Late last month, two women had a very fortunate outcome in the vicinity of Kapakapanui.
The pair, an international student from the USA and her visiting mother, set out on Tuesday 26th April, intending to complete the commonly walked loop route which, under normal circumstances, is very accessible to anyone reasonable fit. They never checked out of their motel on Wednesday 27th April, but it wasn’t until they failed to return their rental car by 11am on Friday 29th April that Police were called.
Police quickly located the car at the base of the Kapakapanui Track entrance to Tararua Forest Park, at the end of Ngatiawa Road east of Waikanae. By now, statistics were already not in their favour, but exactly how long they’d been missing was unclear and weather had been unmemorable during recent days.
A Search and Rescue operation was initiated immediately. Several other trampers were located who’d seen the pair on the track on Tuesday, providing a time-frame for how long they’d been missing, but exact intentions remained unknown. Early on Saturday 30th April, four LandSAR teams entered the area. At roughly 1pm that day, the two women were spotted by a helicopter. They’d spent 4 nights outdoors, with the daughter in particular by now being extremely dehydrated, starving, and possibly within a few hours of death.
They’d lost their way. On the Tuesday, walking the loop clockwise and having begun their descent, the pair accidentally deviated from the standard orange triangle markers.
They instead followed a line of blue markers off the main ridge. These markers are probably the ones which start just east of .852, marking a line of a possum trapper. The line of blue markers eventually stopped, by which point they decided it was much to steep to return the way they’d come. On Tuesday night, the pair slept on a ledge 40cm wide, somewhere above Ngatiawa Stream.
On Wednesday morning they continued stumbling down the stream, struggling around several waterfalls and getting very wet and cold in the process. On Wednesday evening they stayed on a bed of ferns in a small open area, with the daughter in particular feeling especially exhausted. They set out again on Thursday, but upon encountering some deep water, they turned back to a clearing and set up a make-shift outdoor camp for the night. This is where they remained on both Thursday and Friday nights, prior to being found.
The helicopter which located them was assisted by large HELP signs constructed within the clearing. Based on photos circulated from the helicopter, they may have stopped just 1km from where their car was parked. There’s no way they could have known this with certainty, though, in their state it’s uncertain if they’d have managed to travel a further kilometre.
There are a few parts of the story which remain not clearly explained, such as dehydration when surrounded by water. Also, unofficial comments can’t suggest the presence of any deep water that should have caused the women to turn around under normal circumstances, especially in low flow as the Ngatiawa River would have been. These clearly weren’t normal circumstances, though.
It’s fantastic that there was a fortunate outcome to an incident, which so easily could have turned out differently. The two women were very grateful for the help. There are definitely some things which could be learned, though.
The standard modern template advice is to always carry a PLB. And yeah, okay. They could have pressed a button and attracted a rescue, as long as someone was conscious and able to press it. Obviously a PLB would have helped. Really though, there are other very basic, low-tech and accessible measures which can and ultimately should also be taken to minimise likely consequences when something goes wrong.
Most importantly is that if the women had told anyone trusted where they were going, and when to expect them back, it’s very likely they’d never have put themselves into such a risky situation.
Providing intentions to a trusted contact is one of the simplest and cheapest measures that anyone can take. It means that even if you’re completely incapacitated, there will be a trigger for someone to eventually come and look for you in the right place. A trusted contact doesn’t even have to be someone in the same country, nor do they need to understand the context of information you provide them with about plans. The only necessary qualification is to be able to reliably contact New Zealand Police to report you missing, and relay on the information you’ve left with them so that Police can get started on deciding what to do, if anything.
It seems likely that the lack of intentions had a strong influence on the actions of the women once they found themselves in trouble, and consequently resulted in much higher risk to them. In any situation of being lost, a standard rule is to remain where you are unless it’s absolutely not possible to do so. This is for multiple reasons.
Firstly, remaining still reduces the possible distance you can travel from where you’re meant to be, which means you’re more likely to be in the areas which get searched first, based on evidence that search officials have of plans (in this case being the parked car and confirmation reports from other people). Secondly, a moving target is much harder for a search operation to find. If intentions had been left, then the most logical reaction to reaching the end of the blue marker line, realising they weren’t where they were meant to be and could not return the way they’d come, would have been to stay there.
If intentions had been left, it’s also likely that a search operation would have been launched after a single night, and they’d most probably have been rapidly found. Without intentions, though, and being fully aware that there was no reason to expect anyone to come looking for them, the incentive to try and rescue themselves must have been much greater than necessary. Ultimately this led to them continuing even further into an area without necessary skills or knowledge, and very nearly resulting in at least one death.
Anyway, it’s great to see that one of the pair (who’s a student in New Zealand) has since been roped into helping to promoting the benefits of leaving good intentions with trusted contacts. There will always be people getting up and doing things spontaneously, without necessarily taking the measures that’ll make their experiences that little bit safer. Hopefully this episode results in the message getting out to a few more people.
Also, PLB. Blah blah blah.