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Raising search and rescue needs

Change can come swiftly, and in 33 years Wairarapa Rescue Trust has seen plenty of it. MARY ARGUE reports on how a decades-old trust is navigating the modern landscape of search and rescue.

On a regular Tuesday I find myself in the back blocks of Masterton, gripping a piece of equipment worth an eyewatering $10,000 – one of the most expensive items I’ve ever held.

“Go on, take a look at those horses over there.”

Lifting the thermal imagining binoculars, I do as I’m told and the horses, grazing 500 metres away, are suddenly looming large, popping bright white against a grayscale background.

The helicopter pilot – whose lawn I’m standing on – nods, “2.5x magnification”.

“From trialling them, we can be a kilometre or two off the hill face in open tussock, and just see deer standing out, glowing.”

Pilot Jason Diedrichs – JD to most – knows that open tussock as well as anyone, having scrambled over the Tararua Range by both land and air for years.

As the owner and operator of Amalgamated Helicopters, he’s not only one of Wairarapa Rescue Trust’s eight trustees but is a cornerstone of the charity’s purpose – the impetus for which arrived with terrible clarity over three decades ago.

A seriously injured logger on a remote forestry block was the trigger, Trust chair John Bunny says. “Forestry workers were being injured, and ambulances were not able to get to them in good time.”

Out of the post-mortem of one particularly difficult backcountry rescue, the Trust was born.

Formed in 1990 by the local NZ Contractors Federation branch, the Trust was propped up by a significant donation from AMP, which allowed it to establish the basics required for search and rescue.

Its mission was to provide funding and equipment for rescue missions on land, air, and sea, when, despite efforts from emergency services, a local option was sometimes the best, and only option.

“It was really driven out of that original need,” Bunny says. “It has changed a lot in 33 years, but when the chips are down and people’s lives are at stake we’ve got the ability, and we do the best we can, to help them out.”

For the past three decades, the Trust has funded essential training and equipment to fulfil its purpose, but the nature of search and rescue is changing, driven in large part by the rapid advancement in technology.

The proliferation of cellphones has meant that search and rescue is now more frequently ‘rescue’, trustee Andrew Croskery says.

But even when the location is known, in a range like the Tararuas – notorious for its severe weather and terrain – the best rescue efforts can be undermined. It’s in those conditions, Croskery says, when local knowledge is invaluable.

“JD can find people – he flies for DoC [Department of Conservation] he knows the bush, he knows the Tararuas, he’s a really good mountain pilot,” he says, noting it was JD who found the body of tramper Darren Myers in 2019, bringing to a close an extensive 11-day search in the ranges.

“He can go in and do an initial sweep and relay everything back to the LandSAR base at Hood, saving time and money.”

Earlier this year, JD and his crew recovered tramper Ivan Elliott.

The 53-year-old had set off a Personal Locator Beacon [PLB] while hiking in the ranges in January, immediately triggering a response from the Rescue Coordination Centre.

With the weather closing in, Amalgamated was tasked with the rescue mission. Sweeping low over the area where the PLB was sounding, the crew picked up a heat signature on the thermal binoculars. Elliott was found, sadly deceased, in terrain so steep it was virtually impenetrable.

Without a PLB and the binoculars it is likely he would still be missing.

PLBs – essential outdoor safety equipment – are loaned by the Trust for $5 a day.

Bunny says the logic of the significant discount is simple. The cost of “lifesaving” technology should not be prohibitive – “If you get into trouble, break a leg, sprain an ankle, you can just push a button and be good to go” – and in cases where life has been lost, neither should locating and bringing a loved one home.

For years, Trust money has funded this service, but a new sponsorship model has signalled a shift. For the past two years, Friends of the Trust – individuals and companies signed up to three years of support – has allowed for meaningful investment in rescue equipment, Bunny says, citing not only the recently acquired thermal imaging binoculars, but a new outboard motor for Riversdale Surf Lifesaving Club, and a titanium rescue stretcher complete with an all-terrain wheel, thought to be one of the first in New Zealand.

Prompted by a tragedy off the Mataikona coastline a few years ago, Croskery says funding from Masterton Trust Lands Trust [MTLT] and Eastern and Central Community Trust has allowed for significant investment in the safety of Amalgamated’s crew, with the Trust securing lifesaving vests and Helicopter Underwater Escape Training [HUET].

“It was a real eye-opener,” JD says of the HUET course.

“You’re strapped in, and taught the procedures for when the heli hits the water. They plunge you, the cage rolls over, and you have to escape.

“When it actually goes down, it goes quite quickly and if you misjudge your last breath by a second … you’re buggered. I found it really worthwhile.”

It’s that sort of funding Croskery says that keeps the Trust alive and in a position to help.

“Any money donated to the Trust stays in Wairarapa – that’s Riversdale, JD, and Land Search and Rescue. If people want to donate to search and rescue, this one is local.”

    PLBs can be hired from MTLT and Amalgamated Helicopters.

    For more info on how to support the Wairarapa Rescue Trust, email: [email protected]

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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