Missing tramper evokes memory

Last updated 13:00 28/12/2013

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OPINION: I was wearing my first pair of proper running shoes the day I got lost in the bush.

I was 13 and joining in on a club cross-country run up Otanewainuku, in the Bay of Plenty, an extinct volcano with giant rimu dotting the slopes.

The harrier pack had spread out by the time we got to the top, and I was alone when I reached the trig. I plunged back into the bush where I thought the track continued. But within minutes I was lost, with no idea where I'd come from or where I was going. I kept running, dodging supplejack and crashing through the virgin forest. Trying to outrun the creeping fear, I guess. I don't know how long I ran for, but it was probably for less than an hour. I had just learned to whistle through my fingers, and I remember stopping every now and then to send out a shrill blast, hearing the sound fall dead in the forest between my rasping breaths.

Eventually, by some stroke of luck, I ploughed through some leaf litter, headed up a bank, and came across one of those dear little orange triangles marking the broad, smooth, wonderful track. I followed it downhill until I saw my friend's dad in the distance, running back to find me. Our two families spent years together, but I will always remember him as that bandy frame in the distance, running towards me with his funny rolling gait.

When we emerged into the car park to join the rest of the runners, I was more embarrassed than relieved. Otanewainuku is a smallish reserve, just 1200 hectares, but I don't think I really understood the potential for disaster. Now, I hate to think what was going through the adults' heads when they realised one of the kids was missing. But at 13, I was soon over it, spending the car ride home mentally constructing the awesome bush bivvy I would have made if I'd been stuck overnight.

Now, whenever a tramper goes missing in our region, I remember those silent minutes waiting for a shout. I can't help but think of where they might be and what they and their families must be feeling. English man Andrew Wyatt, 41, has been missing in Nelson Lakes National Park for 12 days now, after arriving in New Zealand on November 21 for his second attempt at walking the Te Araroa Trail. He is one of several trampers lost in the area over the past few years, and there are eerie similarities to past searches - like others, Mr Wyatt was last seen leaving Blue Lake Hut. But as the training officer for the Nelson search and rescue volunteer group Sherp Tucker says, in survival terms, it is not an especially long time to be lost, and there is still hope.

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The land up there is exceptionally beautiful, rugged, and lonely in a way that's impossible to fathom from down in our well-mapped city streets. Two others have disappeared up there and never been found. Every year, a Nelson Mail colleague and I get a Christmas e-card from the father of one of those trampers who went missing, after we were in touch with him during the search for his son. This year, we got another. It's always a potent reminder that his family has gone yet another year without news of their son, without knowing for sure if he is alive or dead.

Unlike other parts of the world, there are no wild animals to fear in New Zealand. It is the land that will swallow you.

A year ago I had the opportunity to take a peek into how our region's volunteer search and rescue teams operate when I joined in for a couple of days on an exercise in Awaroa. The target was a long-lost plane, not a human being; but still, the dense bush and gorse battles were nothing but an exercise in helplessness.

Yet their knowledge and methods narrow the possibilities down so much that they find almost everyone. I remain in awe of them. If I got lost in the bush again, I know I'd take some small comfort in knowing it was those committed and highly-trained men and women out there looking for me.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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