The last few metres separating missing hunter Siow Hong Kuik with his family and friends were hard trodden as tears ran unashamedly down the Manurewa man's weary face today.
An emotional Mr Kuik held out his arms to Whakatane LandSAR co-ordinator Dale Walker minutes after he jumped out of the helicopter that had brought him in from the rugged Te Urewera bush where he had been lost for three days.
Mr Kuik, known as Desmond, a 42-year-old father of three, was last seen at 4pm on Sunday before searchers finally caught up with him at 1.30pm today.
During his time in the bush, Mr Kuik had walked about 12km "as the crow files'', but searchers believe he would have covered at least three times that distance as he tried valiantly to return to the campsite he and two hunting companions had set up on Sunday.
Whakatane police Senior Sergeant Bruce Jenkins said the hunter had continued in a south easterly direction the entire time he was lost. "He was getting close to the Waioeka area, meaning he was walking toward Gisborne when we found him,'' Mr Jenkins said.
Mr Kuik told family, friends and volunteers he was extremely tired before being led to the kai table at Matahi Valley's Whakarae Marae that had provided sustenance for the 60-odd volunteers involved in the search since it began.
Mr Kuik made the decision to go on a three- to four-hour hunt at 4pm on Sunday, leaving his two hunting companions at their camp and set off on foot. When he failed to return, his two hunting companions raised the alarm with locals and together they searched for the hunter until about midnight.
Clues to his whereabouts were found on Monday when a search crew on horseback went well beyond the search area to the Kouanui Hut and found a note left by the hunter.
LandSAR president Ray Walker said once the team knew he had spent a night in the hut on Monday and had eaten, fears for his life eased.
"We were initially most concerned about the swollen rivers and thought there was a real possibility he had fallen into water and drowned,'' Mr Walker said. "But when we found the note and realised he had eaten and spent a warm night at the hut, we knew that would have brought him up.''
This afternoon five crews were in the area co-ordinators believed Mr Kuik would be and called to him.
"The crews heard 'I'm here, I'm here' being repeated and knew they had found their man,'' Mr Walker said. Mr Kuik was re-hydrated, and given food before being walked to a point where the helicopter could land. Police took him to Whakatane Hospital by car for assessment.
Mr Kuik's wife, who remained in Manurewa during the ordeal, was quickly told her husband had been found. According to his hunting companion, only known as Daniel, and a cousin who had travelled from Auckland, Mrs Kuik was overjoyed with the news.
Mr Jenkins praised everyone involved in the search including the Matahi Valley locals who he described as fantastic. "There's been so many volunteer hours go into this operation and it's so great to have such a positive outcome.''