A weekend out searching

LAYING DOWN THE BUSHLORE:  LandSAR training officer Sherp Tucker explains the day’s proceedings during the search-and-rescue induction weekend.
LAYING DOWN THE BUSHLORE: LandSAR training officer Sherp Tucker explains the day’s proceedings during the search-and-rescue induction weekend.

Land Search and Rescue has just started brand-new induction courses for newbie volunteers. Naomi Arnold and Alden Williams sign up for the weekend.

Shine a light

I am curled up in a copse of beech trees, hiding. It's been raining, and the soil against my cheek smells fresh and sweet. I'm on a search and rescue induction weekend in the Mt Arthur forest, and as it nears 10pm, my group of recruits has decided to embark on a little game of Spotlight.

TRAMPERS WITH PURPOSE: Search-and-rescue  volunteers   Elly De Lange, left, and Louis Standfield.
TRAMPERS WITH PURPOSE: Search-and-rescue volunteers Elly De Lange, left, and Louis Standfield.

Earlier, Tasman LandSAR training officer Sherp Tucker explained how the night can be a searcher's best friend. Lost people will stop in the evening and hunker down, giving searchers a chance to catch up. As the dark creeps in, the world shrinks and their senses will peak. With the closeness that the evening brings, the lost have a better chance of noticing searchers calling through the bush - especially if they're all waving torches.

"We've had stone deaf people lost and the only way we got them was light. They saw it and they screamed out," Mr Tucker told us. "You have to make the trees and the undercarriage glow like hell."

We were curious to find out what it was like to feel a faint echo of the relief of rescue in the dark. It's my turn to hide, and I clamber ahead through the bush, dropping into my copse and pressing against the earth. We've been given a half-hour until we have to yell out.

YOUNG AND KEEN:  Tasman Search and Rescue volunteer Jayden Hughes of Richmond.
YOUNG AND KEEN: Tasman Search and Rescue volunteer Jayden Hughes of Richmond.

I wait. Beech skeletons sway a little against the dark grey sky, a few pinprick stars shining through. Soon they're flickered with silver as, on the slope below, my team crash through the bush, waving their torches high in figure 8 patterns. Soon the trees are indeed glowing like hell, lit up like white fireworks. I'm spotted in just 10 minutes, my Tasman SAR hi-vis vest betraying me.

I've left a hundred marks in the bush as I stumbled through, though they won't be noticeable to the untrained eye. For those searching, it's these tiny details that can mean the difference between life and death. Even a pebble resting on a stone in a riverbed has a story to tell - if you know how to read it.

Rescue mission

On a sunny Saturday morning, about 40 search-and-rescue recruits mill around Flora car park, sizing each other up. They have arrived at the shoulder of Mt Arthur ready for action, adjusting their hi-vis vests and bending down to ratchet gaiters around bulging calf muscles.

But, when a tramper emerges from the bush and approaches some of them, asking for help, they don't quite believe it. Her husband got dizzy on Mt Arthur and is now stuck in Gridiron Shelter, about two hours and 6 kilometres away. He can't walk. Can't even stand up.

The recruits murmur among themselves. Is it a test? But then Sherp Tucker turns to the woman, and her plight becomes real. He stumps around dispatching a clutch of people to the shelter to help the man out.

"That was bloody good timing," a recruit says. It is also a good lesson. Disaster in the bush strikes quietly, with a missed turn-off, a slip, sudden fog, or just a dizzy turn on a quiet alpine meadow.

When it does, police or the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand call in search and rescue (SAR), an army of professional and volunteer groups, with specialists in all types of rescue - whitewater, marine, cliff, urban, underground, and, of course, land and bush.

New Zealand's search jurisdiction isn't limited to the mainland borders. It's actually 11 times that - 30 million square kilometres, extending from the South Pole almost to the equator, half of the Tasman Sea, nearly half of the South Pacific Ocean and a scattering of Pacific islands. Seven searches have taken place in the past 11 years at Mt Arthur alone.

