LandSAR volunteers are united by their love of the outdoors and giving back to their communities. Matthew Cattin meets four Kiwis who give their time to save those whose time is running out.
Golden Bay farmer John Pomeroy lives in anticipation of a phone call.
Whether it comes at two in the morning or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, he’s ready for it – able to be out the door and on the road “at the drop of a hat”.
Responding to search and rescue call-outs is a responsibility Pomeroy has taken on throughout his entire adult life.
“My bag is packed 24/7 – I just need to add water and food for the trip and I’m ready to go,” he says.
Pomeroy first joined LandSAR at 17, hitching lifts to training sessions and events with older family members until he became operational in his later teens.
The desire to give something back to the backcountry he frequented for hunting and fishing was strong, even at a young age.
“I liked to think if I was ever in a position where I needed help out there, there would be someone on the way,” he says.
For eight years, he juggled his volunteer work with a full-time job, but a shift to self-employment three years ago opened up his availability.
“My bosses have always been understanding, but there are times when you just can’t get away from work,” he says. “It’s a lot easier now, and I’ve got people who can look after the farm when I’m not here.”
Pomeroy says the average age of volunteers is climbing in his area and believes it might be a nationwide trend.
He doesn’t find the commitment difficult, but says it can be tough on those with full-time jobs and young families.
“It would be good to have younger members coming through, but it seems to be the way life is going now – people have less free time and they want to be doing something for themselves,” he says.
“There are times when I’d rather be out there doing things for myself too, so I get it – it’s just a time thing.”
Pomeroy works in a training officer role, and enjoys taking on new volunteers and seeing them become operational.
He says a volunteer role with LandSAR is best suited to those already involved in the outdoor sector, but it’s not strictly necessary.
“I’m happy to train anyone, but we need people who want to help the community and want to give back,” he says.
His call-outs average around half a dozen a year, and range from mountain rescues to suburban searches for missing elderly.
Some are wrapped up within hours, and others can stretch over several weeks, but any operation can prove challenging.
“When it’s wet, and you’re in the middle of nowhere, and it doesn’t look like there’s any light at the end of the tunnel – mentally, it can be tough,” he says.
“But that’s all part of it, and you’re doing more for the missing person out there than you are sitting at home.”
The satisfaction of a good outcome is “incomparable”.
“After being out in the bush for however many days in rain, snow, lightning, whatever, having a successful outcome is amazing,” he says – though it’s not always achievable.
Milburn’s involvement has been life-changing, and seen her shift from her job at the Dunedin Library to her new role as a policewoman.
Even at the library, she found a way to incorporate search and rescue into her job, and spent many hours digitally archiving the history of local search and rescue.
“I can’t imagine not doing search and rescue now – it’s become such a big part of my life,” she says.
Currently in the process of training a new puppy, Milburn says her spare time is mostly taken up with training exercises, such as a recent mission to Lewis Pass to track a tramper’s missing pack.
Milburn still gets out tramping but admits she can’t look at a track the same way she once did.
“Usually when you’re tramping, you’re looking around at everything, but if you’ve been in search and rescue you’re looking for prints, or points where people could go off the track,” she says.
Her experiences have brought not complacency, but preparedness.
“I find it difficult to go out even on a day trip without my head torch,” she says.
Hanmer Springs LandSAR volunteer Huntley Adamson has also become a more meticulous tramper, and always plans multiple outcomes for his trips.
“I sign into every hut book now, and I am always telling people where I’m going and where I might go,” he says. “I always take a little bit of extra gear just in case now, as I‘ve seen what happens in those ‘just in case’ moments.
“I also help friends to make sure they’ve got a plan, and hope I’m not going to have to find them.”
Adamson was working as an outdoor instructor for young children when he was approached about volunteering.
“I live next to the local police officer and he was headhunting good, quality people – or at least I like to think so anyway,” he says.
Now a building apprentice, Adamson works alongside several volunteers.
“Every time it starts to rain on a Friday afternoon, we have a bit of a laugh and say ‘hope I don’t see you tonight’,” he says.
Adamson has come a long way since his first call-out, searching for a group of young boys who had borrowed their dad’s truck and rolled it on a farm.
“I had no grab bag at the time, and I remember throwing in half a packet of gingernuts and an apple, and jumping in with the police.”
He now heads out on around 10 operations a year and says his involvement has become a hot topic of discussion at family gatherings.
More than that, however, it has become part of family life.
“Once a person is involved, the whole family supports that person through being a volunteer,” he says.
“If there is a call-out, it can leave the family behind to pick up the pieces or stay up at night hoping it all goes to plan.”
Search operations can provide a thrilling adrenalin rush, but for Adamson, the real satisfaction comes from helping families find a loved one.
“You’ve got people who are in a real panic, so it’s a nice comforting feeling to know that when you’ve found someone, the family is able to settle and relax,” he says.
LandSAR Waihi stalwart Darren Butler has been on the roster for 17 years.
Keen to involve himself in the volunteering sector, the tramper and surfer was considering the fire service or ambulance roles when a friend suggested LandSAR.
“It was something I hadn’t considered at the time,” he says. “A friend of mine – a member of LandSAR – was heading to a training session and I thought it sounded pretty good, so I went along and jumped in from there.”
Working as a project manager, Butler says he has an understanding boss who generally allows him time off to attend call-outs.
Operations often require the team to think outside the box, Butler says, recalling a rescue of a young boy with intellectual disabilities who was found in the thick of a blackberry grove.
“We didn’t think anybody could actually go in there, but sure enough we found him right in the middle. You have to look a bit outside of what you think people actually do – where they might be that you wouldn’t consider,” he says.
“If the search goes on, and you’re not finding anything or getting any information back at all, that’s the hardest thing.”
The role has made Butler more diligent about leaving clear intentions – even if he’s only planning a short trip.
“I don’t want to get caught out and have my own mates come and find me,” he says.
“Always leave a clear idea of where you are going, and stick to it – don’t go off somewhere completely different.”