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Tararua’s treacherous terrain

With its untouched terrain and uninterrupted vistas, the Tararua Range is one of New Zealand’s most popular forest parks. It is also one of the most unforgiving. MARY ARGUE reports.

It was a miserable and wet Friday in Eketahuna when Jason Diedrichs got the call.

A Personal Locator Beacon [PLB] had been set off in the Tararua Forest Park. Someone was in serious trouble. With the hour closing on 4pm, the Amalgamated Helicopters chief pilot wasted no time firing instructions to his crew to prepare the chopper, before leaping in his car and shooting toward Masterton.

It’s been just over a week since Ivan Elliott [named in a Times-Age death notice on Thursday] was found in dense bush, several hundred metres off the track, in the Tararua Range.

Originally from Carterton, he and his wife were on a trip to the region from their home in Cobh, Ireland, when they went in pursuit of Elliott’s old haunts around Mt Holdsworth.

By all accounts, the 53-year-old was an experienced tramper who was well-equipped with navigational and emergency gear.

But his trip down memory lane ended in tragedy, with emergency services recovering Elliott’s body mere hours after he activated his PLB.

A question mark hangs over the incident, with the cause of death, currently with the coroner, yet to be determined. However, Elliott is far from the first to lose his life in Wairarapa’s treacherous backyard.

New Zealand Mountain Safety Council [MSC] data records 186 trampers were involved in search and rescue operations in the Tararuas between 2010 and 2017.

In the decade to 2019 there have been six fatalities in the ranges.

In 2019, 49-year-old Darren Myers was found at the bottom of a waterfall after an extensive 11-day search. Two years later, a coroner determined he died suddenly of blunt force trauma, but also noted that a failure to check the weather and adjust the trip plan were contributing factors.

Masterton Police Sergeant Tony Matheson, who was heavily involved in the search for Myers and Elliott, says while there are some commonalities, he expects the coronial findings will differ.

“They were both foreign nationals so they weren’t tramping and hiking as a thing of routine in New Zealand,” he says.

“There is also an element of misadventure involved. Mr Elliott has lost the track coming down from Concertina Knob. Both have become disoriented. It’s just the reason behind why they became disoriented. I suspect there will be a difference in the coronial outcome in the two events.”

Matheson says Elliott was on a mission to Maungahuka Hut on Friday, January 6, when he ran into trouble.

“He wanted to revisit it. It was more on the list of things he, rather than his wife, wanted to do, so he decided to go up alone and spend the night.”

His intention was to return to Neill Forks the next day. But he never made it to either hut.

“Something has affected his decision-making around the Concertina area,” Matheson says. “Given the timeframe of his leaving and the beacon going off, I don’t think he made it to Maungahuka. Something has happened on the way up that has made him change his mind and come back down.”

Matheson, who has been involved in police search and rescue since 1987, says Wairarapa is far from a hotspot, “but when we do get events, and it’s in the Tararua Forest Park, it’s significant”.

MSC chief executive Mike Daisley says the Tararuas ranks third in New Zealand for search and rescue operations behind Fiordland and Tongariro National Parks.

“The Tararuas draws in a reasonably large number of people looking for a great experience. Most people go there and have a great time, and that is not to be undersold. But the weather is so changeable and the terrain is so dynamic that you need to be constantly checking.”

Planning is key, Daisley says, and people underestimating their ability and the conditions can have serious consequences.

He says the PlanMyWalk app is a useful tool that removes the guesswork for trampers, and is particularly valuable for assessing the weather in the Tararuas, pulling in the most appropriate Metservice data for the track.

“In the Tararuas, because of the changeable weather – you have high winds, fog, and rain – a plan in the back of your head is essential for when things go to custard. You avoid the heuristic trap of pushing on.”

Matheson agrees, observing a goal-focused attitude is what can lead people down the wrong path. “There is always a point in all those death events that someone has made a decision to carry on where they potentially had the option to turnaround.”

In Elliott’s case, however, doing this may not have changed the outcome.

“With Mr Elliott there is a question mark over a serious medical event. Once he has found himself in a perilous situation, he has done everything he could to get help. He had the beacon and the fact that he set that beacon off led to him being found very early.”

Elliott was found shortly after 7pm by Diedrichs and his crew, who were navigating the range’s tricky weather conditions within an hour of receiving the call. He says without a PLB, Elliott may never have been found.

“He was in dense bush, and it was very, very steep. We tracked the beacon and a crewman with thermal binoculars was able to pick up where he was. Ivan having activated that beacon was vital to speeding up the response time. If he didn’t have it, in that terrain, he may not have come out again. It is the key to finding people very, very fast.”

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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