Tasman Land Search and Rescue includes 13 groups, from Golden Bay to South Westland to Kaikoura.

When the call comes, volunteers drop everything and give up their time, work, petrol, and sleep to pull out their gear and prepacked food before spending hours or days engaged in what can be excruciating drudgery. Experience counts, and so does patience, as well as a high tolerance of cold fingers. And although the clock ticks loudly when someone is lost or injured, missing a clue costs a lot more than time. It could cost a life.

Humans are useless at looking and hearing, compared with other animals, Mr Tucker tells the group assembled in the carpark.

"You're going to change your observational processes to one that works," he says. "Step, look. Don't move the head. It gives the eyeball a chance to recognise things. If we don't do that, we become useless at seeing things. We become humans."

At its simplest, SAR is about basic investigation, note-taking, and the ability to detect clues and recognise their value. Asking open questions of sources is crucial. Stop a tramper and ask if they've seen a bloke with a red pack and they'll say yes, and that's the end of it. The guy they actually saw might have an orange pack but, in their memory, it's now morphed into red forever - potentially sending searchers down a costly dead end.

Search techniques depend on who is missing and include purposeful wandering, which follows natural paths in the bush. A lost person is more likely to head for those rather than bash through the toughest part of the terrain. Searchers split up and walk these as carefully as possible. Every 10 or so metres, they'll stop to focus on each plane of an imaginary six-sided cube - up, front, down, sides, behind. Searchers have to mark their own prints, slips, and even toilet stops to avoid confusing them with those of a missing person.

"Yes, we investigate poo," Mr Tucker says. "It can be laborious, and boring. Have a laugh. Make a joke. The day gets very long if you're down in the mouth."

A freshly snapped twig; a gouge out of moss; a small scuff in the dirt that could be a footprint. If a suspect print is covered with springy leaf litter, searchers might carefully press down to feel for a heel indent. From that, they can compare the print to one gathered from the dirt around a missing person's parked car; from that, they can extrapolate a likely gait length; from that, they may find the next print and a direction of travel.

Out of the 40 or so people who turn up that weekend, some feel it is time they did something for the community. Others say they like tramping. Mr Tucker is quick to put them straight:

"It's not just a tramp in the park. Those days are over once you get into SAR. Sorry."

He thinks perhaps five of them will decide the field work isn't for them.

Divided into groups, and assigned a mentor, the recruits walk a little way up the track, and then plunge into the bush. Mentor Ellie De Lange leads her group downhill through beech forest, heading for the confluence of two streams, where they will camp the night.

She shows them how to walk in a line, keeping an even distance from each other, then stopping, whistling, and listening as one. She teaches them how to use the radio networks that connect the dots in New Zealand's rugged back country. Golden Bay High School outdoor education teacher Greg Allum, a recruit, teaches them how to read a map and set a course with a compass.

Mrs De Lange describes search and rescue work as "tramping with a purpose". She has learned "a hell of a lot" during her time with Golden Bay SAR.

"It sounds saintly, doesn't it? Helping people. But I have never seen it like I'm helping," she says. "I don't think I'm a saint at all. I feel more privileged, I think."

She has learned plenty about lost-person behaviour along the way. She explains that despondents - the term used for those intent on ending their life - won't walk very far, maybe 300m, from their last known point, usually the car. They won't call out when someone comes looking. But they're often not despondent at all, Mrs De Lange says. "They've made their final decision, and they're happy."

She says a hunter might be embarrassed at rescuers arriving and won't return a shout. But he will creep out and follow them as they leave. A missing child might worry they'll be in trouble, and can be hard to coax from the bush when a rescuer calls.

"It's a science. It's really fascinating," she says.

There's a lot of research to back this up. New Zealand contributes to the work of United States search and rescue statistician Robert Koester, who studies lost-person behaviour. He has crunched the numbers of thousands of international outdoor mishaps and built the International Search and Rescue Database, which, with 50,000 documented incidents - soon to be updated to 150,000 - is the first and largest compendium of its kind in the world. He also analyses risk, predicting who is most likely to live, die, and be found.

