Police step in to stop recovery of four-wheel-drive vehicles stranded in Central Otago

By Timothy Brown

A group of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts trapped in snow on a Central Otago high-country road last week planned on retrieving their vehicles with a bulldozer until authorities scuppered the scheme.

The 13 4WDs were abandoned high up Waikaia Bush Rd after becoming trapped in 2m snowdrifts last Sunday.

The group of 38 people - including children - spent almost 20 hours stranded in their vehicles more than 1300m above sea level on the Old Man Range above Piano Flat, near Roxburgh.

Some members of the group attempted to hire a bulldozer to retrieve the vehicles, without informing authorities, before police stepped in yesterday.

Central Otago District Council roading manager Murray Hasler said the council was informed by police and met two of the vehicles' owners yesterday.

"We told them it wasn't permitted for them to carry out that plan," he said.

The council was concerned about the safety of the group, as snow remained deep in the area, and about the damage it might cause to the road.

"We are quite keen on them recovering their vehicles but it has to be done safely and whatever method used ... couldn't unnecessarily cause problems to the road itself," he said.

The group was mistakenly under the impression the road would be closed from next weekend and so members were acting to retrieve the vehicles before then despite the poor weather forecast this weekend, he said.

A significant low is forecast to hit the region this weekend, bringing heavy snow to the area.

Police officers in the area would not comment directly about the matter but, in an emailed statement, a police spokeswoman said the conditions in the area were "still too dangerous for anyone to try and reach the vehicles".

"There is still deep snow on the ground and the forecast over the next few days is for deteriorating weather which would put anyone looking to venture into that area at high risk," she said.

Police expressed their concerns to the owners about retrieving the vehicles at present.

However, Central Otago Search and Rescue adviser Adrian Dance said he was told by police the group was still planning an attempt to retrieve the vehicles.

They were now planning to take privately-owned tractors to attempt to retrieve them, he said.

The group were told by police to contact Central Otago Search and Rescue before attempting to retrieve the vehicles, but Mr Dance had not heard from them.

Attempts by the Otago Daily Times to contact the owners yesterday were unsuccessful.

Mr Dance said he was shocked by the group's plans.

"It's just ludicrous,'' he said.

"There's no way in hell they will get up.

"These turkeys are going to bring tractors up from Southland and because they are private they can do it.''

Tractors were one of the methods SAR had assessed to rescue the group last week, but it was too dangerous and would only have been carried out if rescuers were "absolutely desperate''.

"The tyres fill up with snow and then you have this big, heavy thing that slides off the track,'' Mr Dance said.

The cost of the first rescue would total "in the hundreds of thousands'' - which the group would not have to contribute to - and the prospect of the owners putting themselves at risk again infuriated Mr Dance.

"They are going to go all gung ho and the risk of something going wrong is high," Mr Dance said.

"We don't care about the vehicles. We are only concerned about the life side of it."

His frustration with the group was exacerbated by the attitude of some of its members during the original rescue on Monday.

"They were annoyed they couldn't take their [stranded] vehicles," he said.

"They had a go at some of my of search and rescue crew in annoyance they couldn't take their vehicles.

"They had just been stuck in there for 24 hours in a blizzard and we had no interest in their vehicles. It's just incredible."

While police said the group "appreciated the advice given" about their plans to retrieve the vehicles, they conceded "the area is a public access route so we can only offer advice" and they could not stop the group's attempt.

Mr Hasler said it would be "foolhardy" to disregard the poor weekend forecast. "If they did get into trouble again up there, it endangers quite a large number of people."

- Otago Daily Times

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