Monday, June 9, 2008

Let’s be careful out there in the NZ rain-forest

A salutary warning from David Morris.

Another tourist has died out in the New Zealand bush, the second in the last three weeks. They are tragedies that just didn’t need to occur. This time it was a young Polish guy who got trapped by rising floodwaters in a bush stream. Last month it was an Israeli girl who strayed off a well-marked commercial track.

Many visitors come to New Zealand with trekking (in this country it’s called tramping) high on their list of must-dos. They want to experience the pristine wilderness that has disappeared or been desecrated in so much of the rest of the world.

What they don’t realise is that the NZ bush is an unforgiving mistress. It is real easy to die out there . . .and every year many do. Some of them are experienced hunters and trampers, which just goes to show that even years of experience don’t always save your hide.

In 1990, for instance, a troop of professional soldiers were trapped in adverse conditions on Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park. Despite the fact that the party included experienced army instructors, five young men died from hypothermia in a storm that lasted for a couple of days

What chance, then, a kid who has hardly ever been out of a big city? Better than you think if you follow the rules of survival: Be prepared, don’t take risks.

At the same time, in the same Ruapehu storm, was a young Japanese guy who set out to climb to the summit of the mountain. When the blizzard came in he dug a snow cave and stayed in it until the storm had blown itself out. The mountain rescue team that headed uphill to get him presumed they were going to bring back a body. Instead they saw a little black speck, high up on the mountain, making its way down towards them. He survived where the solders died because he did what he had been told.

There are some simple precautions that an adventurer can take that will make the difference between life and a lonely death.

Rule 1: Give the outdoors the respect they are due. It is not a big Disney theme park out there. You can die very easily. Choose a trip in keeping with your experience and ability, Preferably go with other people, preferably those with more experience than yourself. Be conservative in assessing your abilities. If you’ve never done a lot of trekking don’t start by taking on a three or four day track through rough terrain. Indeed, limit yourself to no more than a half or full day walk.

Rule 2: Plan and prepare. Know where you are going. Get information on the terrain and likely weather. If you are in a Department of Conservation (DoC) area – national park, reserve etc – talk to the local rangers. Talk to hostel managers. Go to the MetService website for up-to-date forecasts . . . and believe what they tell you. In other words don’t go in blind. It might look easy on a map, but when the weather turns foul and the terrain is rough you are in the red zone. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (MSC) publications 'Going bush?', 'Hypothermia', and 'Survival' are essential for trip planning. Collect a copy from or visitor centres nationwide. Explore the DoC website - it’s an absolute goldmine of information and advice. Do this before you even arrive in the country.

Rule 3: Tell someone where you are going and what time you will be back. Tell the hostel manager, the park rangers, the police, a friend. Who cares, just tell someone who’ll respond if you fail to turn up. Tell them you will check in with them when you return. That way if you don’t check in they’ll raise the alarm. Deaths occur because it is a day or two before anyone notices you are missing. Sometimes even longer. DoC headquarters and huts have log books for you to record your intentions. Use them. And above all else, for god’s sake, when you end your trip, do log out. Search and Rescue in this country is done mostly by volunteers. They get called out, often in atrocious conditions, they leave their work or business, leave their family and responsibilities and head into the mountains and bush to look for you. They can be there for a couple of days before it is realised that you are sitting with your feet in front of a fire many miles away. Believe me, they will not be amused.

Rule 4: Be prepared, mentally and physically, for bad weather. It doesn’t matter if you are only going for a one hour walk, be prepared to spend a night or two in the open. You have no idea how easy it is to get off a bush track and not be able to find it again. It’s late afternoon by now, night is closing in and with it can come freezing rain and wind. Hello hypothermia, goodbye world. The weather right through this country is very changeable. A stroll in the sun this morning can end up a hard, head down slog in driving wind and rain.

Rule 5: Take appropriate clothing. What you take will depend on the adventure you are planning. If it’s a half day trip, at least carry a waterproof parka and a warm jersey. If you are staying out overnight you’ll need to plan for really foul weather . . . overtrousers, gloves, hat, longjohns, t-shirts as singlets, sturdy boots, 2 or 3 pairs of warm socks. Wrap the woolies in plastic bags to keep them dry. Your pack should have a plastic liner to keep stuff dry.

Rule 6: Take the right equipment. If you carry only one thing, make it a whistle. Don’t go into the bush without it. Why? If you get lost you’ll start shouting for help. Guess how long your voice will hold out? Not long enough. In a day or two when the searchers are slogging their way through the mud and the slush and the undergrowth they’ll be calling to you . . and they won’t hear your feeble, croaky reply. But they will hear a shrill blast on a whistle. Take matches and firelighters – the sort of lighters used to start a barbecue - or even just a candle. All in a waterproof container. A torch, first aid kit, a survival sheet (buy them at outdoor shops), map and compass. All this gear amounts to no more than a kilo in weight. You can carry it easily in a day pack, yet it is the difference between life and death. You can buy a survival pack at outdoor shops.

Rule 7: Take food for two or three days longer than you expect. Even on a short hike you should have a heapin’ helpin’ of chocolate bars, muesli bars, biscuits, scroggin (nuts and dried fruit mixture). Maybe some dried soup. There is nothing better, when you are feeling lost and miserable, than to be able to start a fire and boil up a mug of instant soup. Oh, yes, you’ll need to take a mug and a billy. Tea, coffee, sugar, sachets of powered milk. Maybe something like cheese, salami - the fat content is high value energy.

If nothing else, these precautions allow you to stay warm and dry and reasonably well fed. That will keep your morale high. People die simply because they give up under the misery of the cold and the hunger.

Let me say again: The mountains and the rain-forest in New Zealand are beautiful beyond measure, and perilous to match. They are not a kid’s playground, a walk in the park.

The Boy Scouts’ motto had a lot going for it: Be prepared.

And live.

David Morris writes a travel guide to New Zealand. Read it at He also runs a rental car business called Downtown Rentals at

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