A five-year-old autistic boy was last night reunited with his relieved family when searchers found him wet and shivering in a creek bed after five harrowing hours alone in the bush.
Ryan Peel, from Churton Park, ran off during a walk in the Rimutaka Forest Park south of Wainuiomata yesterday afternoon.
With the weather deteriorating, police were fearful for the boy, who was unlikely to respond to people calling out his name due to his autism.
After vowing to hunt through the night for Ryan, searchers and a police dog found him just after 9pm. He was wet and cold but otherwise unharmed. He laughed and smiled when reunited with his family.
""The immense wave of relief that washed over me when I heard he'd been found safe, I just can't describe it, it was amazing," Ryan's father Edward Peel said.
"I was feeling the anguish that any parent in that situation would feel. You try to stay positive but you keep thinking is he hurt, does he have hypotheremia, has he fallen in a creek... you can't stop thinking those thoughts."
Like many autistic children, Ryan is naturally drawn to water so the family were fearful he would have made his way to a stream.
Rescuer Geoff McGhie said when they found Ryan he was in a creek bed about 800 metres from the track, and had most probably been in the water given his wet state.
McGhie said he and a police dog handler heard a noise they initially thought was another search team, like a small squeal, which led them to the boy.
Wellington Police Search and Rescue Co-ordinator Anthony Harmer said Ryan's autism had presented his search team with a unique challenge.
''If we were searching for a responsive 5-year-old, you would be able to call out, 'little Sally, little Jenny' and they would likely respond and run towards you,'' he said.
''But in Ryan's case, he may take the opposite approach and just hide, so the search team has kept that in consideration.''
Ryan had been on an outing with his father and stepmother when the he went missing. As he was found police were still trying to contact the boy's mother, who was also believed to live locally.
With bush too dense to be able to use a helicopter, the search was spearheaded by 20 people in six search and rescue teams, a dozen volunteers and a specialist search dog.
A base had been set up in the park, where the family holed up in their car to wait for news.
Clausen said the family had been walking on one of the park's many paths, the Orongorongo Track when the boy ran ahead of the group.
''A short time later the father ran along the track to catch up with his son but couldn't find him,'' Clausen said.
He disappeared just metres from the area's car park, near the Catchpool Stream that runs through the conservation land.
Clausen said the fact the child was wearing warm clothes - a checkered hoodie, navy blue trackpants, blue socks and white sneakers - had been ''a positive note''.
Searchers had earlier been hopeful the boy would be found before nightfall due to worsening weather.
- Sunday Star Times