From his home office in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mr Koester tells the Nelson Mail there are two main groups of lost people: the cognitively aware, such as a tramper or hunter; and the unaware, such as those with dementia or an intellectual disability. Young children fall into this category too. "They've never known where they've been their entire life," Mr Koester says. "Their question is: ‘Why is Mummy or Daddy lost?"'

The average hunter or tramper typically makes an error at a decision point. Before they've quite realised what's happened, they're plunging through bush with a growing suspicion that they might not be on the right trail; an awareness they usually push aside.

"That's a classic thing for a hiker," Mr Koester says. "There's a grey period where they're sort of in denial, or not really paying attention. Then they'll continue to look for evidence that supports the fact they know what they're doing, and ignore those things that tell them things aren't going right. Then they come to the realisation ‘I am lost'."

The anxiety and adrenaline burst that comes next means that people can start making bad decisions. Most, especially males, will keep pushing ahead in the direction they were going, in the hope that, just around the corner, they'll see something they recognise. They want to move, and move fast. Though some can fight the rising panic, many will throw out their tent, sleeping bag, and water, thinking they need to lighten the load so they can go faster. "That's the worst thing you can do," he says.

After a while, people will settle down and adopt some kind of strategy, good or bad. "Simple things, like: ‘If I go in a straight line long enough I'll find something," Mr Koester says. "One of the most common is: ‘Once I find some kind of linear feature - a road, a trail, drainage, a stream, a river - I'm just going to follow it. It must go some place'."

Or they'll simply sit down and wait for search and rescue to come. "I see that more in New Zealand than other parts of the world," Mr Koester says. "I think hiking is almost part of your early education, and you're taught what to do when you get lost."

He says that's probably one of the better strategies, as long as you've told someone where you're going and when you expect to return. But he says the most effective strategy of all also happens to be the least used - backtrack until you know where you are.

Back in the bush . . .

After dinner, the recruits tramp down the creek bed and gather at the side of the main track for their night lesson, then return to find rain pattering their tents. In the morning, they pack up and head towards a rendezvous point at Flora Hut, where Mr Tucker has spent a comfortable night with plenty of chocolate.

He steps out with gumboots and umbrella and faces the bedraggled teams. "Don't underestimate the value of umbrellas in the bush," he says, to chuckles. "I'm not joking. They're very useful."

One woman has left early, getting too cold in the night and deciding field work isn't for her. The rest squelch to a spot in the bush where Mr Tucker has set up several stations, and they spend the morning crouched over the leaf litter, tracking gumbooted footsteps through the bush and picking up clues from abandoned tents and gear. It is cold, wet, boring work. It hails, briefly, and later in the morning, a teenage boy sways and collapses. "This is not a drill," a mentor calls out as people scurry over and carry him into the hut to recover. He comes right after a pie in Motueka.

"You just never know when something like that will happen," Mrs De Lange says.

That morning, through the cold and the rain, Mr Tucker mentions the secret of the pebbles. Water suddenly rushing down a creek can wash them on to larger stones, and if the flow falls away quickly, they will still be there hours later when searchers come through looking for someone lost.

A pebble resting on a stone is a tiny clue, but the flash flood it signifies could give a hint as to whether a missing person detoured around the watercourse or walked straight over it. If you didn't know, you'd splash through with a brief look. But the goal of search and rescue is to teach volunteers to do more than just look at the bush around them. The goal is to teach them how to see.


Jayden Hughes, 18, was a member of the now-defunct Nelson Youth Search and Rescue for nearly five years, and it became a huge part of his life. Although the former Waimea College student now has a job with Spirit of Adventure, he looks back fondly on his time with the group, which has now merged with the adult land search and rescue training.

Mr Hughes says search and rescue helped his confidence and leadership skills. "It's helped me in so many other ways, and I know there are other people out there that would really benefit if they joined up."