Lost tramper 'never felt tired'

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 14:50 20/06/2012

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The man who survived three nights in the Hunua Ranges in freezing and wet conditions as more than 200 people searched for him has spoken for the first time of his ordeal.

Ronnie Fong said today he mistook a bait trail for a running track and ended up completely lost in dense bush.

A determined Fong barely rested for the next four days as he followed water courses in the park, picking himself up from falls down hills, losing his map and running out of food.

Unable to catch the attention of the searching helicopters, he even tried unsuccessfully to use an old tree trunk as a raft to paddle himself to safety, all the while never entertaining the thought that he would not make it.

"I knew with my fitness I could get out, it was just a matter of time. In my head I just put one thing in my head and said I'll get out and that's it.

"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."

In remarkably good spirits today and laughing about his ordeal, Fong says he will return to the park, only this time he will be better prepared.

A rescue crew found Fong at about 7pm yesterday at the southern end of the Pukapuka Track and police said he could have survived for several more days.

"People have a lot more resilience and survivability than you actually think until something happens like you get injured," Search and Rescue co-ordinator Sergeant Dene Duthie said.

Fong was "really grateful" when found, but was a strong-willed man and had "wanted to get himself out", he said.

His disappearance prompted a massive air and land search of the park in often cold, wet and windy conditions.

The search was hindered by the fact Fong kept moving to keep warm and find his way out and Duthie said the 39-year-old had probably covered around 50km before he stumbled across the track near the Manatangi dam.

"He just basically pointed his nose in one direction and stuck with that."

Searchers were ready to turn in for the day, but extended their shift when a dog team found sign of Fong before he walked into the search party in an area that had previously been covered.

While he had found the track, he still would have had a four or five-hour walk to safety.

Duthie said Fong was better equipped than police had thought, had carried more food and had kept warm by moving around when attempts to shield himself from the cold with ferns had failed.

If Fong had remained in the open area where his muesli bar was found he would probably have been found on Sunday because searchers were flying above the area, Duthie said.

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The wrapper had at least helped searchers to focus their efforts in a certain area.

The bush was so dense that searchers could have passed within two metres of Fong and missed him if he was unresponsive.

Duthie said it was a massive relief when Fong was located because there'd been little sign of him and as more time passed the changes of him safe decreased.

He said if people got lost in the bush they should remain in one place in the open and leave signs for searchers.

Duthie thanked searchers including police, volunteers, the Air Force and Auckland Council rangers for their help.

"Without them we couldn't have done the job."

Some of the search teams had remained in the bush overnight and were due to return today.

- Stuff

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