The call and the perils of the wild

Last updated 13:00 30/12/2013

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OPINION: Tramping alone in New Zealand's back country is adventurous, breathtaking and risky. How well that risk is understood by people taking on the challenge, particularly those from overseas, is up for question.

The risks are further increased if they subscribe to ultra-light tramping, which involves travelling fast with little equipment.

The death of English tramper Andrew Wyatt in Nelson Lakes National Park this month has again raised these issues.

Mr Wyatt, 41, who favoured the lightweight approach, was making his second attempt to complete the national Te Araroa Trail, which links routes from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

He came to grief in a particularly mountainous section of the trail between Blue Lake Hut and the Waiau Pass.

Photographs of the Lake Constance area, where his body was found below a 100-metre-high bluff on Friday, show barren terrain, with steep, scree-covered slopes rising around the deep blue lake.

It's these landscapes that draw people to such remote country - but, unfortunately, some pay the ultimate price.

In 2004, English tramper Michael Johnson died deep in the Otago high country after his ambitious plan to link South Island tramping routes - before the Te Araroa Trail was formalised - came unstuck. He is believed to have survived a fall but succumbed to the elements.

No-one knew he was missing for weeks, because he had not filled out an intentions book - and, as an ultra-light tramping advocate, he did not want to carry a locator beacon because of its weight.

As one observer said at the time, "putting your intentions in a hut book does not weigh anything extra".

In 2009, American tramper Ed Reynolds disappeared in a similarly rugged area of Nelson Lakes National Park. He was last seen at East Matakitaki Hut, but his body has not been found.

Reynolds was also passionate about ultra-light tramping, removing all unnecessary parts of his equipment.

A coroner concluded that it was impossible to know how big a role the ultra-light ethos played in his demise, but said it raised the stakes.

However, experienced searchers say there have been plenty of occasions where people with more gear have vanished. All emphasise the importance of carrying beacons and ensuring your travel intentions are known.

In Wyatt's case, he failed to pick up a food parcel on December 16, and police began checking his telephone records in case he had left the trail, as he had done during his first attempt a year earlier.

No-one is suggesting that the spirit of adventure in New Zealand's great outdoors should be curtailed. Risk will always be part and parcel of the journey, particularly for those with no backup.

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But the tragedies underline the dangers and highlight steps that can be taken to reduce them, providing a better chance of survival if trampers are lost or injured.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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