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November 2013 Issue
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The right decision

Slippery boulders in the Mokihinui North Branch. Photo: Pete Lusk

Overdue from an off-track tramp, Pete Lusk is faced with accepting a lift in a rescue helicopter even though he didn’t need rescuing

How would you react to being rescued by Search and Rescue when you weren’t actually lost or in distress?

Would you hop in the helicopter or would you politely refuse, explaining you’re just a bit overdue and still enjoying the tramping?

Earlier this year a mate and I were faced with this dilemma.

We’d set off into trackless country in the North Branch if the Mokihinui River. Our plan was to complete a circuit from the road end at Seddonville, up the river to Mokihinui Forks Hut, then from the top lake in Hemphill Creek to Johnson Hut, and finally down a rarely-visited gorge of the Mokihinui’s north branch to the Forks again.

My mate Kerry Silverwood and I are both in our 60s and reasonably fit and experienced. But we were slowed by greasy boulders in the shady Hemphill Gorge and again by tight monkey scrub as we clambered over the ridge to the Johnson.

We’d told our families we’d be home in four days and we’d left notes to that effect. Our families also knew we’d taken an emergency beacon.

On the morning of day four we were entering the boulder-packed gorge of the North Branch. If things went well we’d be just one day overdue and no one was going to worry about that.

But it began to get cold and rain lightly. The river was a little above normal but we managed the crossings safely – the worst was waist deep. After about two hours we came to a much deeper crossing, and what with the rain and slippery rocks we decided it was too much for us. To make things worse, the sides of the gorge were so steep there was no hope of traversing above the river. So we turned around.

We still had a bit of food and felt good, so weren’t too worried about the long walk home, up the Johnson River and out to Karamea via the Wangapeka Track. We did not set off our beacon because there was no emergency

But one thing did worry us. We were going to be four days overdue and we knew our families would become worried. They’d almost certainly have called the police. We assumed Search and Rescue (SAR) would already be organising in Westport and we’d both been members long enough to know that a helicopter sweep of huts is the first thing they do. So we noted in the Johnson hut book that we were still fit and uninjured, had a small amount of food left, and were heading upriver.

The u-shaped valley is such a lovely place with its beech forests and a river that meanders around tussocky flats. It’s rare nowadays to experience natural ecosystems – there were no weeds that I could see. Being an amateur ecologist, I felt very priviliaged to be there.

The day was also beautiful as we sat among the river boulders to eat one last pita bread with raisins on top.

Kerry and I both have bad hearing, but unlike me, he’s still good on deep sounds. I saw him tilt his head slightly: “Think it’s our chopper,” he said.

I grabbed a red T-Shirt from my pack, and stood in the middle of the riverbed waving it from side to side. Immediately the pilot flashed his headlight so we’d know he’d seen us. He circled, then found an impossibly small gap in the trees and hovered down so one skid rested on a large river rock. Out jumped an orange-suited bloke who Kerry immediately recognised.

He pointed down river to where the chopper had found a safer landing spot and we were ushered aboard. One thing I’ve learned over the years is you don’t question chopper pilots. They have big responsibilities, they are the master of the ship, and you do what you are told.

I must admit it was nice to be flown back to our car at the road end, where we found a note asking us to call into the Westport SAR base for a debrief.

I was impressed by their professionalism. They’d built up accurate profiles on us and expected we’d be OK since we hadn’t set off the beacon. However they had four teams of searchers ready to go in case we’d not been found.

They told us we’d done everything right, which was nice to hear.

So to answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article, we felt we’d made the right decision to be rescued and were grateful that an efficient SAR is standing by when two old blokes go off into the mountains.

– Pete Lusk is a West Coast tramper