Chance to photograph rare bird turns fatal for tramper

01:49, May 18 2013
Leslie Wright
MISSING: Les Wright.

The chance to photograph the elusive kokako is believed to have led notable historian Leslie Wright on his fateful walk in the Pureora Forest Park.

For five days his family held out hope he'd be found alive.

But yesterday, after an extensive three-day search involving more than 70 police officers and Land Search and rescue volunteers, their worse fears were confirmed when his body was found.

Police said it was not yet known how or when Mr Wright died, but his body was located about 5 kilometres from where his car was found on Wednesday night on an isolated road between Benneydale and Mangakino.

Mr Wright's partner, Deborah Carden, and younger brother Mark Wright joined searchers yesterday and were at the Pureora Forest Lodge to hear the news.

They took solace in the fact that so many police and volunteers had extended efforts to find the 63-year-old West Coast historian.

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"It's been a harrowing few days but it's been very heartening seeing all these people mobilised to find Leslie," Ms Carden said.

"Everyone's professionalism and the effort they've put in over these few days has been fantastic."

Mr Wright was last seen on Monday at a Waitomo camping ground where he and Ms Carden had been staying.

Ms Carden said her partner loved heritage and "old stuff" and suspected he went into the Pureora Forest to photograph the rare kokako.

"I visited here [Pureora Forest Park] a few years ago to try and listen to the kokako. We talked about in on Sunday night and he seemed quite keen. I think that's what brought him here."

Mark Wright said his brother was an experienced bush walker and suspected he became distracted while walking the short loop track behind the lodge.

"It's a bit out of character that Leslie didn't take his gear with him but he may have just planned to go on a 30-minute walk of the loop track. He may have seen something like a bird that took his fancy, walked toward it, and suddenly became disoriented."

Sergeant Phil Bell said Mr Wright's footprints indicated he became disoriented in the dense bush and would have walked more than 10km trying to find his way out.

"When Leslie set off it would have been a warm day and all indications are he hadn't planned on going for a long walk."

But somewhere along the way he became disoriented.

Bell said the key lesson from Mr Wright's tragic death was to always tell people were you are going.

"It appears Leslie was very comfortable in the bush and that familiarity probably led him to walk into this area. But if we had known where he had gone we could have started our search on Monday and we would have found him really quick."

Meanwhile, news of his death has shocked many on the West Coast, who yesterday praised him for his contribution to the region's history.

Friend of 30 years, Francie Hunter, said she knew of only one previous occasion when he had got into trouble walking on the West Coast.

"I know once when he was down at the Snowy Battery and he broke his leg. But that's the only mishap I know of."

She said she believed he had always had quite strong bush skills.

"The bush and Les were great friends."

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said he was "gutted" to hear of his friend's death.

Kokshoorn met Mr Wright in the 1970s and in the last few months the pair had started work on a mining heritage trail project.

"I'm gutted. He's such a nice guy... He was a really popular person and he will be really missed."

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor, who had known Mr Wright for about 25 years, said he was a "stalwart" of West Coast heritage and history.

"The development of heritage tourism was based very much on what he did. He will leave a huge gap in heritage and history knowledge in our region."

Waikato Times