his brother saying he would be delayed and not to worry. At 6pm he was lost.
By then his phone was dead, with the battery running out before his eyes.
“I look back and I think maybe those were the warning signs.”
The following three nights and four days barely saw him pause to recover as he calmly and methodically sought salvation and overcame obstacle after obstacle.
He lost his map, he thinks while taking food from his bag. His second, non-waterproof map was not very detailed and provided little assistance.
When night fell on Saturday - dubbed the coolest night of the year by rescuers - he didn't sleep, instead staying on his feet to keep warm. It was a move both he and searchers agree prevented him from being found sooner.
Fong managed one or two hours sleep over the following nights but would get up as soon as he started shivering.
In a bit to ward off the cold he would cover himself with ferns and soil and rubbed himself to keep warm. When he did sleep, he dreamt of food.
“I was thinking when I was sleeping I can’t wait to eat oranges and apples. Oh I’m going to eat a whole lot of oranges and ice creams and apples.”
His lower legs were scraped raw as he forced his way through dense bush and his body battered by constant falls.
“Every inch you had to fight your way through the bush and I found out that the fastest way down a mountain is to roll down. I was sliding, rolling, I fell two metres down a small waterfall. I was going across a log and I fell on my family jewels. It was all good fun.
“But I thought to myself I won’t let the falls conquer me, I’ll keep going and going and going and I’ll get out.”
Following waterways in what he deemed his best chance of getting out, Fond said he decided to try and find another method of self-extraction.
He came across a hollowed tree trunk around half a metre by 1.5 metres in diameter which he thought might work as a raft.
He used another piece of wood as a paddle but the attempt, like the makeshift boat, was soon sunk.
“And I just dropped it in the water and it sunk and I go ‘Ohhh’… so I got out and said Oh well it looks like I have to walk,” he laughed.
In a stroke of good fortune he found a packet of 24 water purifying tablets, which he assumes were dropped by rescuers, and which he used to purify his water bottles.
He could hear the helicopters overhead and tried to attract them with his torch and by shaking trees to no avail. He saw freshly broken leaves on the track and thought people must be around but never caught sight of anyone. He had no idea around 100 people were involved in his rescue.
Fong was soaked by rain and a waterfall and being wet made his ordeal worse.
An active man, Fong said he even amazed himself by his lack of physical fatigue but said while he had the energy to push himself physically he was low on sugar and couldn't think clearly.
“I had no sugar, nothing and I was making stupid mistakes.”
Often having to backtrack he told himself he had to be more observant.
On Monday his plight was starting to get to him and he sat down to rest and fell asleep, but then awoke with new purpose and set off again.
When he found what turned out to be the Pukupuka Track and saw a water bottle and brush he knew he was safe and determined he would “walk all night if I have to” because he knew he had work the next day.
He then came across the search party.
“I saw some headlights of a Toyota Hilux and I waved them down and I said ‘I’m lost’ and they said ‘Are you Ronnie’ and I said yea and they said ‘Oh thank God, we’ve been looking for you’.”
He was further relieved when the rescue crew told him they had earlier spent 30 minutes trying to free their car from mud. If they hadn't been stuck they would likely have missed him.
Since his rescue, Fong, who is single, said the “ladies of the house” had given him a stern talking to.
Fong's feet and hands had suffered most during his ordeal but were coming right while his lower legs were raw from the battering they took. He was to visit a doctor this afternoon. He plans to return to work after a few days rest.
Fong calls his ordeal a “good experience” and said he has learnt a couple of lessons and would now carry pants, waterproof his maps, extra food, a knife and a personal locating beacon.
In spite of his experience, Fong plans to return to the bush and will be back in a couple of weeks, he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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