Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Runner's freezing night in the bush: 'I talked to my dog to calm myself down'

A twinkling blanket of stars and the company of her best friend - pitbull-lab cross Kitarah - got Stephanie Bergonia-Ward through a night lost in the bush.

But there were moments of despair.

The first came about 9pm last night, when darkness fell and her legs turned to jelly, and the 20-year-old - clad only shoes, singlet and shoes and without food or water - realised she wasn't going home to a warm bed and plate full of chicken and roast veges.

The second came about three hours later, as she cuddled a shivering Kitarah in the Hunua Ranges' bush south-east of Auckland.

"I had a little moment, it hit about 12 o'clock and I couldn't hear anything and I was like 'no one's coming'. I had a little cry and then pulled myself together [but] ...

I was thinking 'dad, are you coming to get me?'."

Dad was trying.

Ms Bergonia-Ward's father, Steve Ward, his sister and brother-in-law began looking in the Wairoa Dam area before dark, before seeing a light on at the Hunua Volunteer Fire Brigade and asking for help. A rescue party, involving up to 30 searchers, began scouring the area last night.

Back at their Paparimu Rd home, where a search headquarters had been set up, Mr Ward was fearing the worst.

Stephanie Bergiona-Ward recovers at home with her dog Kitarah. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Stephanie Bergiona-Ward recovers at home with her dog Kitarah. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I've taken her hunting so I know she knows what to do. But, as a father, you know what can happen. It wouldn't take anything for someone in a car to knock her off the road, or for something more sinister. There was that jogger killed in town recently."

The hardest part was telling his daughter's mother their child was missing.

"I couldn't speak at first, I couldn't ... to tell her 'your daughter's gone for a run and not returned'."

In the bush, and at home, no-one slept.

Asked about the moment he found out his daughter was safe, just before 7am today, cold and tired but otherwise unharmed, Mr Ward put his hand to his chest.

"My heart. It finally slowed down."

Ms Bergonia-Ward was feeling pretty happy, too. Kitarah was good company in the bush - as well as being warm to cuddle, she was a good listener.

"It helped having her there. I talked to her, telling her to calm down, even though it was me that needed calming down. She never left my side."

Ms Bergonia-Ward got lost while out running in the Hunua Ranges. Photo / Getty Images
Ms Bergonia-Ward got lost while out running in the Hunua Ranges. Photo / Getty Images

But, with noisy possums lurking and trees that took on sinister shapes in the dark, another distraction was required. She looked to the sky.

"I was star-gazing. If you stare at trees you end up making things in your head that are not there."

When dawn came, she decided to try again to make her way out. After following a sign-posted track into her predicament, the beekeeper was confident she could make her way out again.

Just over 12 hours after she left for her hour-long run, she spotted fluro-vests through the trees. Relief washed over her.

"I fell to the ground."

A search and rescue member gave her water and made her eat a banana, although she vomited soon after. Police - armed with a stash of McDonald's takeaways - gave her hash browns, and Kitarah had a feed of the greasy goodness too.

So much so, the one-year-old didn't want the special treats of raw meat waiting for her at home, Ms Bergonia-Ward said.

Recovering at home today, the pair, who moved to the area six months ago, haven't been put off the bush. But yesterday's adventure was the last one they'd be making alone.

"My uncle's said next time I go to the ranges, he has to come with me and show me the way.

- NZ Herald

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