Lost hiker: 'I just kept walking'

By Vaimoana Tapaleao, Teuila Fuatai

Ronnie Fong at home in Pakuranga yesterday after his three-night bush ordeal. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ronnie Fong at home in Pakuranga yesterday after his three-night bush ordeal. Photo / Brett Phibbs

With his legs slashed by razor-edged grass, his body shivering and his toes numb, Ronnie Fong thought of his family and made the decision he believes saved his life - he kept walking.

But search and rescue experts say Mr Fong got it wrong, and made it harder for rescuers to find him.

They say he might have been found much sooner had he stayed in one place.

The 39-year-old, who spent three freezing nights lost in the Hunua Ranges in South Auckland, was yesterday enjoying the comforts of home and being surrounded by family.

He winced as he rolled up his trouser legs to show bandaged calves, which he described as being "sliced" during his ordeal.

"Because I was wearing shorts, my calves just got sliced. The long grass, the vines, they cut my legs bad."

Mr Fong, a keen tramper, went out on Saturday for what was meant to be a four-hour walk. But he left the main track and lost his way.

After texting his family that he would be delayed, he found himself in dense bush. Not long after, his cellphone died.

"I was so tired and I was starting to lose the feeling in my toes. I sat down and took my shoes off and started rubbing my toes and rubbing my legs.

"I couldn't sleep on Saturday night - it was just too cold. I tried to stay in one place and cover myself ... but when I started shivering, I knew I had to keep walking."

Contrary to early reports, Mr Fong was well equipped, with a waterproof jacket, spare shirts and food - 12 tuna sandwiches, four oranges, four apples, five muesli bars and three bottles of orange juice.

Next day, though, his already aching body took a battering.

"I fell down a couple of times. I slipped while climbing a three-metre waterfall.

"I thought, 'No, I've got to get up.' I was starting to get confused, too. I didn't know where I was going, and my mind was wandering."

Mr Fong, whose family are from Fiji, said his thoughts turned to them, particularly his father, Ram Kumar.

"There was never a time when I thought, 'This is it. I'm going to die.' But I thought about my family and how they might be thinking that I'm dead."

Mr Fong's ordeal came to an end on Tuesday evening when he waved down a van near a road.

"They stopped and I told them I was lost. They said, 'Are you Ronnie?' I said yes and they just laughed - they were so happy. It was the rescue team."

Mr Kumar said the family stayed positive and believed that their son and brother would be okay because of his experience in tramping.

"I knew he would be okay," Mr Kumar said. "He is a strong boy and we always knew he could look after himself. We're just happy to have him home."

Mountain Safety Council chief executive officer Darryl Carpenter said last night that people should remain in one place if they became lost in the bush.

"If you want to keep moving you can walk around in circles, but it is important for searchers that you stay in the same place."

Mr Carpenter said the Mountain Safety Council recommended that once people realise they were lost, they use any resources in the immediate area to stay warm.

"You can look around and find shelter, whether that be using ferns or in a cave.

"But it is most important that you do not just keep walking."

He said it would have been difficult for rescuers to find Mr Fong as he did not stay in any one place for very long.

"The way it works is that Search and Rescue search areas, then cross them off.

"This individual [Mr Fong] went back into areas which had already been searched."

Search and Rescue co-ordinator Sergeant Dene Duthie agreed Mr Fong would have been found a lot sooner had he stayed in one place.

"If he had stopped, we probably would have found him on Sunday, if not Monday."

- NZ Herald

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