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Busy summer for search and rescue despite Covid-19

Wanaka SAR members have had a busy summer due to Te Araroa Trail walkers. Photo: Phil Melchior

Despite borders being closed to international visitors, South Island search and rescue crews have been kept busy with Kiwis getting into trouble in the hills.

But there’s been a promising rise in people carrying personal locator beacons.

WanakaSAR bush rescue team coordinator John Burke said it had been busy with greater numbers than expected of Te Araroa Trail walkers needing help.

“The season has felt busier as there are fewer people out on the trail and we expected a quieter season,” Burke said. “It feels like there’ve been more people doing the Te Araroa Trail and a broader range of people giving it a go.”
He said WanakaSAR also had to deal with a number of “ruptured tear duct incidents”, where hikers activated their beacons for minor incidents.

WanakaSAR spokesperson Bill Day agreed there had been a rise in PLB callouts for minor incidents.

“We have noticed a trend for people activating their beacons for lower-order events where they have lost their confidence or run out of water,” Day said. “But there are also those who decide to get help before they get into real trouble, which is good.”

Southern Lakes Helicopters is involved in Fiordland search and rescue events and crewman Richie Hunter said the number of callouts has been similar to previous years but with a notable increase in beacon activations.

“Kiwis have been carrying their beacons which is great to see and people have been activating them for genuine reasons,” Hunter said. “People appear to be more informed about the value of beacons and calling for assistance when they need help.”

He said the types of rescues have been similar to previous years.

“It’s primarily people getting lost in bad weather, getting bluffed by the terrain or caught out by rising rivers.”

Other regions had experienced a quieter summer with fewer tourists. DOC Aoraki/Mt Cook senior search and rescue ranger Dave Dittmer said search and rescue numbers were down about 50 per cent, with the number of people visiting the park down about 70 per cent, falling from a record high of over one million visitors in 2019.

“We got a lot fewer lower valley rescues with fewer international visitors and we had a relatively large number of PLB jobs, which were all substantial jobs for genuine rescues,” Dittmer said. “Overall, people have been well prepared and have just been unfortunate to get into trouble.”

Marlborough search and rescue chair Peter Hamill said it had been quiet in the region with no callouts since Christmas. The team covers the Marlborough Sounds and Richmond Range through to Molesworth Station.

“In the past, we’ve had a lot of overseas tourists and often get callouts with seasonal workers exploring on their day off, but we haven’t had that, so it’s been quiet for us,” Hamill said.