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Go tell it on the mountain

Forty years ago, a Carterton priest on a hiking trip got more excitement than he bargained for. Wairarapa Archive’s MARK PACEY recalls the saga of Father Peter Fitzgibbon’s mountain adventure.

On the morning of Monday, September 5, 1983, Father Fitzgibbon hiked his way to Atiwhakatu Hut in Tararua Forest Park. He did the responsible thing and left a note to say he was camping in his tent a few hundred metres down the track.

He spent the night there and the next day decided he wanted to see a bit more of the area.

“I decided to go up to Jumbo [Hut]. I thought I’d like to get the view,” Fitzgibbon would recount later.

While up on the ridge, the weather took a turn for the worse, and the priest was forced to retreat and seek shelter below the ridge.

After making his way down to a creek bed, Fitzgibbon spent a miserable night hunkered down, unable to pitch his tent due to the terrain. Despite the condition, he did manage to get some sleep and woke early on Wednesday.

By this stage, he was overdue and knew that people would be starting to look for him.

“I knew someone would have missed me by 7pm on Tuesday night when I should have been on duty. At 6.30pm. I looked at my watch and said, ‘Sorry folks’.”

Despite the conditions and the weather, Fitzgibbon never lost hope, buoyed by his faith.

“I knew people would be very worried and would pray. I knew because I had a special feeling that prayers were being reached by God and He was sending them down to me”.

Fitzgibbon continued to walk along the creek when he at last came across a sign of civilization. A bridge spanning a river that turned out to be the Waiōhine. He spent Wednesday night by the river and tried to ignore his growing hunger pangs, wanting to ration his food as he had no idea how long he would be in the bush.

Despite his best efforts, he gave in at 10.30pm.

“I had to eat and put my last teaspoon of lemon barley juice in a cup with water and had that and a tangelo. It filled me up”.

Fitzgibbon awoke at 5am on Thursday and made the decision to have the remainder of his rations to build his strength before he tried to make his escape from the bush. After dressing in the dark, he continued his journey. His map was of no use to him anymore, reduced to a sodden mess after having been wet for so many days.

At 7.30am he came to Waiōhine Hut and made his way inside. Relieved that he had found shelter, he was disturbed when he had a look at the hut logbook.

“I read in the logbook that the last people to use the hut had been there in July, so I wrote in the book that I hoped it wasn’t two months before anyone came again – you’ve got to keep a sense of humour to keep your morale up.”

In the hut, Fitzgibbon found a supply of food and some coffee. While the porridge was quite palatable, the coffee was a little on the old side.

“It had gone lumpy and sticky, but I put in the billy and had some coffee”.

To make it obvious that he was in the hut, Fitzgibbon had made a white cross and put it outside so it could be seen from the air. He also left some other items that he hoped would make it obvious where he was.

The weather on that Thursday was miserable, it had rained all day. Turning in for the night, the priest hoped that this might be his last out in the bush.

The next morning, he awoke to a new sound, not one that is natural in the bush – a helicopter.

“The noise of the helicopter woke me up. I picked up the jersey I was going to signal with, I started to put on my boots, then Vince Duckett walked through the hut door. It was a very emotional moment for both of us. To me, he represented all the searchers.”

After a helicopter ride to Hood Aerodrome, Fitzgibbon got to go home to his family in Carterton. On Saturday, a special service was held at the chapel at St Raphael’s Home of Compassion where a grateful flock welcomed home their father.

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