Four tourists who escaped being washed away by the flooded Waimea River returned to retrieve one of their vans and salvage some belongings yesterday.
"Everything is covered in a very thick layer of mud, of course, but it's all still here. We've got a lot of washing to do," Steve Harper, of California, said.
Mr Harper, 21, and three friends, from the United States, Canada and Germany, were lucky to escape unharmed yesterday when their two campervans were washed away by the rising river, sparking a Search and Rescue operation.
The group had parked in the riverbed the night before, even though it was raining.
It was only the first night of their campervan holiday, and they woke to the sound of water trickling into their vans.
Mr Harper was washed downstream for some distance while trying to recover his bag and guitar.
While the group had recovered a silver van, their yellow van was last seen being washed down the middle of the river. Only its roof was visible as it floated away.
Mr Harper said this morning they hoped to try to find the van today, but were realistic about the chances being slim.
The police have alerted the coastguard about the van's disappearance.
Mr Harper said his partner Annie's silver van was heavy and "kind of hydro-dynamic", as it was parked pointing upstream. It was found 10 metres to 20m from where it was parked. "It's great to come back and see it in one piece."
She had lost most of her valuables, including her passport, ID and money, and they had not been recovered.
"But she has her camera, her clothes, her hair products and stuff like that," he said.
The police contacted the four at the hostel they were staying at last night to tell them a silver van with roof racks on it had been spotted in the river.
Mr Harper and his friend, Jim Marshall, 26, yesterday told the Nelson Mail the group had been travelling together for several weeks.
Holding his rescued guitar and wearing a police jersey and a towel, he said they checked the river and thought it would be fine to spend the night there, although they had joked that it would be funny if they woke up and it was flooded.
Mr Harper woke up hearing Mr Marshall trying to move his van and yelling at them to "evacuate".
"I looked up and the whole car was surrounded by water," he said.
There was too much water to drive the vans out. A washing line tied between the vehicles prevented the group from pushing the first van out.
Mr Harper said the water was starting to fill the van, and was nearly chest high when he got out.
They decided to salvage as many of their belongings as possible.
Mr Harper was washed away trying to save his guitar and bag.
"I just started to see my bag and guitar float away, and it was dragging my bag with it."
He swam across the river to try to get his bag, but had difficulty getting back.
"I just laid over [the bag], put my guitar over it and kicked as hard as I could and swam with one arm," he said.
He eventually grabbed hold of a tree downstream.
He managed to get back to shore, and the water became shallow enough that he could walk upstream. It was hard going, as the ground was covered in gorse.
"I just had boxers on. It took me 15 minutes, just shredding my legs up trying to get through the stuff."
He said he did not want to lose his guitar. " I was very determined. I was like, the backpack, I can lose that, but I'm not losing the guitar."
Senior Constable Dave Colville, of Nelson Search and Rescue, said the four were lucky to have escaped unharmed.
He said parking in a riverbed in torrential rain was not a safe option.
"There's probably a hell of a lot of people that have done that, that have got away with it," he said.
"Just for them, they were late risers and still in bed at 9.30am."
Mr Harper said the incident had not put the group off their plans to travel around New Zealand in campervans.
Mr Marshall had seen a van on Trade Me that was the same as his yellow one, but lime green, and they might buy that. "Maybe they get that and we fix up this van and we continue on."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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