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June 2020 Issue
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Fishing out a Frenchman

River crossings are dangerous and care should always be taken. Photo: Penzy Dinsdale
A river crossing goes awry but fortunately for the victim, Oscar van der Beek was on hand to help

Every year, at least one tourist underestimates the danger of our wilderness with grave repercussions. I witnessed such an episode last summer.

I was tramping the Te Araroa Trail and was heading through the Ahuriri Valley. With me was a Frenchman I called Pierre. This wasn’t his real name but because he was voluntarily mute, he wasn’t in a position to argue. I’d heard of people like Pierre from other walkers heading north; he’d been shanghaied into a beautiful American girl’s quest to walk the TA in complete silence to raise money for a water well in Africa. He wasn’t the most talkative of company, but he was a good bloke and made himself understood when the need arose.

The Ahuriri River can be a bit hairy if it’s running high. It had been a hard hot day when we reached the river and we were tired. But the river was braiding, so it didn’t look too tough. I knew not to underestimate it though, and, after making my assessment, I made my attempt just as dad taught me. At its deepest, the water ran just above my hip and although the current was strong, I managed to get across just fine.

Next, it was Pierre’s turn.

It became clear the Frenchman had no experience with river crossings. As we stood on opposite banks, I yelled at him to roll up his trouser legs so the water wouldn’t drag on them. Cocky Pierre seemed to go selectively deaf as well as mute; he mimed for me to get my phone out so I could take a picture of his crossing. I took off my pack and moved downstream in anticipation.

Where the water came to my hip, it came to Pierre’s midriff. Trying to get a more secure footing, he turned his body fully into the flow of the water, the breadth of his torso catching the water like an oar. Off he went head over heels; tumbling down the river. The course washed him into a more friendly depth, by which point I’d waded back into the water and snagged him. However, we were now both on the wrong side of the river, and I had to cross carrying the weight of a limping Frenchman on my hip.

The sun was going behind the mountains and the Otago chill was setting in.

We stood sidelong, grasping each other by the belts, myself upriver to take the brunt of the current. I told him to keep his body facing the opposite bank to reduce drag, but it seemed his ears were playing up again because as we waded into the strongest part of the river, he began to panic again.

Throughout, he never forsook his pledge of silence. I, on the other hand, was hollering loud enough for the two of us; encouragement of the roughest kind that did the job. By the time we got across, I was nearly as spent as he.
At that point, we had very little left in the way of sunlight. The campsite was less than a kilometre away, but the cold was beginning to bite. I was nippy enough with only my bottom half wet, but Pierre was drenched from head to foot.

I made the decision to pitch camp and told him to get into whatever warm and dry clothes he still had.

Shortly after, I came to Pierre in his tent with a cup of hot tea and found him wrapped in as much as he could manage, and inside his sleeping-bag. I gave him the tea and as he looked out from his hole, I heard a croaky “thank you”.

The next morning, his wet clothes, draped over his tent frame for the night, were frozen stiff.

We walked together for a couple more days and then Pierre took a sabbatical in Wanaka to recover.

It is an unfortunate truth that every season there is news of others like him who are swept away or stuck outside with minimal gear when the weather turns. Had I not been there to help him, I am not sure he would’ve been entirely well come morning.

I think this anecdote serves to illustrate how important it is to be confident in your skills, not only for your own sake but for others who might need you if the time comes.