Rescuers' skills, timing saved tourist after fall

SASHA BORISSENKO
Last updated 12:00 01/02/2014

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A rescuer says a lack of signage could explain why a Belgium man crossed a barrier before slipping and falling four metres at the Maruia Falls.

The 60-year-old Belgian tourist went over the barrier to take a photograph of the falls when he lost his footing on Wednesday.

Australian Jonathan Cawood was kayaking with his friends Christian Slattery and Mitchell Stephens when he saw the man's fall.

Mr Cawood, president of Latrobe University's Mountaineering Club, said there were signs warning people not to go beyond the barriers when he last kayaked in the area a year ago, but there was no signage there this week.

He said the man was unconscious and lying face down as water streamed around him.

He would have drowned had the group not got to him, he said. The drop from the top of the falls was about 10 metres but the man had landed on a small ledge about four metres down.

Mr Cawood said because they were advanced kayakers, they were equipped with ropes and other climbing equipment so they were able to lower him to retrieve the man.

The 22-year-old biomedical science student then attached himself to the injured man and the pair were hoisted back onto the rocks above the falls.

"I do not really remember thinking about what I should do next. There was no decision. It was just instinct.

"He was super lucky we were there. There is no way emergency services could have gotten to him let alone get to him on time.

"He was in a pretty bad position. He looked like he had broken his pelvis for sure.

"I did not think he was going to wake up again after such a big fall."

The Nelson Marlborough rescue helicopter took the tourist, and his wife, to Nelson Hospital, but Mr Cawood said the group had been unable to get information about his condition since.

"We would do the same for anybody, I suppose," Mr Cawood said.

"We were exhausted after it all. We sat down and did not say much. We were just happy we could help. At least now we have good karma."

The Australians were based in Melbourne and travelled extensively around New Zealand regularly for intrepid kayaking.

They were off to kayak in Queenstown over the weekend. Mr Cawood's friends were members of the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club and the group said they learned the skills used in the rescue from their clubs, and from the New Zealand Kayak School in Murchison.

New Zealand Kayak School director Mick Hopkinson said most white water kayakers always carried the right equipment.

The school offered about eight rescue-related courses per year and safety was part of the kayaking culture.

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"We breed a culture of looking after your mates and carrying the right gear.

"If you nag them enough you will see two out of three kayakers always carry the right safety equipment."

The incident felt like deja vu, he said.

The exact same thing happened in November 2011 but had a sad outcome, he said. Ian Oliver Randall, 39, of Kaiapoi, drowned at the base of Maruia Falls, after he jumped the barrier and fell. The current was particularly fierce and dragged him down the river.

Mr Hopkinson said it was miraculous that the kayakers were there to help.

He said it was difficult to see how this incident may have been avoided.

Signs were always being pulled down and there was an "enticing little man-made track beyond the barrier".

- The Nelson Mail

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